How addictive, endless scrolling is bad for your mental health

July 30, 2023

The Washington Post

By Luis Velarde

July 14, 2023

Here’s how social media, the focus of a surgeon general’s advisory in May, is affecting minds and contributing to a mental health crisis in young people

Social media has redefined human connection, especially if you’re part of the millennial or Gen Z generation. It is so deeply interwoven into every aspect of our lives that it’s almost impossible for us to withdraw from our digital devices. Instagram, TikTok, WhatsApp and other such platforms are everywhere, allowing us to communicate and connect with people from all over the world.

But there’s another side to social media, one about which mental health experts have been sounding the alarm for years: how our social media consumption compares to cocaine or alcohol addiction. And how it’s contributing to a growing mental health crisis among youths.

“Human connection is vital for survival. We’re programed over millions of years of evolution to connect with other people,” says Anna Lembke, a professor of psychiatry and addiction medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine. But Lembke says social media companies have essentially exploited our need for human connection.

“Part of the way our brains get us to do that is by releasing oxytocin, our love hormone, which in turn releases dopamine in the reward pathway, which makes connection feel good, ” she added.

Lembke explains that social media has taken the work out of how we connect with other human beings, placing that effort online and adding three major ingredients: novelty, accessibility and quantity, making scrollinga very potent drug.

In May, Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy issued a public warning: Social media poses a risk to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.

That public advisory from the country’s top doctor was rare, but one that follows a pattern when no legal standards are in place. In a 1964 report, the then-surgeon general expressed concern about the health hazards of smoking, paving the way for warning labels on cigarette packets. In the 1980s, there were calls to reduce the permissible levels of alcohol in the blood while driving as drinking-related traffic accidents spiraled.

Now Murthy’s report on social media is trying to move the needle again, and he has statistics to back up his concern: More than 95 percent of people ages 13 to 17 in the country say they use a social media platform, and more than a third say they are “almost constantly” using one.

“We are living in the middle of a youth mental health crisis in America. And my growing concern is that social media has become an important contributor to that,” Murthy told The Washington Post.

In the absence of laws against overuse of social media platforms, Lembke says, the responsibility rests on parents and users. She recommends identifying the particular type of digital media that is affecting us and eliminating it for four weeks, as a sort of dopamine fast.

“We’re not saying to eliminate all devices and all social media or even all media, but to identify the ones that are problematic and eliminate those for four weeks, which is on average the amount of time it takes to reset reward pathways,” Lembke said.


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