Oh come on, one more post! Well, that wasn’t great! Then let’s keep scrolling, surely the next one will be better. Anyone who’s been on X, Facebook, or TikTok knows this urge all too well – which quickly turns into an hour or two instead of the few minutes it’s supposed to last. Social media is everywhere. On mobile or computer, at work or at leisure, whether we want to upload something, talk to someone or simply consume content from other users.

But there are also the shadow aspects of this reality. Because the number of people who use social media too much is constantly increasing. In Germany alone, more than 6% of children and teenagers are addicted to social media. According to a 2023 survey, this is more than 600,000 boys and girls. More than 2,000,000 teenagers make “problematic” use of social media – spending two to three hours a day on the screen, significantly more time than they did before the pandemic.

Does the user benefit?

Is social media stuff the work of the devil? “Their role is controversial to say the least,” says Tobias Dinlin, professor of interactive communication at the University of Vienna. “There is a lot of useless content, but also some useful content for the user. One can use social media in many different ways: one can simply consume content or actively use it in order to maintain and improve one’s communication and relationship with others.’ As long as one follows a measure, there is no reason to worry. It is overuse that is a problem for many users.

To date there is no exact medical definition for social media addiction. “But the fact that there is no diagnosis does not mean that the phenomenon does not exist,” Dinlin emphasizes. When the use of social media becomes so excessive that one neglects other more important things, or when one would like to use it less but cannot think of anything else, or when one neglects real social interactions, then one can to talk about addiction, says the expert.

The attractive algorithm

Most social media is based on the principle of short-term stimulation and confirmation – as, for example, through likes and other reactions. “Now non-stop scrolling has resulted in one never being able to stop, with new content constantly available in front of them,” Dinlin explains. “It is of course an extremely addictive factor, because one has to disconnect from the screen on one’s own initiative. When you read a book, it ends at some point. The same goes for television programs. But this is not the case here.” In addition, the algorithm constantly displays content that matches the interests of each user, which makes rational consumption even more difficult.

Particularly vulnerable are those who have similar problems in other areas. “Those who lack self-control or have difficulty organizing their daily lives have a greater problem with social media,” Dinlin points out. And for people who are introverted, marginalized or depressed, excessive use of social media can be an escape from reality. “Because there we can regulate our mood and interrupt an unpleasant situation”, explains the expert. “When I’m bored, when I’m embarrassed, when I’m feeling guilty, I can just pick up my phone and forget all that by going on social media. In a moment.”

Excessive use of social media can also exacerbate pre-existing mental illnesses, such as depression or eating disorders – especially when someone is searching for relevant content and then, through the algorithm, constantly being shown relevant material.

US: Class action lawsuits against tech companies

In the USA. several hundred families have filed a class-action lawsuit against four of the world’s largest technology companies. They accuse Facebook parent Meta, Chinese TikTok operator ByteDance, YouTube parent Alphabet and Snapchat operator Snap of not caring about their children’s addiction to social media, but instead fueling it. .

Among other things, the companies are also accused of not having a secure way of confirming the user’s age, of offering limited control options to parents, as well as of making it significantly more difficult for those who want to close their account.

For some time it was uncertain whether the legal dispute would eventually go to trial. The tech companies dismissed all the claims as baseless. But recently a US federal judge ruled that the action should be tried.

But how reasonable is such a step? Dinlin hesitates. “A lawsuit like this gets attention, a fact that needs to be pointed out. But it is, as is often the case, a compromise. When providers make their services more attractive, which is the principle and goal of any for-profit business, they automatically increase the addiction factor. The user also cannot be considered completely blameless. One has to do both: improve the technology and at the same time educate and help the users.”

Strategies against addiction

The most important thing is to be critical of one’s use of social media, whether one’s own or one’s children’s. This should be discussed within the family, just as non-use should be practiced, without of course concluding that social media is completely unacceptable. Also, it is important to leave the mobile phone away from him for a certain period of time. And he also needs to include other activities in his daily life, such as sports, hobbies, friends, volunteering.

“It’s a mistake to think that when someone feels bad, social media is to blame for it. Often, sitting with a cell phone stems from another problem – and can create new problems at the same time,” Dinlin explains. Realizing this is often the first step to recovery.