Virtually addicted ? | Sunday Observer
Impact of excessive social media use on mental health

Virtually addicted ?

22 January, 2023

“What am I supposed to do if both my daughter and my granddaughter are glued to their ‘screens’ almost all the time?” an octogenarian recently lamented while talking to me over the phone. “ I thank god for being born long before the Smartphone era or whatever. I do a bit of gardening, read a book or just watch something on television for a while. I simply enjoy my ‘real’ life.”

Her main worry now is her granddaughter’s dwindling academic performance which she largely attributes to excessive smartphone usage. “ Like mother, like daughter. My daughter is not in a position to advise her daughter as she is the better ‘addict’,” she sighed.

One may find her lamentation a bit amusing initially, but it just speaks out loud the not-so-amusing truth about the ‘Social media era.’

Digital madness

As Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, a leading psychologist and addiction expert explains in his recent book Digital Madness: How Social Media Is Driving Our Mental Health Crisis--and How to Restore Our Sanity, many social media platforms including Facebook and Instagram have always been designed to be wildly addictive and despite the ever-increasing evidence to support the claim that social media overuse has a shocking effect on one’s mental and physical health, these tech companies have kept them that way. `` They choose to do nothing because their profits are based on it,” Dr.Kardaras writes.

One of the key research studies he cites in his book found that university students who used social media for more than three hours daily during their university hours suffered from lack of sleep and unsatisfactory academic performance. The study found that the sample of students had a higher rate of depression, substance abuse, stress, and even suicide. According to this particular study, one major reason for the aforementioned negative impacts is inaccurate social comparisons that were constantly made through online posts, photos, videos.

“Social media and computer games can be as addictive and toxic as any chemical, leading to anxiety, depression, and despair,” Dr.Kardaras points out.

As he highlights in his book many acute social media/internet users have “fallen into a pattern of binary thinking (making assumptions and overgeneralizing things) and as a result, they are largely able to see only extremes and suffer from a lack of empathy. Dr. Kardaras, an articulate expert in the field further adds that such addicts even display key signs of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) such as constant angry mood, being fearful, and impulsive. Others may develop self-hatred and frustration fearing that “they will never meet the standards of the media influencers they follow.”

“I freely concede that we have achieved wondrous advancements in our technological abilities,” “But our species is deteriorating; we’re getting weaker, both physically and mentally,” the expert psychologist emphasized.

Kardaras’ valuable tips to break the cycle of addiction are mainly focused on finding a meaningful purpose in life and developing ‘actual’ social connections rather than virtual ones.

Recent international research

Social media is reprogramming children’s brains and creating a generation of thin-skinned adults, a very recent study suggested. The extensive research study which was conducted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA arrived at the conclusion that youngsters’ regions in the brain that control feelings of reward and punishment become overreactive compared to their peers who are not always online. Such changes indicate that social media-addicted children will eventually end up as thin-skinned adults who will be ‘hypersensitive’ to feedback/ criticism from others. 178 12-year-olds from three public middle schools in North Carolina, US were used for this study.

According to Assistant Professor in developmental psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and co-author of the study, Dr Eva Telzer the study findings suggest that “checking behaviors on social media in early adolescence may tune the brain’s sensitivity to potential social rewards and punishments.”

Another study conducted by the Nagoya University and the Aichi Prefectural Mikawa Aoitori Medical and Rehabilitation Center for Developmental Disabilities in December 2022 found that frequent restrictions on children’s activities during pandemic lockdowns damaged their ability to “stand up straight.” The children were compelled to spend more time engrossed in technology without getting adequate time to spend time outside with peers.

Internet and mental health

As Senior Lecturer in Psychiatry, Consultant Psychiatrist, Faculty of Medical Sciences, University of Sri Jayewardenepura and the convenor of the Expert Committee on Tobacco, alcohol, and other addictions at the Sri Lanka Medical Association, Dr. Jayamal De Silva points out Internet Addiction Disorder(IDU) is on the rise. “With the ubiquitous presence of smartphones, more and more people are getting addicted to the internet; including emails, social media, and messaging apps. The content includes social media interactions, chatting, gaming, buying things or shopping, pornography, and just surfing,” he said.


Dr. De Silva added that the addict will have the urge to check the internet frequently; loses control and spends more and more time on that. When offline, they feel miserable and sometimes angry and may even get violent.

“Acute nervousness is common. The rest of the time is spent preoccupied with the content once searched and engaged in. There is functional impairment where academic, educational, occupational, and family responsibilities are given up or partially fulfilled. Progressive deterioration of social life is a natural outcome of this addiction. Features of depression and anxiety readily develop in some individuals.”

As Dr. De Silva emphasized the remarkable feature of such addiction is that the addict ceases to enjoy what they do once it has taken place!

Non-addicted use

“The impact of social media and internet use is visible not only in addicts. But all users are effectively affected. There is evidence to show that the face-to-face interactions of young people have suffered a lot due to the increased use of smartphones. Likewise, the young women who frequently Instagram were found to be more suicidal and depressed. The US Senate heard the case a few months back, but the interventions were lacking,” he noted.

Dr. De Silva added that suicides, in the form of copycat suicides, can go up with internet use. “The culture which is shaped and promoted among the young appears to slant towards more self-harm and substance use.”

As he highlighted apart from developing depression and suicidal tendencies, IUDs can lead to sleeping disorders, academic issues, and interpersonal troubles. The distance between couples, friends, and family members could widen due to the frequent use of social media by one or both partners.

“Sexual health of the young suffers as a result of the acquired inability to have face to face (physically close) relationships and as a result of the influence of pornography,” Dr. De Silva raised concern.

Misleading term

The social, psychological, and political outlooks of users undergo severe changes as a result of internet addiction. Dr. De Silva noted that the term “Social Media” or Samaja Maadya itself is misleading.

“These are big media outlets owned by, and in turn controlled by, small groups of people. There is nothing “social” about ownership. The aim of these private electronic media companies is pure profit. They would liaise with all unhealthy partners when it comes to making profit,” he added.

“For example, nowadays, the most important determinant of all other addictions, including cannabis, tobacco, and alcohol, can be identified as internet use. The so-called social media platforms are data-gathering programs and advertising machines. The personalised ads one receives as a result of inhabiting social media would change one’s mindset. The business links between producers of alcohol, cannabis, and tobacco are very strong and continue to become more complex and complicated. The influence that large industries exert on the thinking pattern of young people has become exponentially high due to the use of social media platforms by the marketing arms of these gigantic businesses,” he said.


The most frightening outcome of internet addiction is its undeniable link with dependency.

“ There would not be any independent thinking hereafter. The most deceived generation of all, the current young generation who were born with smartphones at hand, are made to believe that they have truth at their fingertips. But in fact, they have become the most misinformed generation,” Dr. De Silva said.

When asked whether the situation of the older generation is any better Dr. De Silva responded in the negative.

“ No one is safe or immune. There are more and more older people, including elderly, who are addicted to social media and the internet. They suffer mentally as a result. Internet gambling and gaming are two things that even older people could get addicted to.”

“We need to keep in mind that smartphones are more affordable, accessible, and available compared to any other addictive product in the market. Even toddlers have access to these. The magnitude of addiction, as a result, will be unimaginable.”

We see that social media platforms themselves are promoted by internet providers on a massive scale. Free and not-so-free packages are on offer all the time. These promotions which take place using conventional media and social media themselves have led to increased use of these. All these companies have one thing in common- profit. And there is no concern for people’s health when it comes to making money. All of their CSR work is aimed at direct marketing or promoting their image. We are made fools who believe that the use of more high-tech devices and more social media platforms makes us happy.

Psychological strategies

“The best strategy is to use these gadgets as little as possible. It would be interesting to note that most CEOs and high-level employees in these tech companies do not allow their children to even touch a smartphone – even if they are teens! If you don’t believe me just watch the film “Social Dilemma.””

“As parents, we have to get rid of our addictions first. Then only we can influence our children. The deliberate and well-planned campaign by the ICT industry to create conflict between parents and children is aimed at making the young slavish users of the internet,” he said.

Tips to overcome social media addiction

Even though there is no simple psychological technique to prevent addiction it would be a good starting point to study the behavior of this industrial vector with one’s children, family members, friends, and colleagues, Dr. De Silva noted.

“There is no individual act which will safeguard your child. When all in a class, or half of it, are almost addicted users, the chances of saving one’s child become low. Hence, think of acting collectively. Send this message to everyone you know. Tell them that there is an industry that profits from our addictions, ill health, and misplaced moral convictions. Empowering everyone, including employees and shareholders of these companies, with knowledge is important for all of us to counteract the massive force which drags humanity to deep dark helpless corners of the social and emotional lives of each one of us.”

When asked whether the older generation tends to overlook the negative mental impact of social media addiction on their children Dr. De Silva said that most adults, themselves, are kept in the dark about the real harm of social media.

“They are made incapable of protecting themselves as well as their children due to the influence that the ICT industry has over our lives. We live in an Orwellian world. Worth reading 1984 again.”

As he highlighted the industry is deliberately creating a conflict or definitely more than one, between generations. “The gap has widened exponentially and the older generation is made incapable of exerting control over their children. In essence, it looks like we are handing over the raising of children to a small group of people who have money and means of influencing the thinking and behaviour of all. This is a dystopia in which all of us, including employees and shareholders of big tech and other industries, will have to live and raise children. Very disturbing when you think of what is happening right now in the world.”

“Mark Twain once said, “If you don’t read papers you are uninformed, if you read, you are misinformed”. I might be quoting him wrong. But we are both uninformed and misinformed when we use social media. At least that is sure for the time being,” Dr. De Silva added.

Tips from Lanka Sumitrayo

Former Chairperson of Lanka Sumitrayo Kumudini De Silva admitted that in the recent past, there have been many cases of addicts because of the situation in the country due to Covid- 19 pandemic which was soon followed by the economic crisis. “Due to acute isolation, they have turned to social media to learn about what’s going on in the country and as a source of entertainment.

With her many years of experience as a counsellor, De Silva advises the public to stay connected with their loved ones, family, and friends to save people from getting addicted to social media.

Firstly parents and guardians have a major role to play when getting children to use social media wisely. Make them aware of the benefits and pitfalls such as cyberbullying, abuse, and blackmailing. Should advise them never to share personal and private things such as photos.

Next, create a strategy for the children to get more benefits from social media.

De Silva also recommends having a daily routine and time limits to prevent them from getting addicted.

“Discuss with the children about the programs or accounts they are following. Educate them that what is appearing in the media may not be true and to check the source. Have a nice discussion about what they have learned and what sort of information they have gathered. If you observe that their behavior patterns and thinking patterns have changed, be mindful. Help them to find more positive and inspirational sites.”

She emphasized the importance of implementing quality family time (no phones or any other device), so that children will not get isolated and overuse cyberspace.

“Also allow them to play games with time limits and do not get them involved in playing for money, help to cultivate interesting hobbies and gardening, cooking, art, and crafts and help them find sites to learn about them.”

She also emphasized the importance of encouraging them to take breaks and do outdoor activities such as physical exercise. “By following these you can create a healthy balance without harming yourself through social media,” she said.