Social Media Anxiety Disorders: What’s Going on in the Brain?




Too much of anything can be dangerous, and social media is no exception. Today many of us spend more time on internet-enabled devices than even sleeping. Due to this overindulgence in social media and the internet, we may become socially reclusive rather than inclusive. This, in turn, may lead to various physical and mental health problems.

Nowadays, around two billion residents of our planet are online. Hundreds of millions of emails and social messages are exchanged each day. Perhaps, this online over-engagement is becoming more of a problem. The amount of time we spend online and on social media is increasing each year. It is estimated that most people spend more than two hours each day on social media in the US.

Although social media anxiety and addiction are still not recognized as individual disorders, most investigations support the view that mental issues related to internet overuse are on the rise. Moreover, it seems to be a particularly big problem in younger people. Most individuals nowadays have their first exposure to the internet while in school. Overuse of the internet may lead to problems with concentration, sleep deprivation, failure to exercise, anxiety, and even depression. Although studying the prevalence of internet addiction or social media addiction is challenging, it could be affecting as many as 10% of people in certain sections of society.

Is social media engagement a disorder?

Is social media engagement itself a disorder? Perhaps the answer is both yes and no. It is no secret that some people get too submerged in the internet and social media. They feel bad if they do not get likes or see negative comments on their posts, and may even get depressed. Many others, however, think that social media is helpful in overcoming loneliness and depression, having a positive effect on self-esteem. The supporters of social media are saying that the compulsion to go online is not associated with the kind of harm done by substance abuse.

Most scientific review studies have provided mixed results, with only one thing certain: not all users gets depressed or feel anxiety with social media, but some do. For mental disorders related to internet abuse, as with any other psychological issues, there have to be predisposing factors like genetics, personality, lifestyle, other diseases, or a recent history of trauma.

Risk factors and identification of social media disorder

With all of the contradicting findings, there is still no doubt that social media disorder exists, and some people are at higher risk of developing it than others. Some individuals are more prone to get dependent on the internet, cultivate impulsive behavior, and are inclined towards risky internet use, as well as being more susceptible to social and emotional impairment, and even physical harm.

In recent years, some tools and measures have been developed to qualify and quantify the disorders related to social media and internet overuse. One of the scales that can be used to measure social media disorder assesses several items over the period of one year—preoccupation, tolerance, withdrawal, persistence, displacement (neglecting other hobbies), problems (arguments on social media), deception, escape, and conflict.

Social media addiction and neural changes

Some anatomical brain structures are well known to be associated with mood, emotion, and learning. Hence in one investigation, specific attention was given to the structures involved in the limbic system and reward pathway.

In the study, 20 subjects known to be addicted to social media were examined for any morphological changes in the brain, with the help of MRI. The study identified changes characteristic of impulsive behavior, with a bilateral decrease in grey matter in the amygdala without any changes in the nucleus accumbens. In contrast to other types of addiction, the anterior and mid-cingulate cortex was not found to be impaired in social media addiction, indicating that the inhibitor function of these structures is well-preserved in this condition. The study demonstrated both similarities and differences between the structural changes in the brain in social media addiction and in addiction related to substance abuse or gambling.

Other health aspects

Social media is a powerful tool that affects multiple facets of life. It has an additive effect on our already increasing sedentary lifestyle. Hence it is not stretch of the imagination that is is related to increased risk of obesity, insulin resistance, cardiovascular ailments, and other non-communicable diseases.

People who use social media too often are also more prone to bullying. They may get involved in risky behavior more frequently. In some people, social media addiction may also lead to disturbed sleep patterns. Moreover, adolescents are considered to be at higher risk of developing an addiction to social media.

Management of social media or internet addiction

Treatment of social media addiction-related pathologies depends on the nature of the problem. Although there is a lack of trials and evidence for treatment of social media-related mental issues, treatment is often a combination of pharmacological drugs and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)—the kind of treatment that has already shown efficacy in other types of addictions, anxiety, and depression.

Although at present there are very few clinical studies on the topic, one can surmise that social media-related addiction, anxiety, depression, and other mental issues are going to become more common. It would be unwise to think that of social media disorder as merely a habit, we should keep in mind the related structural changes in the brain, imparting serious problems for an affected person.

References

ACOG (2016, February). Concerns Regarding Social Media and Health Issues in Adolescents and Young Adults – ACOG.  Access here.

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He, Q., Turel, O., & Bechara, A. (2017). Brain anatomy alterations associated with Social Networking Site (SNS) addiction. Scientific Reports, 7, 45064. https://doi.org/10.1038/srep45064

Li, W., O’Brien, J. E., Snyder, S. M., & Howard, M. O. (2015). Characteristics of Internet Addiction/Pathological Internet Use in U.S. University Students: A Qualitative-Method Investigation. PLoS ONE, 10(2). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0117372

Moreno, M. A., Jelenchick, L. A., & Christakis, D. A. (2013). Problematic internet use among older adolescents: A conceptual framework. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(4), 1879–1887. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2013.01.053

Seabrook, E. M., Kern, M. L., & Rickard, N. S. (2016). Social Networking Sites, Depression, and Anxiety: A Systematic Review. JMIR Mental Health, 3(4). https://doi.org/10.2196/mental.5842

Spada, M. M. (2014). An overview of problematic Internet use. Addictive Behaviors, 39(1), 3–6. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.addbeh.2013.09.007

Statista (2017). Global time spent on social media daily 2017. Access here.

van den Eijnden, R. J. J. M., Lemmens, J. S., & Valkenburg, P. M. (2016). The Social Media Disorder Scale. Computers in Human Behavior, 61(Supplement C), 478–487. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2016.03.038

Image via ijmaki/Pixabay.

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD, is a scientific and medical consultant with experience in pharmaceutical and genetic research. He has an extensive publication history on various topics related to medical sciences. He worked at several leading academic institutions around the globe (Cambridge University (UK), University of New South Wales (Australia), National Institute of Genetics (Japan). Dr. Wlassoff runs consulting service specialized on preparation of scientific publications, medical and scientific writing and editing (Scientific Biomedical Consulting Services).

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