The new movie Ingrid Goes West is a cautionary tale about what can happen when people take social media use to the next level. After her mother's death and a stint at a treatment center, Ingrid (played by Aubrey Plaza) becomes completely all-consumed with a filter-perfect Instagram influencer named Taylor Sloane (played by Elizabeth Olsen).
In one scene, Ingrid is sobbing on her bathroom floor because she overheard some of her ex-friends talking badly about her in a grocery store. There's a blue-glow reflected on her face as she compulsively refreshes her Instagram and double-taps at the speed of light. But then, she gets a reply from Taylor on Instagram, and suddenly she's not so upset, and she laughs giddily into her phone.
After that, Ingrid decides to move to the same city as Taylor, dyes her hair to match hers, visits her favorite restaurants, and even steals her dog just so she could interact with Taylor IRL. It's clearly beyond typical Instagram "follower" behavior. But it's still eerily realistic, and brings up an interesting question: Is it possible to be addicted to social media? Well, yes and no, but it's complicated.
Technically, "internet addiction" isn't in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the manual which lists all classifications of mental disorders, because it's too broad of a term, explains Kimberly Young, PsyD, clinical director for the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery. There are too many ways that people use the internet for clinicians to diagnose a blanket "internet addiction," Dr. Young says. For example, you could be addicted to online gambling, watching porn, shopping, or playing games, but those are all very different activities that trigger different responses, and would require unique treatment plans.
That said, "internet gaming disorder" is listed in the DSM as a "condition for further study," Dr. Young says. This is partially because there has been lots of research about the condition in other countries (like China and Korea) where gaming seems to be the heaviest or most dramatic type of internet addiction, she says. "That was a good thing that happened, because the fact that we were even looking at this gave internet disorders credibility," she says.
In time, Dr. Young believes that internet addiction will be classified as its own category, but there's still a lot of research needed before that happens. So, will social media addiction end up being an actual disorder under the umbrella of internet addiction? Probably not, Dr. Young says. "It's one of the least problematic areas in terms of addiction," she says. However, she says that social media obsession, rather than addiction, seems to be more common.
Many people who lack validation or companionship in the real world will use social media obsessively as a way to distract themselves from their reality.
Kimberly Young, PsyD
And that distinction — between addiction and obsession — is key, since there's a difference between being addicted to social media and being obsessed with it, says Larry Rosen, PhD, a research psychologist who explores our relationship with technology. If you get pleasure out of checking Instagram often, and keep checking in because it makes you feel good, then that could be considered a sign of an addiction, Dr. Rosen says. But if you like to check Instagram frequently because you're stressed that you might miss a post, then that'd be more of an obsession, he says. "The difference is biochemical: In an addiction, your brain is striving to get certain chemicals, like dopamine or serotonin," he says. But if you're obsessed, thinking about checking in signals anxiety chemicals in your brain, like cortisol and adrenaline. "So the act of checking in reduces anxiety," Dr. Rosen says.
It might be quippy to say that you're "addicted" to your Instagram, but that's not really a term that you should throw around so casually, Dr. Young says. "What's important diagnostically is to separate productive use from non-productive use," she says. A person who is truly addicted to social media would post all the time and not be able to tell the difference between an appropriate post and an inappropriate one, and would be on social media whenever they have free time, she says. They might use social media as a distraction or a way to escape their problems, and would get upset if they couldn't use it for some reason.
Simply having access to a phone or social media can create problems or lead to obsessive behaviors, Dr. Young says. According to a 2014 Pew survey, almost half (49%) of Instagram users check the app daily, and 32% say they go on Instagram several times a day. And considering how much social media apps have improved (and become much more engaging) in that time, you can guess that, today, the number is much higher.
Many people might feel like they have to check social media in order to keep up with their friends, which can lead to self-esteem issues or depression, Dr. Young says. "It's the same kind of issues that happen in real life, they're just exponentiated online," she says. In Ingrid Goes West, Ingrid spends a lot of time creating an Instagram-facade of her new and improved life, while in reality she was reeling because her old friends had abandoned her. Many people who lack validation or companionship in the real world will use social media obsessively as a way to distract themselves from their reality, Dr. Young says.
The good news is that both social media addiction and obsession can be treatable, Dr. Young says. If you're concerned that your internet habits are out of control, Dr. Young has a few quizzes that you can take (online). Or if you think you are struggling with addiction, you can contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to find a treatment center near you. "Most addictions don't exist in a vacuum," Dr. Young says, so it's often a matter of treating the underlying issues that are contributing to the obsession through cognitive behavioral therapy. "Are these people depressed, socially anxious, or are there other psychiatric illnesses that need to be treated appropriately?"
Whether you identify with Ingrid or are proudly anti-social media, it's important to remember that the internet can be pleasurable and not addictive, Dr. Rosen says. Balance is important, so unplugging every now and then, or putting down your phone — even if it means missing online articles like this one — is more valuable than you might think.