Social media can become an addiction, but you can break free

For some people, social media abuse is downright destructive.
For some people, social media abuse is downright destructive.
Published July 25, 2013

TAMPA — Kate Sawa, an executive with a national nonprofit, realized she had a problem when her newborn's middle-of-the-night feedings also became an opportunity to check Twitter.

For public relations executive Lizz Harmon, the light-bulb moment came one evening when she and her husband were engrossed in their smartphones, sitting together yet ignoring each other.

Meredyth Censullo, the morning traffic reporter at WFTS-Ch. 28, is constantly updating her Twitter followers, even at home with her husband and daughter.

"I realize I have to make sure my family isn't ignored,'' she admits. "But I feel that magnetic pull,'' she says.

Teens figure out fast when getting and sending out updates and photos on social media is dominating their lives: Grades drop and parents lecture.

But digital distraction also is a problem for adults who find that work obligations spill into home life, and virtual relationships crowd the real ones.

For some people social media abuse is downright destructive. Consider disgraced New York City mayoral candidate and former congressman Anthony Weiner, who this week admitted he had again been sending sexually explicit texts and photos to a woman he met online.

And as his case shows, social media sites are just one form of digital communication that can become all consuming. Texting, emailing, instant messaging and online games can be just as tough to manage.

Some experts even say the need to communicate digitally can escalate into a true addiction.

"Addiction doesn't have to involve a substance or a drug," said Dr. Michael Bengtson, professor and chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of South Florida's Morsani College of Medicine. "It can be a behavioral addiction, like gambling. That's where social media seems to fit in."

Like gambling, interacting on social media activates the part of the brain involved with rewards, Bengtson said. Just as gamblers get a rush of good feelings when they win, a social media junkie feels gratification when their Facebook posts get lots of "likes,'' when their Twitter followers multiply, and when their Instagram photos are big hits.

The repeated, positive reinforcement can turn an occasional user into a constantly connected fanatic who neglects normal human contact.

"The addiction may not be as destructive as alcohol or drugs, but it can be destructive to your personal relationships and in your professional life if it interferes with your job," said Kelli Burns, a mass communications professor and social media researcher at USF.

Social media became even more addictive when it made the leap from clunky old desktop computer to phones and tablets.

"When you have that on your cellphone," said Burns, "you are carrying the connection to social media with you at all times."

Who hasn't seen couples in restaurants with at least one and possibly both of them staring at a phone, thumbs typing wildly?

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• • •

For a lot of people, using social media is a work requirement that spills into off-duty time. Calling it a work obligation can make the habit easier to justify, but harder to break.

Complaints from others may alert you to the problem, but you need to get a grip on it for yourself, Bengtson said.

"Feeling like you always need to be connected is more about feeling like you need to be needed. Take a break. If you don't it's going to take a toll."

Here's how three local users managed to get a handle on their social media consumption before it consumed them.

Kate Sawa

Facebook allowed Sawa, executive director of the American Heart Association in Tampa Bay, to keep in touch with family and friends all at once, instead of through individual conversations and emails. Pinterest, a kind of electronic scrapbook, helps her design a dream kitchen, find creative Halloween costumes for her children and get new recipes for entertaining.

Twitter helped her stay in contact with heart association volunteers and staff members while keeping up with news and research developments. Tips, articles and professional connections on LinkedIn helped her grow as a manager.

But she knew she had to set limits in her previous job, handling the heart association's local public relations and digital media strategy for six states.

"There was so much content and I had to manage so many social platforms, which were constantly evolving, that I started to feel like I couldn't possibly keep up,'' she said. "It became draining. I had to figure out how much of this is helpful and how much of this is counterproductive."

Now she limits herself to checking sites a few times a day, rather than having them open all the time.

Lizz Harmon

The president and CEO of her own public relations firm in Tampa, Harmon realized she was spending three to six hours a day on social media, staying up until the small hours to make time for it. As she walked her neighborhood for fitness, she'd have her phone in hand, scanning Twitter.

"I'd be at the beach with my family and spend all this time taking pictures, getting the right shot, trying it from different angles, with different lighting, then writing the caption and spell-checking and posting everything (on Facebook) instead of talking with my family — just being at the beach and having a conversation. That made me set limits," she says.

Now she tries to keep it to 30 minutes a day on six sites she uses personally and professionally. Wait time at the doctor's office or in line at the grocery store are also okay for checking in; family time is not.

At restaurant meetings, her colleagues have started "phone stacking.''

"Everyone agrees to put their cellphone in a stack on the table and not touch it until after dinner,'' Harmon explained. "The first one to pick up a phone before we're through has to pick up the tab."

Meredyth Censullo

With just eight minutes a day of airtime on WFTS for traffic reports, Censullo knows that's not nearly enough for Tampa Bay's road warriors. So she checks her sources throughout the day and tweets updates to her 14,000-plus followers. Running errands, waiting in line, working out on the treadmill — it's all Twitter time for Censullo.

"There are times when I'm sitting with my husband and I get a tweet. Do I check it? Do I respond?'' she says of the constant struggle she faces.

"I've gotten the lecture from him more than once to let it go. I realize I have to make sure my family isn't ignored, but I feel that magnetic pull to check and respond."

Her solution: She had to close the laptop and put the cellphone in another room during designated family time.

"It does get to be like an addiction,'' she said. "It's freeing to put it away."

Irene Maher can be reached at