Social media addiction is real and it’s time to only allow people to use platforms when they are aged 18

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The first UK-based programme to help people with technology addiction launched in 2010 - and treats people as young as 12

Using social media is an everyday activity that is ingrained in a daily routine for many of us now. It’s as commonplace as making a cup of tea or taking a shower. In fact, a lot of us will kill time waiting for the kettle to boil by scrolling, often absent-mindedly, through the feeds on our preferred platforms. Some are even taking their phones with them into the shower to take part in a TikTok trend where people are filming themselves eating oranges as they freshen up.

All of this seems harmless, and for many it is, but for some it could have a serious detrimental effect. By some, I mean children and young people under the age of 18. There’s long been a concern about the fact that the main social media sites - TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube - allow people to sign up for an account when they are just 13-years-old.

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Parents and carers have continually expressed worries about the kinds of content their children could be exposed to, especially after high profile cases where the death of a child was linked to their social media activity such as Archie Battersbee, who suffered a catastrophic brain injury after it had been claimed he took part in an online blackout challenge. The coroner, however, has since ruled out that he took part in the trend. However, 14-year-old Molly Russell took her own life after viewing negative content on the internet.

These cases are heartbreaking, of course and it is absolutely right that the Online Safety Bill was passed in the UK in December to protect children and adults alike online. But the bill only goes so far and doesn’t acknowledge another huge problem that young people may face - addiction. Social media addiction is a real issue, and I think it is becoming a bigger problem. During my final year studying a Journalism BA (Hons) degree at the University of Sheffield in 2014, I spent several weeks exploring this issue for a portfolio I was working on.

Back then, social media addiction wasn’t really recognised. In fact, I remember that a general internet search didn’t return many results - and the results which did come up were mainly from American rehabilitation centres who briefly mentioned it under the wider issue of technology addiction. A quick internet search today, however, reveals a far more stark situation in which social media addiction has become a stand-alone issue and it also refers to UK-based helplines and rehabilitation facilities.  

It is possible for people to become addicted to social media, and for this reason NationalWorld reporter Rochelle Barrand thinks the sign up age for social media sites should be raised to 18.It is possible for people to become addicted to social media, and for this reason NationalWorld reporter Rochelle Barrand thinks the sign up age for social media sites should be raised to 18.
It is possible for people to become addicted to social media, and for this reason NationalWorld reporter Rochelle Barrand thinks the sign up age for social media sites should be raised to 18. | Adobe Photos/NationalWorld/Kim Mogg

This demonstrates that, in just a few years, the issue has become ever more prevalent - and this is why I think the age limit on social media needs to be increased. When we think of legal addictive substances, we tend to think of alcohol and nicotine. Both of these things are age restricted to 18-year-olds and there’s a reason for this, it’s because adults have the emotional maturity to be able to make decisions about how much of these things they are going to consume and consider the impact this will have on their health.

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Also, it’s well documented that the brains of children and young people are not yet fully developed, and so intaking such substances before this has happened could cause many physical issues and mental health problems. Social media might not be something we consume in the sense of ingesting it into our bodies, but it penetrates our minds - and that has the potential to be just as dangerous for impressionable, immature and undeveloped minds.

During my work on my aforementioned university portfolio, which I gave the title “Social Media: The Disease of the Internet”, I spoke to Nnamdi Godson Osuagwu, author of “Facebook Addiction: The Life and Times of Social Networking Addicts”, who told me that going cold turkey from social media platforms for social media addicts is “like going cold turkey from heroin for drug addicts”. During our interview he defined social networking addiction as “a mental illness centred around the dependency of online friends or online interaction” and added that people who experience it  “are unable to control their need to be logged on.” 

The definition of addiction

The presence of three or more of these criteria means a substance is addictive, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

  • Tolerance: Does the patient tend to need more of the substance over time to get the same effect?
  • Withdrawal symptoms: Do they experience withdrawal symptoms when they do not use the substance?
  • Continued use despite harm: Are they experiencing physical or psychological harm from the substance?
  • Loss of control: Do they use the substance in larger amounts or for longer than planned?
  • Attempts to cut down: Have they made a conscious, but unsuccessful effort, to reduce their use?
  • Salience: Do they spend significant time obtaining or thinking about it, or recovering from its effects?
  • Reduced involvement: Have they given up or reduced their social or occupational activities? 

He also issued a troubling warning which I think we must heed: “Addiction runs much deeper than obsession. If you’re obsessed you can still focus on other things, when you’re addicted it rules your life”. He also said that, like any addiction, social media addiction can impact a person’s physical and mental wellbeing negatively.

Osuagwu told me about one man he had interviewed for the book who lost his job because he was always late for work due to being on Facebook. However, he then didn’t feel the need to look for alternative employment because he could dedicate all of his time to Facebook instead. Another young girl he had spoken to wasn’t able to focus on her studies due to her desire to always be active online and ended up dropping out of school as a result. These are somewhat extreme examples, but they highlight just how damaging this addiction can be.

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I also spoke to one doctor who was seemingly ahead of the game in this country at the time, as he was offering people in the UK help with social media addiction. Dr Richard Graham, a leading consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, founded the technology addiction service for young people at the Capio Nightingale Hospital in London in 2010. It was the first of its kind in the UK.

He told me he did this because he noticed young people were connecting more with the virtual world than the real world and felt this was concerning. His patients were aged between 12 and 35. The 28-day programme he implemented, which aims to increase time spent on off-screen social activities, decrease time spent online and develop strategies to help deal with addiction, is still available to sign up to today - and I’m sure is busier than ever.

[Going cold turkey from social media is] like going cold turkey from heroin for drug addicts.

Nnamdi Godson Osuagwu, author of “Facebook Addiction: The Life and Times of Social Networking Addicts"

Despite being around for over two decades, social media platforms are still relatively new and the impact of them are clearly still being explored. That’s why social media addiction wasn’t widely recognised less than ten years ago but now you could call a number of helplines dedicated to it. I worry, therefore, that we are allowing children to sign up to something we are still understanding the true effects of. I know that changing the sign up age to these social media sites now would cause an uproar, but like any big changes in society - just give it time and it could be accepted.

For example, it’s strange to imagine now that prior to July 2007 people were allowed to smoke in indoor public places. I imagine it would take years for such a change to be accepted as the norm in the same way, but if this was to be implemented today, then members of Generation Alpha, that’s people born between 2013 and 2025 and beyond, would just be okay with it.

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