The Dangerous Connection Between Social Media & Drug Addiction

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Social media has undeniably become an integral part of our lives, exerting a significant influence. While platforms like Facebook initially started modestly, their immense popularity created a highly interconnected digital realm. However, despite the advantages they offer, research indicates that we were ill-equipped for the extent and methods of social interaction facilitated by social media. It is now evident that the use of social media has a profound and often adverse impact on mental health. At Archstone Behavioral Health, we are well acquainted with the effects of social media. As an established addiction treatment center Lantana FL, we have often observed the dangerous connection between social media & drug addiction. For this reason, and to hopefully help you and your loved ones, we’d like to explore it in due depth.

Social media use and social media addiction

Social media usage stands as a significant and undeniable phenomenon in its own right. Over the past two decades, social media platforms have made remarkable advancements and have been embraced by a wide range of users. In the United States alone, according to Pew Research’s findings in 2021:

  • Approximately 84% of adults aged 18-29 utilized at least one social media platform.
  • Adults in the age groups of 30-49 and 50-64 followed closely behind, with usage rates of 81% and 73% respectively.
  • Notably, 45% of adults aged 65 and above also engaged with at least one social media platform, although to a lesser extent compared to other age groups.

Beyond mere numbers and statistics, the pervasive nature of this widespread usage can be concerning. People of all ages are increasingly spending more time on social media platforms, often becoming excessively absorbed in them.

A row of young people leaning on a wall and using smartphones.
It’s no secret that more and more young people obsess over smartphone use, which sets a worrying trend.

Indeed, the internet’s interconnectedness can have an array of positive effects on social media users. It can also have quite a few negative ones, however, as HBR’s Kelsey Gripenstraw warns too.

On their basic level, social media incite and reinforce specific behaviors. They associate such events as getting likes and mentions with the dopamine they release into the brain, encouraging them anew. That’s the foundation of compulsive use, where casual users become “addicted” to new, often destructive behavioral patterns.

Is there an addiction to social media?

That said, excessive social media use is not yet recognized as an official addiction. The connection between social media & drug addiction does lie in their common behavioral roots, among other factors, but not in co-occurring addiction to social media and substances.

That is to say, “social media addiction” is not recognized as a diagnosis by such medical bodies as the American Psychiatric Association or the World Health Organization. What medical professionals recognize is typically “disordered social media use”; a descriptive term, not a diagnosis. So, what we colloquially refer to as “social media addiction” is often descriptive too.

However, that there’s no officially recognized disorder does not absolve social media use. Just as we highlighted above, PubMed notes that:

“Social media addiction (SMA) led to the formation of health-threatening behaviors that can have a negative impact on the quality of life and well-being. Many factors can develop an exaggerated tendency to use social media (SM), which can be prevented in most cases.”

This is an important distinction, as we’ll see next. Excessive social media use may not officially constitute a disorder, but “social media addiction” does accurately describe a real phenomenon. It describes excessive preoccupation with social media, which platforms inherently facilitate through features such as plain likes. This creates the conditions for destructive and health-threatening behaviors, which is particularly important in our context.

A distressed individual reaching for a social media like button over him.
The continuous need for social acceptance and validation through social media can fuel reckless or destructive behaviors.

The connection between social media & drug addiction; negative effects of social media use, and gateways to substance use

Indeed, many studies have documented the possible negative effects of social media, which are particularly valuable to note here. Through them, the dangerous connection between social media & drug addiction should start becoming clear.

#1 Reduced quality of sleep

Sleep is a vital component of a healthy lifestyle and psychological well-being. You’ve likely felt this yourself; how much does a night of poor rest drag you down, physically and mentally?

Losing some sleep over everyday anxieties has always been normal, as has not getting proper sleep for small intervals. In recent years, however, social media and smartphone use, especially in combination, have exacerbated sleep loss and reduced sleep quality. Mayo Clinic cites studies that confirm this, noting that:

  • Artificial lighting produced by electronic devices used to access social media inhibits melatonin production, inhibiting sleep. Blue light, specifically, is the worst offender.
  • The amount of time one spends checking social media, rather than just time spent using them, also contributes to restlessness. “Obsessive checking” often predicts disturbed sleep.
  • Psychological arousal from checking and social media-related anxiety can also delay circadian rhythms. Emotional investment in social media causes restlessness.

Of course, sleep quality by itself does not directly relate to substance use. It does, however, relate to poorer mental health over time, as social media-related anxiety should already hint at.

A young woman unhappily looking at her smartphone.
Social media has been found, time and again, to impact sleep quantity and quality.

#2 Increased anxiety

Without a doubt, social media can markedly increase feelings of anxiety – eventually kindling anxiety or even depressive disorders. This is among the most studied effects of social media, and the one which any inpatient drug detox center Florida offers will attest to. Indeed, their impact on mental health is one of the strongest links in the connection between social media & drug addiction.

MIT Sloan cites an insightful study on the matter, focusing on Facebook specifically, but its findings seem universal. Most worryingly, they note that:

“Most broadly, the researchers found a sizable increase in the number of students who reported mental distress at some time in the preceding year. College-wide access to Facebook led to an increase in severe depression by 7% and anxiety disorder by 20%. […] In total, the negative effect of Facebook on mental health appeared to be roughly 20% the magnitude of what is experienced by those who lose their job.”

These findings also resonate with CDC findings, as they note. Specifically, suicide rates among 10- to 24-year-olds in the US increased 57% between 2007 and 2017 – when Facebook boomed.

Studies are still researching and quantifying the exact extent of social media’s impact on mental health, by all means. However, the fact that some impact exists is equal parts undeniable and worrying.

A distressed woman holding her head as she works on a laptop.
Among the most consistent findings on social media use is that it can often fuel anxiety and depression.

#3 Disconnection from real-life relationships

You may recall that the slogans of social media platforms often insisted on connectedness. That was their primary selling point; that they’d bring people together. But do they? Science says they don’t, and that’s yet another link in the connection between social media & drug addiction.

Initially, compulsive use or “obsessive checking” will often make the individual too preoccupied with their online presence. Even if it’s only an unofficial addiction, the condition of heavy social media use does manifest like an actual addiction. As such, it will often cause disconnect between the user and their real-life peers – depriving them of a supportive circle or meaningful everyday interactions with loved ones.

In addition, social media does not actually “solve” the issue of social disconnect, despite slogans to the contrary. Psychology Today’s Darby Saxbe, Ph.D., cites studies that find that “social media does not resolve our feelings of social isolation”. Indeed, whether social media can be harmless is debatable – but the fact they’re not particularly beneficial in regards to socialization – isn’t.

In combination, the two spell an ominous set of circumstances. Not only can social media cause social isolation, but they also seem unfit to solve this very problem. Especially in cases of pre-existing isolation, they may only make matters worse.

A young couple being distant after a fight.
Preoccupation with social media can open rifts in real-life relationships, alienating the individual further.

#4 Feelings of inadequacy; self-esteem and mental health

Finally, that social media don’t resolve feelings of social isolation is not an effect in a vacuum, either. It should be a reasonable assumption that the above might culminate into poor mental health and lack of confidence, and science agrees too. Time and time again, research shows that social media use strongly correlates with feelings of inadequacy.

The BBC’s Jessica Brown cites plenty of studies that illuminate this final connection between social media & drug addiction.  While each studied a specific effect of social media use, such as envy toward one’s peers, lack of self-esteem, or plain loneliness, they all largely agreed; social media have a demonstrable impact on mental health. The outcome is clear – from comparing selfies and projected happiness to feeling jealous over a partner’s online friends. Social media will often erode one’s self-esteem, driving them closer to potential substance use as a supposed remedy or escape.

The dangerous connection between social media & drug addiction

Worse yet, the above only serve as context and likely gateways to substance use. The exact connections between the two build on and beyond them, and manifest across all ages and demographics.

In brief, one can consolidate them down to the following four.

#1 Normalizing substance use; celebrities and marketing

Initially, social media serve as another platform through which users interact with culture. What culture is that? Too often, one of celebrities engaging in reckless behavior or outright substance use. Celebrities large and small, of all races and subcultures.

A Black American smoking marijuana indoors.
Various social media subcultures promote substance use.

Before substance-specific subcultures, one can simply examine alcohol. Due to its societal acceptance, alcohol consumption sees ample promotion as a “trendy”, desirable behavior. It often subtly promises to rid the user of loneliness by acting as a social lubricant, or to act as a rite of acceptance. Yet, such content never outlines the rough journey to sobriety through alcohol withdrawal medication.

Albeit much less so, social media marketing has a similar effect. Much of it targets children and adolescents, who are particularly vulnerable to such influences. NCBI identifies such risks as well – which can only combine with alcohol-related content to create a strong, dangerous incentive.

#2 FOMO and peer pressure

In a similar fashion, socialization-minded users will often succumb to peer pressure. This is particularly true for teenagers, but not exclusive to them. The fear of missing out (FOMO) and peer pressure too often serve as yet another connection between social media & drug addiction.

The Journal of Adolescent Health confirms this in no uncertain terms, aptly noting that:

“Social media perpetuates social comparison in a world where everything is curated, which is particularly problematic for teens who may be more prone to depressive cognitions in the face of such social comparison. […] Peer injunctive norms serve as a mediator between social media exposure and the initiation of drinking behaviors[.]”

This kind of peer pressure seems most effective for substances that already see some social acceptance. Alcohol aside, marijuana is often promoted on social media – as our marijuana detox Florida center has seen firsthand.

A group of young individuals smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol indoors.
Peer pressure is among the most powerful drivers of addiction, and social media is rife with it.

#3 Access to drugs

Social media can also directly facilitate access to drugs and illicit substances. When a substance is consistently promoted, and hashtags and discourse spring up around it, access can only follow.

If this sounds like excessive concern over unlikely possibilities, we’d urge you to reconsider. The United Nations have identified this exact link, urging both social media platforms and governments to regulate such content better. Certainly, not all social media users will find themselves accessing drugs; the majority likely won’t. But that such content and platforms may facilitate easier access to illicit substances is only another step toward possible escalation.

#4 Declining mental health and substance use

And finally, the key connection between social media & drug addiction lies in the correlation between declining mental health and substance use. Mental health treatment and addiction treatment often overlap, and there is a very substantive reason for that.

That reason is the staggering frequency of co-occurring mental health disorders and substance use disorders (SUDs). This phenomenon is dubbed “dual diagnosis”, and is unfortunately common in the US. In numbers, NIDA finds that 37.9% of adults with SUDs also have mental health disorders. In addition, 18.2% of those with mental health disorders also have SUDs.

It is here where the two connect most strongly, as the impact of social media on mental health takes hold. Declining mental health, whether pre-existing or fueled by social media use, can often lead to substance use. Isolated, depressed, or otherwise encumbered individuals may also turn to substances for self-medication – fueling both conditions. And as soon as they do, social media content, marketing, and FOMO may push them to more easily accessible drugs as the supposed solution.

A close-up of a smartphone screen featuring the app icon of Instagram.
Between their impact on mental health and the glorification of substances, social media can be tremendously damaging.

Archstone Behavioral Health is here for you

In summary, social media use is by no means a guaranteed gateway to substance use. Most casual users will continue their lives unscathed, with only minor effects on their mental health – if any. Heavy social media use in itself is no official addiction diagnosis either, despite claims to the contrary.

And yet, the substantive connection between social media & drug addiction cannot be ignored. Research confirms that social media use can impact mental health and exacerbate existing disorders. It can desensitize users, particularly younger ones, to substance use, and outright promote it. Once it does, it can even facilitate easier access to illicit substances, leading users down the path to addiction.

While brief, we hope this article helped illuminate the connections between social media and substance use. If you need additional information, or help for you or your loved ones, please contact us today. Our teams are available 24/7, and will be more than happy to offer discreet and respectful assistance.