Social media addiction: causes, symptoms and consequences of addiction

Eine junge Frau liegt im Bett und hat ihr Blick auf das leuchtende Smarphone gerichtet.

Social media is omnipresent today and while it offers us several benefits, it can still be wise to examine our consumption. How much time on social media is healthy? How long should my children be on their mobile phones? When does it become an addiction?

Social media addiction

Social media gives us a lot: we can share our experiences with the world, stay in touch with friends and make new connections. Social media platforms are hugely popular in Switzerland, especially among the younger population groups. Ninety-one percent of young people between the ages of 12 and 19 use them daily or several times a week.

Digital dependency

Social media and networks are driven by economic interests. That’s why they use technological mechanisms and algorithms to encourage us to use the internet as often and for as long as possible. No wonder that this can result in unhealthy addictions.

More young people affected

Social media addiction is a form of online addiction - experts also refer to it as an internet-related disorder. In Switzerland, young people are increasingly affected by social media addiction, girls more often than boys. However, studies also show that older people often give less thought to their online behaviour than younger people and underestimate activities like the amount of time they spend online, for example.

What is online addiction?

There are various forms of online or internet addiction, all with the same thing in common: problematic internet use. This leads to harmful behaviour and becomes something of an addiction. It’s not the internet itself that is addictive, but the behaviour displayed in the use of the internet and the emotions that go with it.

Statistics show that in Switzerland, 3.8% of the population aged 15 and over are affected by problematic internet use.

Behavioural addictions on the internet

Internet addiction takes many different forms. In addition to social media addiction, these include video game addiction, gambling addiction and shopping addiction. However, the World Health Organisation (WHO) only classifies video game and gambling addiction as medical conditions, categorising them as “non-substance-related addictions”.

When are you addicted to social media?

It’s often not easy to answer whether your own use of social media or the internet is problematic. The reasons for this are twofold: it’s not just the time spent on the internet that’s relevant, the effects on social life, professional or academic performance and health also play an important role. And as the problem of social media addiction is still very new, empirical values are lacking.

According to recent studies, social media use of a maximum of 30 minutes a day is considered unproblematic for mental health.

Signs of social media addiction

In order to diagnose social media addiction, the “Social Media Disorder Scale” was developed. It consists of 9 criteria. If you recognise yourself in the following statements, there’s a chance you could be affected:

  1. When you’re doing other activities, your mind is often on the social media apps and you feel the need to check for new messages.
  2. In the past year, you felt the need to spend ever more time on social media and were unhappy when this wasn’t possible.
  3. You often feel restless and anxious or get angry when you can't use the apps.
  4. You’ve already failed several times in the past year to spend less time on social media or have been unable to detach yourself from it when others have advised you to do so.
  5. You use social media to distract yourself from problems or to escape from negative feelings.
  6. Your social media use causes you to neglect important assignments at work or school, sleep less or regularly get into arguments with others.
  7. You hide the extent of your consumption and lie to friends or family about the time you spend on social media.
  8. You have less interest in your friends and family and neglect hobbies and interests because you use social media.
  9. You experience serious conflict at work, at school or with your family or you’ve lost contact with friends through spending too much time on social media.

Consequences of social media addiction

As with any addiction, the consequences of social media addiction or other online addictions can be extensive. Spending a long time on screen usually leads to a lack of exercise and a generally unhealthier lifestyle, the result being poorer health. In addition, addicts often neglect their social relationships and underperform at work or school, which triggers conflict.

Impact on mental health

  • Fear of missing out: studies have shown that people who spend a lot of time on social media often feel the pressure to be constantly available. They also become afraid of missing something important. This is called “fear of missing out” or FOMO for short.
  • Self-esteem: on social media, we’re often exposed to unrealistic images, expectations and stereotypical gender portrayals. We tend to compare ourselves, which often undermines our self-esteem and our perception of our physical appearance. This is known as the “compare and despair” syndrome.
  • Concentration difficulties: the majority of experts believe that social media consumption reduces our attention span and weakens our ability to concentrate.
  • Loneliness: as paradoxical as it sounds, excessive social media use can lead to social isolation and loneliness.
  • Poor sleep: our sleep is often affected by the misuse of social media. The tiredness affects the way we perform our everyday activities and impacts our mental health, which makes sleeping even more difficult – a vicious circle.

Social media addiction and mental illness

Social media addiction and other internet-related disorders often appear in conjunction with other mental illnesses. Studies show that online addiction occurs more frequently alongside depressive symptoms, suicidal tendencies, anxiety disorders or ADHD. Online addiction can be either a cause or a symptom of a mental illness.

Treatment of social media addiction

The treatment of any addiction requires strong willpower. As a first step, abstinence is often recommended. However, complete abstinence over a longer period of time is particularly difficult with the internet because it’s so firmly embedded in our everyday lives. For this reason, controlled use of social media is advised. Those with the condition can seek professional help at addiction counselling centres. In extreme cases, withdrawal therapy is necessary.

How much screen time is healthy for children?

There's no clear-cut answer to this question as every child reacts differently to media. What's important is to teach children general media skills and how to control their use of screen time. The type of content and why children consume it also plays a major role. In the first instance, care should be taken to ensure the right balance between offline activities and media consumption.

Recommendation: screen time and media consumption for children

Psychoanalyst Serge Tisseron's 3-6-9-12 rule of thumb provides the following guidelines: no television before the age of 3, no games consoles before the age of 6, internet after the age of 9 and social media after the age of 12. The following guidelines apply to screen time:

Recommendation table for children's screen time

  Recommended time of media consumption
Under 3 years
Toddlers should generally not spend any time in front of screens. Only short interactive periods in the presence of an adult are permitted.
Up to 6 years
At this age, children should use screen media for a maximum of 30 minutes per day in the presence of an adult.
Up to 9 years
A maximum of 5 hours of screen time per week is appropriate.
Up to 12 years
For older children a maximum of 10 hours a week in front of a screen is appropriate.
From 12 years old
Adolescents should not have strict instructions imposed upon them when it comes to screen time. It's better to negotiate rules with them. A weekly screen time of more than 20 hours during leisure time is problematic. Phones should be switched off at night.

As a general rule: the use of screen media is not suitable as a reward or punishment, as this only reinforces their importance.

Talk about media consumption

Sooner or later, children will use media and the internet on their own. It’s therefore important to create an open environment in which children and adolescents can talk about their experiences with digital media. This helps protect them from problematic media use.

How much screen time is healthy for adults?

A good balance between online media use and offline activities is also important for adults. Especially if you already spend a lot of time in front of the computer at work, it's a good idea to enjoy some screen-free and phone-free time. Also try not to use your phone before going to bed.

Tips for limiting screen time

Mobile phones in particular are often a source of temptation for excessive use. The following tips will help you better control your screen time:

  • Measure and limit: on most devices today, you can measure your screen time and limit the amount of time you use apps.
  • Deactivate push notifications: push notifications encourage usage. Combat this by deactivating them in the device’s settings.
  • Greyscale mode: activating greyscale mode on your phone can also be very helpful. Bright colours automatically attract our attention. In this mode, the phone appears less interesting to our eyes.
  • Device-free zones: specify areas at home where digital devices are prohibited (for example, the dining room or bedroom).


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