Almost half of British teenagers say they feel addicted to social media, findings from the Millennium Cohort study reveal. Experts at Rehabs UK speak to this “unhealthy dependency” and how it can be combatted.
Researchers found that 48% of people surveyed agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “I think I am addicted to social media.” More girls answered that they felt addicted (57%), while the same was true for 37% of boys.
“I think what we are seeing isn’t addiction. For most, it’s an unhealthy dependency.” Rehabs UK founder and director Lester Morse says, “The rise in teen anxiety and mental health problems hasn’t just started; we have been sleep-walking into this for a generation.”
Morse suggests that this rise in teen anxiety and mental health issues is closely linked to their deep immersion in the virtual world at the expense of real-world skill development: “Their reward systems have become tuned into social media and gaming,” highlighting a significant deviation from natural developmental processes.
“This process can occur in addiction but it’s only part of the picture. For many young people, the brain hasn’t developed the neuropathological capabilities to function in a natural, real-world situation. I think as they are getting older, they are becoming aware of all the time and energy they have invested in social media. For most, social media has very few real-world benefits.”
Dr Michael Rich from Boston Children’s Hospital’s Digital Wellness Lab echoes these concerns, noting that such problematic interactive media use often has deeper psychological roots. Addressing these underlying issues, he argues, is key to managing addictive behaviours effectively.
Morse advocates for a strategic shift in addressing this dependency. “The brain can redevelop quickly if you are willing to commit to a new environment,” he explains, emphasising the potential for positive change. He recommends cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) as an effective tool, targeting the underlying thoughts, feelings, and behaviours associated with social media and gaming addiction. He adds: “The good news is that, at an individual level, these kinds of unhealthy dependencies are very treatable. Those who have become truly addicted to social media or gaming will probably need some extra therapeutic support to address their underlying issues, but most will just need personal development and life coaching support.”
Looking at the bigger picture, this growing dependency on social media amongst teenagers calls for a broader societal response. Morse’s insights and the findings from these studies compel us to reconsider our approach to digital media consumption. It’s about finding a balance and developing strategies to mitigate the negative impacts of excessive social media use.