Does Social Media Impact Substance Abuse

Does Social Media Impact Substance Abuse?

Social media has taken the world by storm, such that many people spend their days checking their social media accounts every few minutes. There is some evidence that social media might impact the frequency of substance use problems, especially among youth. In this article, we explore the impact of social media on substance abuse.

We also recognize the similarities between social media use and substance abuse. In serious cases, social media can become an addiction itself. Understanding the similarities between social media overuse and other forms of behavioral addiction can be useful for anyone hoping to understand the link between social media and substance abuse.


The Social Media Loop: A Form of Addiction 

Social media use functions, in many ways, like an addiction.

Addictions, whether they are to drugs, alcohol, or behaviors like sex or gambling, trigger a response in the brain. The area affected by all manner of addictions is known as the reward pathway, a certain part of the brain that is involved in reward stimuli.

In healthy individuals, the reward pathway is activated when we accomplish behaviors that are beneficial to our health and survival. Activities like having sex, eating healthy food, and exercising all trigger a cascade response in the reward pathway.

These positive feelings can be activated by other things, as well. Two of the most common things that can activate the reward pathway are drug use and social media. Both of these things provide the illusion of reward, allowing people to feel good without having to do much.

People who struggle with addictions tend to have a dysfunctional reward pathway. Rather than seeking pleasure from ordinary activities, they instead receive gratification from repeating their addictive behaviors.

This is why they are addicting. They trigger a response in the same neural pathway that is responsible for telling us that our activities are beneficial for our survival. Unfortunately, the reality is that rampant social media use is not good for our survival and may actually contribute to other problems like drug use.


How Social Media Can Impact Substance Abuse

There are a number of ways that social media use can impact substance abuse. Social media can expose people to drugs or alcohol. Social media addiction can also contribute to feelings of sadness, depression, and social isolation which can all lead to an increase in substance use.

Exposure to Drug and Alcohol

Social media allows people to share their daily experiences with others on an online platform. While some people may use this to showcase wholesome activity such as hiking or fishing, others choose to share videos, messages, and images of themselves drinking or using drugs.

This is common among everyday people as well as celebrities. Celebrities often have social media followings that include hundreds of thousands of people. When celebrities like Justin Bieber or Drake post videos or pictures of themselves drinking and drugging, these images reach thousands of youth within seconds.

People who venerate these celebrities may, then, decide to imitate them. Youth tend to take after the actions of their elders, whether they are teachers, parents, or celebrities. If these people are regularly engaging in substance abuse then the younger individuals may begin to think that this sort of behavior is acceptable.

This can be seen by looking at the use of marijuana among teenagers who listen to music with drug-themed lyrics. Teens who are not exposed to such lyrics are less likely to smoke marijuana when compared to those who listen to such music on a regular basis.

Comparing Yourself to Others

Another issue that is common among regular users of social media is comparing yourself to others.

People often share pictures or videos of themselves when they are at their best. On the other hand, many people are scrolling through social media websites when they are at home. This can make it easy for them to compare themselves to others. 

If someone is constantly exposed to images of people who are living their best lives, they may begin to feel down on themselves for taking time to relax, recharge, or stay home. These unwanted feelings may increase the likelihood of them choosing to use substances in order to feel good.

Furthermore, if someone is constantly exposed to images of peers who are regularly drinking or using drugs, they may start to consider engaging in these activities themselves. Since people tend to post only the positive moments on social media (for example, having a rowdy victory after winning a bar game with some friends) rather than the negative moments (such as the subsequent hangover, nausea, and vomiting), they paint a biased picture regarding the truth of these matters.

Social media comparisons can cause a number of problems. For example, young women who are regularly exposed to images of the ‘ideal thin woman’ are more likely to develop eating disorders.

Contributing to Depression and Anxiety

Social media is also widely acknowledged as something that contributes to depression and anxiety. Depression and anxiety are among the leading causes of addiction and this remains true when the conditions are caused by social media use.

There are a number of ways that social media can fuel depression and anxiety.

Feelings of Inadequacy

Many people are exposed to images on social media that have been digitally altered. Even though these images may not represent reality, it is still easy to become discouraged when constantly faced with such images. 


Fear of missing out, also known as FOMO, occurs when someone becomes afraid that they’re missing out on fun activities. The advent of social media has led to FOMO being a more common occurrence than ever before.

Constantly feeling like you’re missing out on bonding experiences with friends can impact your self esteem. This can aggravate or contribute to anxiety and depression, and can further fuel the need to use social media in an effort to alleviate these unwanted feelings. 

Feelings of Isolation

Studies have revealed that regular usage of social media actually increases feelings of loneliness and isolation. Both of these issues are known to contribute to depression and anxiety, both of which can lead to substance abuse problems.


Another factor that can contribute to depression and anxiety is known as cyberbullying. Cyberbullying takes place in the form of abusive messages, images, or posts directed at an individual. Cyberbullying affects close to ten percent of teenagers who use social media and has a number of the same effects that in-person bullying can have such as increased anxiety and depression.

Treatment for Social Media Addiction & Substance Abuse

If you or a loved one are struggling with a social media addiction or a substance abuse problem, it’s worthwhile to seek help. Both of these issues can be treated with the appropriate program. However, as they are different types of problems, you may need to seek treatment at a specialized facility.

Social media addiction is known as a process addiction or behavioral addiction. A process addiction is an addiction to a certain activity which produces a positive feeling or helps to mask unpleasant feelings. 

Substance addiction is, in many ways, similar to process addictions. However, substance abuse also carries the risk of physical addiction, dependence, and withdrawal symptoms. These factors can increase the resources needed to treat the addiction.

Treatment for Social Media Addiction

When treating a social media addiction, your primary concern will be figuring out what is driving your social media use. There are a number of things that could be involved, including:


Many people use social media continually because they want to stay connected with others and they are afraid of missing out of exciting activities. You may also consistently return to your social media account for fear of missing out on important posts, updates, or memes.

Underlying Mental Health Problems

Many people turn to social media because it offers a quick hit of dopamine. If you’re struggling to produce a healthy amount of dopamine on your own, or if you’re using social media as a ‘safety blanket’ to keep yourself feeling uplifted, then this might indicate that you’re struggling with some sort of other mental health problem.

Take time to consider your usage habits. Do you use social media more frequently when you’re feeling upset or lonely? This could be an indication that your social media use is a coping mechanism to help you avoid dealing with difficult emotions.

Psychological Addiction

Many people become addicted to social media even if they don’t have any prior mental health problems. Scrolling through social media apps allows people to experience a rapid succession of images that may trigger positive feelings in the brain by releasing dopamine.

When done to excess, this can create a psychological addiction. In serious cases this can damage the brain’s reward pathway in the same way that an addiction to gambling or sex might do. 

Treatment for Substance Abuse

If you have begun to use drugs or alcohol as a result of your social media, the first thing you should do is decrease your social media use. The next step is to address the underlying causes of your social media use.

Substance abuse treatment may require additional work when compared to treating a social media addiction.

  • Detox. If you have become addicted to opiates, benzodiazepines, alcohol, or another drug that can cause dependence, you may need to go through a detox program. Detox programs enable you to push through the difficult withdrawal period with the assistance of trained medical professionals.

  • Group meetings. You may be asked to participate in group meetings during your addiction treatment. These meetings allow you to engage with other drug users who may have had similar experiences to you. By sharing your experience and stories you’ll be able to learn how to manage your addiction and any future cravings.

  • Therapy. While you may be given therapy when treating a social media addiction, you will certainly receive therapy when treating substance addiction. During therapy you will learn tools, tricks and techniques to help you avoid relapse and to learn how to manage cravings. 



Social media use can be problematic when taken to extremes. Social media use can contribute to problems like anxiety and depression which can, in turn, increase the chances of teens developing substance abuse problems. Social media may also expose teens to drug or alcohol use.

Fortunately, there are options for treating social media and substance addictions. These treatments involve assessing the underlying causes of each addiction and helping the individual learn how to cope with these problems on their own.

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