Can Tech Tackle Social Media Addiction?

11/07/2016 06:26 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2016

If youve never commented “#goals under an overly staged or photoshopped Instagram picture, chances are you probably found yourself stressing over your number of followers at some point...

What we fail to realize is social media is a li(e)fstyle, a weapon of mass distraction seriously affecting our health.

Courtesy of Talkspace

Fight fire with fire goes the old adage, so when the baby-faced dimension that is social media throws up psychological blockades such as Internet Addiction Disorder, perhaps we should not sharpen our tools of battle, but swap them entirely.

My sweet aunt Tammy predicted digital psychiatry and rehab a decade ago, and while we both chuckled at the idea of such a thing then, it is now an unfortunate reality.

Academics are clear that addiction to social media channels and subsequent mental health issues are on the rise. Instagram and eating disorders are indisputably entangled, with Insta-superstars such as Essena O’Neill recently denouncing the evils of social media marketing and the obsession with being “tiny”.

Yet one school of thought is that it is the problem which might hold the key to the cure and apps such as TalkSpace are pioneering this sector. As highlight-reel platforms continue to dominate our lives, one notes the number of sponsored adverts for mental health therapy sites that intersperse the #cleaneating selfies.

If you can discount the irony of the situation, you might begin to appreciate these therapeutic social media sites as the methadone replacement therapy of the virtual world.

Our ineptitude to show vulnerability online is thought to negatively impact our anxiety levels, body image and sleep patterns. But could this new characterization of mental wellbeing present opportunities?

Psychology is not an exact science, and the western handling of the mind-body dichotomy is fledgling as it is without new challenges being churned out by our millennial infrastructure. Interesting, then, that it is the tech community who has rushed to the rescue of those of us who have fallen short of the pressure to present a social media “perma-smile”. Indeed, it is the coders and marketers who are attempting to bridge the gap between medical professionals and us isolated residents of the world wild web.

It might be considered progress for platforms like TalkSpace to have deployed a team of psychiatrists and mental health experts to create their Social Media Dependence Therapy Programme, whilst possessing the marketing know-how to reach those in need.

Dr Bowden-Jones, a consultant psychiatrist in addictions and leader in digital psychiatry, praises the geographical reach of such apps, especially for those in need of urgent psychiatric care. Dr Bowden Jones recognizes that the “therapeutic bond between patient and therapist can be just as powerful” over Skype or telephone.

It is also important to acknowledge the wealth of data scientists are about to have access to by way of such platforms, enabling them to dig deeper and wider into the human psyche than ever before. It is at the point of computerized diagnosis that Dr Bowden-Jones expresses reservations, warning that it is here that computers fall short of human ability.

The obvious answer would be to unplug and give our poor old brains a rest. But then again, we just might feel consumed with the fear of missing out also known as FOMO. Yes, that is an actual anxiety disorder. Now, you might wonder that a 24/7 therapy treatment served-up via the internet serves only to perpetuate our anxious insomniac culture. That being said, prohibition never did much for addicts.


The responsibility of social media giants like Instagram and their subsequent celebrity ambassadors is paramount to encouraging the “honest pictures” of real life, with all its warts, that users need exposure to. However, we’re unlikely to see the commercial shirking of aesthetic perfection anytime soon, which leaves us to treat the symptoms of social media related illnesses rather than zapping the cause. Same old, then.

Online therapy for internet addiction might not be the whole answer, but it’s a step forward. Coupled with offline help, it might just be the start of a new trajectory by which we open new doors to discussion and research surrounding mental health conditions, potentially beyond the realm of social media.

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Co-authored by Eleanor Rachel, follow @EleanorRachelJ

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