By Erica Jones and Elizabeth Gosling
After a long day of high school, Brian Ellingboe, who is now 20 years old, intended to go home and sit down to face his homework. Instead, he would let the “pings” of social media notifications take his attention elsewhere.
“Back in high school, when I was addicted to Twitter for sure, getting assignments done at night was so difficult, because I would be doing it but then my phone would buzz,” Ellingboe said. “No matter if I was doing a problem or whatever, I would just stop and touch my phone.”
Before he knew it, he had spent hours scrolling through his feeds and it was time for bed. His homework was unfinished because he was too distracted by the world inside his phone.
As an amateur photographer, Ellingboe said he feels attached to Instagram the most out of all his social media accounts, even to this day. Part of the attraction to social media, he said, is the feeling of closeness users can achieve by using it.
“It makes you feel connected,” Ellingboe said, “and because there’s so much instant gratification, if you’re feeling sad you can just post something and you instantly feel like people like what you’re doing.”
While this reality was more past than present for the student at North Hennepin Community College (Minnesota), he isn’t the only student who has found himself distracted by social media. In fact, social media addiction is plaguing students across the nation, affecting their academic performance as well as mental health.
Whether it is used for fun or as a way to make a little extra income, students with social media addiction struggle with sleep disruptions, an increased risk of falling behind in school, distractions from everyday tasks, and self-esteem issues.
A 2017 article in the scientific journal “PLoS One” stated the social media addiction rate among college students is at 2.8 percent. However, the article also stated there are currently discrepancies between criteria used to measure “problematic social media use.”
When researchers try to assess the addiction, they use the different diagnostic tools for problematic internet usage. Such tools include the Internet Addiction Test and existing knowledge about Internet Gaming Disorder. On the other hand, they look at aspects of addictive tendencies, like withdrawal or loss of control, according to the “PLoS One” article.
The problem is, not all those who study social media addiction use the same tools.
According to an article entitled “What are addictive behaviors?” by Ruth Engs of Indiana University, there are ten common characteristics of addictive behaviors, including an obsession with the activity, a compulsive engagement in it, denial of its harmful effects, withdrawal symptoms upon cessation and low self-esteem.
The Pew Research Center stated 86 percent of American adults ages 18-29 were members of at least one social media network. This data states the platforms Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn and Twitter were all dominated by those in this age group, with more than half of all users checking Facebook and Instagram at least once per day.
For some however, once is not enough. Gretchen Reese, a third-year student at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire said she checks Instagram approximately 25 times per day, for short intervals each time.
A study from “Addiction,” compared internet addiction to that of alcohol and drug addictions in college students. The study concluded the cravings for each were similar in the majority of cases.
In the case of Ellingboe, he said he has struggled with social media addiction a few times in the past.
For users like Ellingboe, even checking once per day could entail three consecutive hours of use. He said he sometimes logs on before going to bed at night and continuously scrolls through Instagram’s “Explore” page until he realizes how late it is.
“After work and after the end of a long day, I definitely will find myself going to that, like, ‘What has everyone been doing?’” he said. “I haven’t been connected to anything … You feel like you need to find out what people have been doing while you haven’t been checking.”
In a 2011 research study pertaining to the effects of social media on college students — both in the graduate and undergraduate programs — twenty-three percent of participants said they spent upward of eight hours using social media each day, 48 percent said six to eight, 20 percent said two to four and only 12 percent said they dedicate less than two hours each day to checking these sites.
Reese said she spends approximately two to three hours per day on her social media sites, which range from a personal blog to Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.
As someone who has used social media as a way to make money through sponsored content for just over a year, she watches audience algorithms to see when other users are online. When their presence declines, she said she logs off for the night.
“You probably won’t find me asleep before midnight on most nights, and in that sense, typically I try to turn off social media by about 10 o’clock and then just start looking through magazines or something along those lines,” Reese said.
Social media addiction and students
Laura Chellman, director of UW-Eau Claire’s Student Health Service (SHS), said she has seen certain behaviors from students who exhibit strong urges to be on social media.
“So with social media addiction, (it’s) more of that intrinsic reward that they’re getting something online that they like, and then they need more of it and can’t step away, can’t just shut down, just can’t leave their phone,” Chellman said.
She said social media addiction shows itself through signs like dependency, affecting aspects of daily living — such as eating or meeting other commitments or interfering with relationships between friends and family.
According to a 2011-2015 Bureau of Labor Statistics chart, the average full-time American college student spends approximately three and a half hours engaging in “educational activities.” This means most students spend more time on social media than they do in class, studying or doing homework.
“What we see here, it (academic performance) suffers because they spend too much time on social media sites, not doing their schoolwork,” Chellman said.
Ellingboe is a living example of this observation. His time studying was often peppered with social media distractions.
According to “Addiction,” most people with “disordered online social networking” check Facebook when they wake up in the morning and felt they needed to reduce their use.
Reese said she would qualify herself as addicted to social media, as she uses it throughout her day, from when she gets up to a couple hours before she goes to sleep. While she doesn’t want to cut down on her use, she said she knows she probably should.
Social media and mental health
While online interactions, such as “likes” and comments, feel good, they’re not something Reese said she feels she needs or craves, as other users who are addicted do. She said she understands why people crave this attention, however.
“It’s very, very similar to a good workout or something like that,” Reese said, “because if you see that people like things you’re doing, it releases dopamine in your brain, so it feels good to get that amount of likes, or comments or engagement.”
Sienna Crews, a blogger who attends the University of Evansville in Indiana said she understands this feeling as well.
She said her social media usage is different from her peers in that she considers it a priority rather than a pastime. Although she does not think she is addicted to social media in general, she said she is drawn to the emotional gain, which can be a factor that leads to addiction for many people.
“Whenever I first started using Twitter and Instagram, I probably was more addicted to the idea that I’m getting all these likes. I want to keep posting so I get more; it made me feel good — ‘Oh, these people like what I’m doing.’” Crews said. “So once I got more views and more likes — it does increase the motivation.”
For Reese, social media is addictive because it serves as both a creative outlet and a job, so it takes up a lot of her time and energy. She said she even plans her next posts in her head while she’s doing other things. When she’s having conversations with friends and an interesting topic comes up, Reese makes a mental note to find a way to address that point on her social media accounts.
The effort she and others exert to maintain their online presences can have an effect on their mental health.
One of these effects, Chellman said, is the young adult desire to conform and compare oneself to others.
“If you want to be on the internet all the time,” Chellman said, “constantly comparing yourself to somebody else, ‘Well, I’m not as busy as they are, I don’t look like them, they’re a lot thinner than I am, they look happier than I am’ — it kind of puts you in a different light; that might not be the true picture of that person.”
Crews has found herself in a similar situation. Like Reese, she has recently started to focus on using her social media as a means of work, which leads to competition because in doing so, she needs to promote herself.
She also said she has gotten upset over social media before whenever she has felt like her posts don’t meet the expectations she sets for them.
“If I feel like a picture that I posted wasn’t good enough or if I feel like a blog that I posted wasn’t good enough, I just go back and I delete it or don’t post for a really long time because I feel like, ‘Why am I doing this?’” Crews said. “It’s something I work really hard to do and I put a lot of thought into it, and if it doesn’t get the feedback that I had hoped, it’s just kind of disappointing.”
Similarly to Chellman’s assessment, Reese she said she’s seen peers struggle with self-confidence because of content they see online.
“It can be detrimental to people if they’re seeing images that are picture-perfect and they don’t really understand the (social media influencing) industry behind it,” Reese said.
Last February, Reese did a “social media cleanse,” during which she deleted all social media apps from her phone and blocked the sites on her computer browser. Although Reese struggled for the week she did this, because of her frequent use of and dependency on social media, she said she is considering taking another break from it in the near future.
She’s not the only one. In order to keep his dependency on social media to a minimum, Ellingboe also said he deletes his social media apps every now and then. Considering he hasn’t taken one of these breaks in a while, he said he plans to do so again soon to avoid getting overwhelmed.
“I just had to realize things go on while I don’t use it (social media),” Ellingboe said, “so if I can just delete it so I don’t have the access to it, I won’t use it, and then it’s kind of out of sight, out of mind.”
While getting rid of an addiction isn’t easy, SHS’s Chellman recommended taking small steps to get rid of the addiction before it has the chance to drag the addict to rock bottom. She recommended taking longer and longer breaks away from social media until it no longer poses a problem.
This means Reese and Ellingboe have the right idea with their social media cleanses.
“It can be a part of your life,” Chellman said, “and it’s one of those addictions that has to be a part of your everyday life, which makes it that much harder.”