Students partake in a group activity at the National Center for Youth Internet Addiction Treatment, South Korea. (Jun Michael Park/The Washington Post)

Mark Griffiths and Daria Kuss are psychologists at Nottingham Trent University in the U.K. They specialize in studying the impact of technology and social media on cognitive and social behavior.

NOTTINGHAM, England — Are you addicted to social media? Ask yourself these six simple questions:

  • Do you spend a lot of time, when you’re not online, thinking about social media or planning to use social media?
  • Do you feel urges to use social media more and more over time?
  • Do you use social media to forget about personal problems?
  • Do you often try to reduce your use of social media, without success?
  • Do you become restless or troubled if you are unable to use social media?
  • Do you use social media so much that it has had a negative impact on your job, relationship or studies?

If you answered “yes” to a few of these questions, it’s likely that you are a fairly standard, habitual social media user. Like most of us, you would probably benefit from a “digital detox,” a strategy to force you to reduce the amount of time spent on social media. This can be achieved through a few basic steps such as turning off the sound function on your phone, only allowing yourself to check your phone every hour or so, and dedicating periods in the day as self-imposed no-screen time.

However, if you answered “yes” to most or all of these questions, then you may have or be developing an actual addiction to using social media. Like any psychological disorder or condition, the only way to confirm this is through a formal diagnosis from a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist. 

Back in 2011, we were the first academics to systematically review the scientific literature on excessive social media use. We found that for a small minority of individuals, social media had a significant detrimental effect on many aspects of life including relationships, work and academic achievement. We argued that such signs are indicative of addiction similar to what people experience with alcohol or drugs.

Years later, “smartphone addiction” and “screen addiction” — closely tied to social media addiction — have become fairly common concepts. In a 2017 paper, we revisited the latest research on the topic and showed that social media use for a minority of individuals is associated with a number of other psychological problems as well, including anxiety, depression, loneliness and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

While a relatively small number of people are diagnosed as addicted, the negative impact of social media is apparent whether it’s deemed clinical addiction or not. Most people’s social media use is habitual enough that it spills over into other areas of their lives. It results in behavior that is problematic and dangerous, such as checking social media while driving.

While the majority of our behaviors around social media may be annoying rather than dangerous, they are nonetheless indicative of a societal problem. Steps need to be taken now, while the number of social media addicts is still small. We shouldn’t wait to see if it becomes an epidemic.

Steps we should take

Governments and organizations can help minimize and, in some cases, prohibit the use of mobile devices. Some such steps — such as banning smartphone use while driving — are in place in many countries already. But what about daily practices that impact our mental health, even if they don’t place us in the way of direct bodily harm?

Given the loss of productivity in both the workplace and educational settings, employers, schools and colleges need better policies to ensure that people are focused on their required tasks and activities. Many schools ban the use of smartphones in the classroom. Prohibition in other contexts such as workplace settings (where practical) is also justified.

Some restaurants are now providing discounts to customers who refrain from using their smartphones during a meal. More positive reinforcement strategies like these may well be the way forward in trying to decrease time spent checking social media and to increase time spent engaging in real life.

Still, more digital literacy and awareness of the effects of excessive social media use need to be embedded in our work and educational institutions. More controversially, social media operators like Facebook could start using their behavioral data to identify excessive users and provide strategies to limit time spent on their products. This is already being used in the online gambling industry. Why can’t we apply it to social networking sites as well?

For the small number of individuals who are genuinely addicted to social media, treatment is warranted but unlikely to be funded by medical insurance or national health services because the disorder hasn’t been formally recognized. Consequently, those who need treatment are likely to need the services of specialist treatment centers such as reSTART, a facility outside Seattle that aids young people addicted to the Internet, video games, social media and more.

The goal of treatment for this type of addiction, unlike for many other addictions, should be controlled use rather than abstinence. In the connected world we live in, it is simply not feasible to prohibit someone from accessing all smart devices. The most successful type of treatment for online addictions appears to be traditional cognitive behavioral therapy, although there are relatively few published studies examining its efficacy in relation to social media addiction. We need more research, so that we can develop more and better solutions to what is likely to be a growing problem.

There is no magic bullet. Individuals are ultimately responsible for their own social media use. But policymakers, social media operators, employers, researchers, health care providers and educational establishments all need to play their part in reducing excessive use of social media, the “opiate for the masses.”

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.