Meta description: If social media becomes something that you devote more time than you’d like to, it could be a symptom of a mental health issue.
I got Facebook when I was 12, and joined Instagram a year or two after that. Social media has been a force in my life for more than a decade—long before I understood the need to monitor how much or how often I consumed it. And like a lot of people, I use it as a distraction, a way to compare my life to the people I follow, and for validation.
Sure, there are benefits to social media, such as the ability to stay close with friends and family, find inspiration, and to connect with people who have similar interests as you. Yet if it becomes a preoccupation that you devote vast chunks of time and attention to, these pluses can easily become overshadowed, says April Kilduff, LPCC, LCPC, LMHC, a therapist and clinical trainer at NOCD.
Here, she explains why you might be fixated on social media, and how to get help if it’s messing with your life and happiness.
Why am I obsessed with social media?
Social media offers endless opportunities for obsessive thinking. To name a few:
- You might compare yourself to others—measuring your appearance, home, relationship, or anything else about your life, against theirs.
- You may worry about how you’re perceived by others, including the number of likes you get on a post, how many followers you have, or the comments you receive.
- You could experience FOMO—a fear of missing out that makes you feel jealous about the experiences that other people are having. Or maybe you see friends hanging out without you and wonder why you weren’t included.
- You might overanalyze what to share (what’s too much, or not authentic, or doesn’t feel real?) versus what you actually want to convey.
- You may fret over the amount of time you spend on social media, but feel unable to reduce it.
- You might have persistent existential thoughts about the negative impact social media has on society, which leaves you feeling helpless or hopeless.
Most social media users probably identify with at least one of these thoughts, but if they take up a significant amount of your time, energy, and brain space, and cause you distress, it might signal that there’s something deeper happening. A few possibilities are generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Let’s learn a bit more about each one.
When social media use could be a mental health condition
“People who are prone to anxiety and OCD can really feel the negative impacts of social media, but I also know that the more time you spend on social media, the greater the risk of actually creating conditions like anxiety and depression,” says Kilduff. “There’s definitely a strong, research-based relationship between mental health and social media.” Just think about how you feel after spending a long time scrolling. You put down your phone and may be disoriented, overwhelmed, overstimulated, depressed, or anxious.
One condition you should know about if you’re feeling obsessed with social media is generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, which is characterized by persistent feelings of worry, doom, or fear. Rather than latch on to specific themes or situations, GAD can invade all areas of life. Seemingly mundane tasks can become rife with anxiety, such as going to the dentist, or driving to somewhere you’ve never been and not knowing where you’ll park.
Like all anxiety disorders, GAD can be accompanied by physical symptoms, too. You may feel muscle tension, headaches or dizziness, gastrointestinal issues, shakiness, a quickened heartbeat, or an increased urge to urinate. That’s because anxiety triggers your body’s stress response, and that can impact all parts of your body.
With social media, GAD could give rise to FOMO (are my friends mad at me since they’re hanging out without me?), fears that you’re spending too much time scrolling, or concerns about not measuring up to the picture of “success” you see on your social media feed.
Another condition, called social anxiety disorder, shares a lot of the symptoms of GAD— like excessive worry—except that it focuses on social situations such as meeting new people, being in large crowds, or giving a presentation. At its root is the fear of being negatively judged, criticized, rejected, or humiliated by others. You may feel anxious about how you’re being perceived, whether the things you post are embarrassing, or you might feel overwhelmed by the pressure to constantly interact with others.
And then there’s OCD, which consists of repetitive, unwanted intrusive thoughts, images, urges, sensations, and/or feelings (or obsessions) that cause intense distress. As a result, you perform mental or physical actions (compulsions) to try to relieve your anxiety.
OCD can latch onto anything—particularly things that matter most to you, such as your relationships or values. Here are a few subtypes of OCD that relate to social media:
- Responsibility or scrupulosity OCD. These are two different themes, but they are closely related. Responsibility OCD causes you to worry that you’re not being responsible enough, or that your words and actions carry immense weight at all times, while scrupulosity OCD is a fear of breaking moral, ethical, or religious codes that you value.
In both cases, you might feel extreme anxiety over everything you post, reshare, comment on, or like on social media, or how much time you spend on it, having thoughts like, I saw my friend’s post but got distracted and didn’t hit ‘like.’ What if she’s sad now because of it? Or I liked a meme with a swear word in it, does that mean I’m going against my religion? Or what does it say about me that I spend so much time on social media? I must be an irresponsible person.
- Relationship OCD has to do with an incessant doubt about the “rightness” of your relationship (typically a romantic one, though it can extend to others, too). You might see other couples on social media and compare their relationship to yours, thinking, My spouse doesn’t get me flowers every week, does that mean we’re not really in love? Or these people are always laughing in their photos—do we not laugh together enough? And if you see stories of cheating, you might wonder, is my partner showing any of the red flags that this person’s partner did?
- Existential OCD is when you experience intrusive thoughts about big, philosophical concepts such as life, death, and society. You may have thoughts like, What if social media is indicative of the decline of society? What if I’m wasting my whole life by being on social media? What if I regret this one day?
There are a variety of compulsions that are common across OCD themes:
- Reassurance-seeking. This is a means of trying to find an answer to your intrusive thoughts. You may ask a loved one, Do you think I spend too much time on Twitter? Or you might repeat to yourself, It’s just a post—it’s not the end of the world. You may also keep returning to social media for validation about these thoughts or feelings.
- Avoidance. This occurs when you avoid any stimuli that triggers your intrusive thoughts. For example, you may highly curate your social media feed to avoid any content about love or relationships, if you have relationship OCD—you may even avoid social media altogether.
- Distraction is done with the intent of permanently avoiding intrusive thoughts or worries and the feelings they bring. You may use social media as a tool for distraction, feeling like it “drowns out” your own thoughts or doubts.
- Rumination. This is the act of extreme overthinking or overanalyzing. You may play the same thought, idea, question, or image over and over in your head, hoping that a new answer or piece of evidence will emerge. There’s a sense that you can just think your way out of your intrusive thoughts. For example, maybe you keep thinking, I spend too much time on social media, and feel like ruminating on it will help you solve the problem and relieve your anxiety.
“The internet can give you the idea that you have access to all the information—so there must be answers to everything. And if it seems like other people have figured things out and have certainty in their lives, then you might think you should be able to, too,” says Kilduff.
How can I get help?
The front-line treatment for OCD, as well as most types of anxiety disorders, is exposure and response-prevention (ERP) therapy. Rather than dig into the content of your fears, ERP teaches you how to tolerate your feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. You learn to get comfortable being uncomfortable.
A licensed therapist will get to know your worries and intrusive triggers, and what behaviors you engage in to help them pass (although only temporarily).
From there, you’ll make a plan for gradual therapy exercises—starting with ones that bring a low level of anxiety and working your way up to the more difficult ones. And your therapist will give you tools to resist engaging in compulsions during these activities.
This is a crucial piece of treatment, as resisting compulsions is what ultimately breaks the obsessive-compulsive cycle. It retrains your brain to stop reacting to intrusive triggers and eventually stop seeing them as a danger.
While exposures will be tailored to your unique experience of OCD or anxiety, here are a few examples:
- Writing an “uncertain” statement and repeating it back to yourself, such as, Maybe the relationships I admire on social media are better than mine.
- Using an app that blocks your access to social media at certain times of the day.
- Watching a movie that deals with the themes of your doubts, fears, or worries. For example, maybe you watch the documentary The Social Dilemma, which takes a deep dive into the perils of social media.
Kilduff also notes the importance of setting social media boundaries. “Take it upon yourself to build in breaks—whether it’s only checking it twice a day, or getting off for a month,” she says. “You can self-regulate your use of social media once you understand the ways it affects you.”
In a world where social media is likely to only become more ubiquitous, we all have to navigate our relationship with it, and that could mean seeking professional help.
To regulate my own time spent on social media—Instagram is the trickiest one for me—I use the Refocus app (in addition to therapy). It allows me to schedule when and how often I scroll, so I can be more mindful of my screen time.