As if it were the most normal thing in the world, she pulled a light blue Nokia from her pocket. Peers on public transport regularly look in her direction in amazement when they see a teen with a device that only allows you to call and text. No longer does 18-year-old Julia (she prefers not to have her last name mentioned in the paper because of her privacy), the owner of Nokia, care. At first she was shy about her mobile phone, but now she says she “feels more comfortable than ever” when she’s using the device.
She’s been addicted to her smartphone for years – especially social media. She started in high school, where she found little contact with her classmates. She had other interests, hardly made any friendships, and was bullied.
She spent hours editing her Instagram and Snapchat photos. Every day she tried to show a new, better and more beautiful version of herself on the platforms. She showed her followers a happy Julia, when in reality she was struggling with feelings of loneliness and gloom. She camouflaged the addiction on screen by locking herself in her room under the pretense of being busy with homework.
Numb bad thoughts
“I used social media apps to regulate my feelings. I could numb bad thoughts with it. I let the outside world believe I was doing great,” she says. The constant desire for online activity undermined her school performance. While she only had failing grades, her digital accounts flourished: the number of followers, likes, and comments increased. With each interaction, her heart rate increased; She finally felt that others had seen her. “But outwardly I was closed off, silent. Everything I did related to social media. I panicked when my phone died.”
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She also got nervous when she had to hand over the device. For example, during a dinner with her mother, the only person who realizes that her daughter’s life has come under the grip of her smartphone. Julia recalls how she became furious when her mother demanded that the device be put away for a while.
Shortly after the accident, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. She is hospitalized and Julia moves in with her half-sister. This is how she fell the last bit of control over her addiction. To avoid thinking about her mother’s illness, she constantly took to TikTok and Instagram. She hid her gloom from the outside world thanks to photo filters. She attempted suicide at the age of thirteen. “For the first time in months I felt real feelings again and cried.”
In the months that followed, her mother’s condition improved. She returns home. The first thing she did was delete all social media and photo filter software from her daughter’s phone. Julia brought them back without any problem. “When we went out to dinner or a day at the amusement park, all I would do was take pictures. We couldn’t be away for long, because my phone’s battery was about to die. At some point it stopped going out at all.” Until now, Julia could hardly function without her phone nearby. “I felt sick, I had panic attacks.”
Constantly looking for connection
Regina van den Eijnden is a researcher at Utrecht University who specializes in the psychological and social consequences of addiction to social media. She says that school performance is often the first to deteriorate among addicted youth. “It affects your ability to focus. Excessive use makes it more difficult to process and reproduce information.”
In the long run, addiction can lead to more symptoms of melancholy and depression. Young people isolate themselves and do not meet in real life. But they need a social connection, so they try to make up online for what they lack in physical life.
Professor of Behavioral Sciences Ari Dijkstra (University of Groningen) believes that the mental burden caused by excessive use of social media is severe, because users are always looking for social contact – and this motivation is linked to psychological complaints. “It takes a lot of energy for the brain. If you don’t have a connection for a while, you can feel empty. That’s why addiction is often associated with depression and feelings of loneliness.” In addition, addiction can have physical consequences, such as muscle and joint complaints.
Van den Eijnden believes that there is addiction if a person has used a substance “for a long time and often out of control and cannot stop” and that has “negative consequences for well-being or social functioning, for school, work or social contacts”.
The quadrennial Health Behavior Survey in School-age Children (HBSC), which measures the well-being and health of young people, shows that 4 percent of Dutch primary school students use social media in a problematic way and display addictive characteristics. . In secondary education, the percentage is one percentage point higher. About 40 percent of primary and secondary school students say they use social media to distract themselves from unpleasant thoughts. Almost a third of high school students have tried to reduce the time they spend on apps, but have not been successful. This can lead to letting a sport or hobby get away or fighting with parents or other family members.
Prof. Dykstra: “Everyone has a need for a social connection. This need is met with a single click – technology fits easily. In addition, social media is very easily available. This structure makes applications more susceptible to addiction.”
Socially vulnerable youth, among others, “who feel they have to fight to fit in,” says researcher Van den Eijnden, are prone to addiction to social media. Julia seems to belong to that group. In three years, she skipped several high schools because she was repeating and getting along with her classmates. Although she is talented, she is almost exclusively a failure. Her life was confined to the screen, where her eyes were almost permanently fixed. When she noticed that she could no longer function physically without a phone, she admitted that she was addicted.
A month after her 14th birthday, she handed in her phone and underwent addiction treatment at the Yes We Can clinics in Hilvarenbeek. Young people addicted to alcohol, drugs, food, games and gambling are also treated. They all have to hand over their phones at the front. This year, more than seven hundred young people were reported to have a game or addiction to social media or the screen in Hilvarenbeek. From 2017, the number is increasing steadily. Girls in particular are affected by social media addiction. In Corona years 2020 and 2021, the number of women between the ages of 13 and 23 with such an addiction in the clinic doubled.
Treatment in the clinic lasts seven or ten weeks. Young people do not leave the site during that period. They hand over their phones when they arrive, don’t watch TV or other media, don’t drink alcohol and follow a program that includes group sessions, sports activities and an individual track.
“With alcohol, cocaine or gambling addictions, we know that it is effective to stop completely. But with social media it is very difficult in practice, ”says founder and director Jan Willem Bot of Yes We Can Clinics. “Our society is built in such a way that you need a phone.”
In the Netherlands, many clinics treat addiction to social media. Exact numbers are missing, because the World Health Organization (WHO) does not recognize addiction as such. Because excessive phone use is often linked to other mental illnesses, insurance companies cover the treatment methods.
Many experts believe the World Health Organization should classify social media addiction as a mental illness, as the organization did in 2018 for gaming addiction. The World Health Organization believes that social media is not yet an official addiction, because there is still uncertainty about the health effects. By viewing this as an addiction, “we’re creating significant risks of disease in normal behavior,” said a spokesperson.
It is no longer a secret that technology aims to hold the user’s attention for as long as possible. Apple founder Steve Jobs banned his kids from using the iPad – tablets were hitting stores at the time. Ayoub’s successor, Tim Cook, did not allow his 14-year-old nephew to use social media, knowing its addictive nature.
When you receive a notification of a new like, comment, retweet, message, or new follower, dopamine is released in the brain. This substance has a beneficial effect and gives a feeling of satisfaction. In addition, platforms compete for attention by basing content on personal relevance: those who watch a cooking film longer than average will almost immediately receive several culinary movie suggestions. Without requiring any effort, the user can keep scrolling indefinitely.
These aspects allowed Julia to stop her dark thoughts through social media. During her treatment, she learned that there are other ways to do this and made physical contact with her peers for the first time in years. After ten weeks without a phone, she’s back to her old life. Her personal files have been deleted.
At school, she succeeds “for the first time in years”. She felt a sense of pride that reminded her of her similar dose of dopamine. But she swears by the smartphone in the meantime. I got a Nokia and then I listened to music on my iPod. When I started studying it years later, I took out a smartphone again, just for practical matters. An IT professional has modified the device in such a way that it can no longer access TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram apps. WhatsApp and Spotify were allowed to use them. She also spent a maximum of four hours a day in front of a screen. Between 9:30 in the evening and 6:30 in the morning, the smartphone turned itself off automatically.
Despite all the obstacles, Julia still finds herself falling back into old habits. She constantly changed her profile picture on WhatsApp and shared daily experiences or music with others. After a few months, she returned the device. “And then I came to the conclusion that a smartphone is not for me.”