When you’re in a public space, chances are you – or someone next to you – is scrolling through their social media feed. Whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or YouTube, use of social media is so commonplace it’s practically instinctual. According to Pew Research, 51 percent of U.S. adults visit Facebook several times a day, followed closely by Snapchat (49 percent) and Instagram (39 percent). In surveying people between the ages of 18 and 24, over half said it would be difficult to give up social media.
To many, these statistics won’t come as a surprise. In the last decade alone, mobile devices have transformed into a necessity for social connection and communication, oftentimes through social channels. But, is social media as helpful as we think? According to Dr. Shannon Hanrahan, a licensed marriage and family therapist and psychologist with over 25 years of experience, the answer is not completely black and white: “A lot of evidence suggests that, like anything, social media is simultaneously a positive and a negative. It’s good to feel connected, like you’re a part of a larger whole, but then you can cross over that imaginary boundary line where now you’ve gone way too far and you’re doing yourself a disservice.” While social media can improve social interaction, it can also become a crutch for people who struggle with face-to-face communication, creating what Hanrahan calls “a negative feedback loop.” In this situation, people who use social media as an alternative to direct communication may end up worsening their condition by depriving themselves of necessary learning opportunities.
In addition to hindering interpersonal communication, social media can also drive disordered behaviors, such as Alcohol Use Disorder. This development can prove especially harmful for people in the 18 to 30-year-old old age range who most frequently use social media and possibly perceive it as a form of validation. “Social media has this evaluative process of trying to seek more friends and more likes,” says Hanrahan, “So, imagine a college student posts a picture of themselves getting drunk and gets a ton of likes – it’s normalizing that behavior. Other students may observe this and increase their alcohol use because it’s validated on social media and looks appropriate.” Hanrahan also notes that the idealized images portrayed in social media can exacerbate feelings of depression, worthlessness, low self-esteem and anxiety: “If you’re drinking as self-medication and using social media as self-medication because they both give you an altered mind state, you’re more likely to increase your drinking – because you’re looking at pictures that condone drinking behavior, you’re already isolated and you’re trying to manage emotions.”
Even though the gesture of taking out a phone and scrolling through social profiles seems innocuous, this frequent, automatic behavior can actually evolve into a coping mechanism to deal with stress, anxiety and depression. Hanrahan mentions that many people fail to recognize this pattern in relation to substance abuse, as it is hardly noticeable: “Looking at social media and spacing out – it feels very benign and unimportant; at the worst, a waste of time,” she says, “People don’t realize that it’s often a tool they are using to try and manage the anxiety that’s kind of percolating inside.”
So, when all signs point to a relationship between Alcohol Use Disorder and social media, how can Addiction Treatment professionals intervene in a positive and productive way? First, Hanrahan recommends limiting social media use to no more than 30 minutes per day. If the client chooses to go on social media, they should be viewing content that supports a healthy, recovery focused lifestyle. “If you’re going to be on social media, you need to go to really targeted places where you’re seeing the mediational people, the mindfulness people, the exercise people, the people who are endorsing behaviors that fit your treatment versus feed your addictions,” she notes.
Next, Hanrahan recommends using Soberlink to paint an honest picture of a client’s alcohol use. Soberlink combines portable alcohol testing with automated reporting to support accountability for sobriety. “No one’s going to change a behavior if they don’t recognize that it’s a problem,” she says, “So, from a motivational interviewing perspective, I use Soberlink as an opportunity to just provide clients with data.” Once the client has acknowledged their behavior, they can use Soberlink as a support system when faced with triggers, like alcohol-related content on social media. “The whole point of the monitoring is to cause pause and give them a second to think before they make a decision,” Hanrahan explains, “if social media is the trigger, Soberlink is the tool they have to cause pause and, ideally, give them the chance to call a sponsor, call a support person, call their therapist and make a different choice.”
From assisting in intervention to helping clients come to terms with their alcohol use, Soberlink supports long-term recovery and relapse prevention on multiple levels. Learn how you can incorporate Soberlink into your clients’ alcohol recovery plan.