Social Media Addiction: Beyond “Just Say No”

The compelling new Netflix film The Social Dilemma paints a dark picture of the power of the tech industry to manipulate our children for profit. The analogy between social media us and drug use comes into the film early when they point out the common language of “user” to describe both people who use drugs and people who use social media. After effectively engaging their audience by arousing fear, they conclude with a rather weak response: “Turn off your notifications.”

The main character portrayed in the film is expected to stop using his phone for a full week simply with a promise of a new screen to replace the broken one. The phone sits plugged in on the kitchen counter; nothing else changes. When he succumbs to the draw of the phone several days later, he descends fully into technology use to the exclusion of other activities and winds up in a dangerous place. This “just say no” approach brought to mind people with opioid use disorders who were expected to withdraw completely from the drug in prison, and then overdosed upon release.

I was surprised at the portrayal of human beings as relatively powerless against the dark forces of technology. Consider the extraordinary array of emotions that humans convey through the vast complexity of the face and voice. Charles Darwin identified this system of nerves and muscles in his less well-known but perhaps equally important work The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. Connectedness regulates our physiology and protects against the harmful effects of stress. Darwin identifies the highly intricate system of facial muscles, and similarly complex systems of muscles modulating tone and rhythm, or prosody, of voice that exist only in humans. These biologically based capacities indicate that emotional engagement is central to our evolutionary success.

In my recent book The Power of Discord co-authored with renowned research psychologist Ed Tronick we address the problem of technology over-use within the context of human relationships. If we understand the problem as a symptom, we see that simple admonitions to limit time and find good content are not sufficient. When we eliminate a symptom without recognizing its function, we fail to address the underlying problem. Over-reliance on technology and social media may be a symptom of a social and cultural movement away from the normal messiness of human relationships. If so, only immersion in relationships can provide the solution.

Another aspect human existence absent from the film is the role of art and culture. Technology does not dance or produce great literature. The many health benefits of reading quality fiction include lowering of blood pressure and increased capacity for empathy. For families struggling with problems of emotional and behavioral regulation in my pediatrics practice, I often recommend parent-child martial arts. Mother-daughter book clubs can offer a rich addition to the often tumultuous teen years. Parents may find that coloring together with a young child sitting on their lap can be calming for both. Simple admonitions to limit cellphone use will fail if they are not replaced with meaningful human interaction. An ideal approach to the problem of technology overuse should involve a combination of creative arts, movement, and relationships.

In addition, the role of parenting with authority cannot be underestimated. The main character in the film stops going to soccer practice as he gives in to the powerful draw of the cellphone. Where are the limits on his behavior? In a recent interview with pediatrician Richard Allen Turner, Dr. Tronick and I address the differences among authoritative, authoritarian and permissive parenting. Authoritarian parenting as in “my way or the highway,” may be linked to difficulty with emotional regulation in children. Authoritative parenting, in contrast, is associated with children having a greater capacity for emotional regulation, flexible thinking, and social competence. While “permissive” parenting is characterized by a lack of appropriate limits, an authoritative parenting stance encompasses respect for and curiosity about a child, together with containment of intense feelings and limits on behavior. When parents themselves feel held and supported- which sadly in our culture they often are not-their capacity to access their natural authority is enhanced.

Fear-based messages have the power to draw us in. However they can also shut down our capacity for listening and connection. In contrast a message of hope can calm and heal. Perhaps we need instead to “just say yes” to face-to-face human interaction with all its inherent messiness. Add a good dose of both creativity and support for parents and we will be on our way to a healthier world.

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