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The 4 Major Harms of Social Media Addiction

The Unplug Series: Part 1

The allures, the harms, and how to take control of our minds.


Before we plunge into the dark side, let's start with the benefits of social media. Social media provided us a fun and easy way to connect to our friends. It gave us a casual way to keep a connection to someone we met somewhere- a vacation, a party, a gym. We're not necessarily going to talk to these people often, but it feels good to have a way to keep up with each other. It gave us a way to build networks. It gave us a way to share our thoughts, what we care about (dogs and food mainly), our passions, our work for all to see. I do enjoy seeing what my close friends are doing, what they're watching, what they're reading, where they're traveling- and from many discussions about the merits of social media, I know that my friends are genuinely happy to see the same from me.

For businesses and professionals looking to market themselves, the benefits- or should I say the necessity- of social media is even more. It allows us to share our work and skills for free to mass audiences. It allows us to create a virtual connection hub for all our clients/fans. It allows us to quickly relay information, and it even lets us sell our products. Social media does provide value to us, and most of us are going to continue to use it- so it is important to identify the line between using social media for these benefits, and using it at the cost of our wellbeing. Onto the costs.

1. An Argument For Your Potential

The primary complaint among social media users is how it robs time they wish they spent on more valuable things. There is no decision that comes without a sacrifice in this world, and the main sacrifice of social media is time we will never get back. What we forgo in order to maintain the 3 hours a day average we spend on social media is always something that has a cost. First, let's focus on the cost of lost time that would have otherwise gone towards our human potential.

Every one of us has things that we want to learn and master. We want to add beneficial tools to our arsenal as a skilled, knowledgeable, and dynamic human. If I simply replaced the time I spent on social media over the last five years with free online courses from schools like Harvard and MIT, I would have multiple degrees by now. Of course every moment of your day is not going to be (or supposed to be) optimized to create your most powerful self, but when we are spending our valuable time in such excess on social media- we really ought to consider- what are we sacrificing? So let's put a number on it. The average 16-24 year old now spends 3 hours a day on social media alone (for many teenagers and preteens this is an extremely conservative number). Here's what that looks like in days, and what that looks like if that time had a dollar value (that didn't even compound over time)- let's say $20 an hour.

Per person, that's:

  • 91.25 hours per month / 3.8 full days a month / $1,825

  • 1095 hours per year / 45.6 full days a year / $21,900

  • 76,650 hours in a average life time / 8.75 full years / $1,533,000

And that's not including texting, Netflix, YouTube, video games, etc.

But it's only three hours a day right?

For young people, this is devastating to their future because of the idea of compound interest and accumulated advantage. The time I spend on my education and skills today are difficult to put a value on, because that knowledge compounds drastically over time and results in a non-linear return of rewards. This argument follows the famous 'Matthew effect', which is commonly described as 'the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer'. But this principle does not only apply to money, and it isn't about the rich taking from the poor. It is about the long term outcomes of different inputs applied early on.

Let's use early education as an example. Psychologist Keith Stanovich uses the Matthew effect to describe a phenomenon observed in research on reading outcomes:

"Early success in reading skills leads to later success in reading as the learner grows, while failing to learn to read before the third or fourth year of school can be indicative of lifelong problems in learning new skills. This is because children who fall behind in reading read less, increasing the gap between them and their peers. Later, when students need to "read to learn" (where before they were learning to read), their reading struggles create issues in other subjects. They unfortunately fall further and further behind in school, dropping out at a much higher rate than their peers."

The same idea applies to adults when thinking about excelling at anything over time. Those who take advantage of their young adult years to gain skills and knowledge widen their networks, open up their options, gain an incredible confidence- and at a certain point it seems like the world is open to them, flinging opportunities and rewards at them left and right. But that persons peers who were not so disciplined in their habits, who spent that same time switching back and forth between apps on their phone in fabricated reality land, will fall behind. Now, everyones goal is not to work every waking hour like Elon Musk, but still- when speaking about future outcomes, it is impossible to deny the toll social media hours take on what will be available to us one day- mentally, socially, financially.

I am hoping that my 'argument for your future potential' will help you put social media time spend in real terms, and have an impact on how you value your time.

2. Decreased Ability to Focus

There is a wide body of evidence that demonstrates how social media reduces our ability to focus, and also reduces patience.

"Attention and cognition are the foundation on which all our capacities depend — our ability to think, to concentrate, to solve problems, and be present with each other. Technology's constant interruptions and precisely-targeted distractions, which have been designed to keep us more engaged with tech products, are taking a major toll on these critical functions." -Tristan Harris

Guy P Harrison, Author of 'Think Before You like', explains in his book: "A human brain in a constant state of distraction and urgency is stressed and therefore inefficient. If you are checking your phone more than a hundred times a day just to make sure you didn't miss something, your capacity for higher thinking is constantly compromised. You won't be your best creatively or when it comes to making sound decisions."

Attention Standards

Have you ever noticed that what used to cut it for your attention doesn't seem to be enough anymore? I don't remember having to be on my phone texting someone, and waiting for their response by scrolling Instagram, as a requirement to watch a movie. But many people report the same multi-distraction urges- so what is the background noise? the movie? or the social media? Perhaps it is all noise, and we feel we need more than we did before.

45% of adults say they use another device almost all the time when watching TV.

This is partly because social media, in its ever immediate ways, has made us all intolerant to even a second of boredom or unused time. Every moment we are not otherwise occupied is 'filled' with social media. Filling up unused time is actually cited as the number one reason for social media use according to Harrison. But now our definition of 'unused time' includes almost everything, even time that is being used. Studying, reading, driving, eating at the dinner table, hanging out with friends- when did these things get grouped into the 'unused time' that we deeply need to be distracted from? There is something to be said about the virtues of boredom- without the convenience of constant attention fillers, a mind is forced to find something worth thinking, creating, or doing.


Did you know we are all expert multitaskers? Although we have this idea that the best people multitask and it makes you seem just so busy and important and effective- it actually wastes your time. Many studies suggest that multitasking can reduce productivity by as much as 40%. Our brains are actually better at focusing on one task at a time.

Even When The Phone Is Off

Studies show that even having a phone present, in the same room, when it is turned off, has a significant draining effect on cognitive function.

"The presence of a smartphone, even when off, can reduce cognitive capacity by taxing the attentional resources that reside at the core of both working memory capacity and fluid intelligence." - Tristan Harris.

So even when we are not engaging in social media activity, our subconscious brains are still being drained by the idea of it. This has to do with the psychological effects of social media, which trigger your brain to release cortisol (the stress hormone) when you haven't used it for a while. "I haven't checked IG in a while... I wonder if someone commented on my status... has anyone messaged me?" This is what happens in your brain in between the 15 minute intervals that most people check their phone- building up cortisol as the unknown of what might be waiting on your phone screams at you 'CHECK ME NOW', until you do so in an effort to get rid of that anxiety. I know what you are thinking, 'gee, this sounds a lot like someone going through a substance abuse disorder or withdrawal..', and that is exactly what is happening. Brain scans have linked what happens in the brains of substance addicts with what the human brain looks like when it is using social media (Harrison, Think Before You Like).

A great ability to focus is stated by several multi-millionaires as the most important thing that lead to their success. Also, it's worth mentioning the value of experiencing life in the moment.

2. Mental Health

What social media is doing to teen girls

2010-2012 was the time when social media became very popular in middle schools and high schools. This is also the year that depression and self harm among teen girls began to increase at an unprecedented rate. Although boys have a higher suicide rate over all, girls mental health issues increased at this time much more than boys did. So why the difference? In the book, The Coddling of The American Mind, Jonathan Haidt studies this topic. He argues that the harms of social media affects girls disproportionately to boys and that this is a primary cause of the increasing mental health crisis.

The first reason he gives for this difference is bullying. He says that boys and girls are equally aggressive when it comes to bullying, but their means of bullying vary. Boys bully physically- pushing and hitting, but girls bully socially- by trying to damage their victims social relationships and image. Think social sabotage from Mean Girls.

So when boys got phones they lean more towards video games, which affects them but according to Haidt, it isn’t causing depression, and it doesn't accelerate their form of bullying. But when girls get phones, they use social media way more than boys, and social media is the perfect environment to employ their bullying tactics- they can easily use it to damage other girls relationships and image with mean comments, exclusive chat groups, fake hate pages, and spreading embarrassing photos- all with anonymity. Girls can no longer go home and escape bullying cause it follows on their phone all day long. They can also now easily see all the ways they are being left out. But if they get rid of social media- then they are essentially opting out of their social lives altogether.

The nature of girls bullying is supercharged by social media.

The second reason Haidt states is that girls are also more sensitive to social comparison than boys are. Social media exploits and facilitates the human tendency to compare ourselves to others. Kids used to compare themselves to the other kids in their school, all of whom were at least real people. But now, kids and teens go on Instagram and compare themselves to the worlds most beautiful and popular models and celebrities. The standards for popularity and beauty have become exceptionally high for teenage girls- perfect angles, lighting, makeup, filters, airbrush, editing, plastic surgery- all while flaunting lavish lifestyles, boyfriends, and constant utter happiness. Regular 14 year old girls look at this and think "I'll never compare to that, and that's what all the boys like and what all the girls want to look like, I'll never be beautiful or happy." It's super sad, and the irritating part of it is these ideals are not even real- they're fabricated.

Haidt explains this all very well in this interview (warning: there is a curse word used.)

My high school students have told me that girls will make fun of other girls who don't have 'enough' followers. That they get picked on in group chats. That most of their conversations revolve around their virtual image composed for social media. And they see more and more of their friends trying to look and act like Kylie Jenner or Kim Kardashian in an effort to gain validation and popularity.

Doctors have coined the phrase “Snapchat dysmorphia” to describe what’s happening to people who feel they can’t live up to their modified social media photos, and seek plastic surgery to match their own faces to the photos.


Haidt cites this study that shows the difference in increasing self harm rates among different age groups. It seems that the age that a person was when they got introduced to social media had a significant effect on their likelihood of self harm and depression. In 2011 half of American teenagers had smartphones and had access to social media. Millennials (born 1981-1996), who were 15 or older by 2011, missed having instagram and facebook in middle school, and got on board at the end of high school/university. Generation Z however, got social media when they were 14 or younger.

Although the study cannot show us a causal relation between social media and mental health issues, it does show a strong correlation. It tells us that girls mental health issues have increased at a rate much higher than boys since 2011, and that young girls are being effected much more than older teens and adults. Haidt believes that social media effects people much more when they get it early on, and less when they get it as adults.

4. Impact on Relationships

How often have you been annoyed by someones constant use of social media when you are actively engaging socially with them? You are probably thinking of specific friends or colleagues at this moment, maybe even your partner (If not it might be the case this person is you)! I had a friend, and every time we hung out, even if we were doing fun activities, he was always pulling out his phone and checking Instagram. It had a few effects. One, I felt disrespected- was I not fun enough, was looking at what other people were doing really more entertaining that doing something in real life right now? Two, it was awkward, and he didn't ever notice that. He didn't notice the friends around him who observed his rude behaviour, and then continued to engage without him- or worse- followed suit and pulled out their own phones.

Was socializing merely people doing social media next to each other now?

Overtime, I found myself less interested in hanging out with him, and losing respect for him. How could I not? He would spend the majority of his time scrolling online, and then post a photo of how much fun he had with all of us that day. I began to see him as addicted to his phone, obsessed with his image, and fake. I later found out that the behaviour played a role in the loss of his job. I bring this story up because it is super common, it is happening everywhere, and it is most certainly building resentment and belittling the value of the people around those who operate this way. Take a moment to assess if this person is you. You are obviously free to act however you want, but there may be a chance that this behaviour is contributing to the tension in your social and romantic relationships, and quite possibly your work.

"Even the mere presence of smartphone can disrupt the connection between two people, having negative effects on closeness, connection, and conversation quality."

This is only one way that social media use effects our relationships. Other complaints are misinterpretation of communication, unrealistic standards, and lowered patience and attention spans.


That's all for now on the harms of excessive social media use, although there are plenty more.

*The knowledge in this series was learned primarily from social media authors and researchers Tristan Harris, Jonathan Haidt, and Guy P. Harrison.

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Written by Gemma Sheehan, founder of

Girls Who Fight. Our mission is to help women and girls lead safe and confident lives.

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