When recovering from a substance use disorder, there are triggers hiding behind every corner–scents, sounds, locations, people, holidays, and perhaps even your own cell phone.
Research about whether social media or the Internet are a type of behavioral addiction provides mixed results. Social media use is associated with depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem–but it can be difficult to tell whether this is because those with poor mental health are more likely to turn to social media for validation, or whether social media is causing those issues. Either way, it is crucial that users of social media do not replace one addiction with another.
Social Media and Substance Use — The Wrong Way
Almost all of us are on one social media platform these days (72%, according to the Pew Research Center), and as we interact with friends, family, coworkers, and brands, it can be difficult to separate our personal and professional lives–or to know whether we should.
That’s one of the biggest drawbacks to social media, according to David Brunskill. In his article on “The Dangers of Social Media for the Psyche” in the Journal of Current Issues in Media & Telecommunications, Brunskill talks about how we create online personas–avatars–in which we place our best foot forward. We lose privacy and authenticity in favor of likes and retweets, he says.
This can be a big problem when it comes to sobriety. Social media users may be likely to show off the parties and fun they’re having, while filtering out any acknowledgment of why they’re turning to substance use, or the painful aftermath–hangovers and worse.
Social Media and Substance Use — The Right Way
Eric, a friend of mine and the owner of Dr1ven Industries, has been turning to social media for over a year to get and give support to those dealing with mental health challenges, including addiction. He believes that while anything–including social media–can be toxic, “any support is better than no support.”
That support can help keep you accountable if you are unable to contact your sponsor. In addition, the distraction that social media provides can be a great reminder that, “it does get better, you can fight through it, and it’s only a temporary pain,” Eric says.
Sometimes this support will come from videos on YouTube or Tik Tok with messages of love and support. Sometimes rallying around a hashtag on Twitter or joining a Facebook group can enter you in a group chat with others that know what it’s like to fight addiction. And sometimes, you can have a one on one chat with someone in a similar situation that can offer a place to vent, or offer advice if you want them to.
Social media can also be a great place to find additional resources that you may not have heard about. Eric says that the process of recovery is all about trial and error, so the more resources one is exposed to, the better chance they’ll have at finding something that works for them.
Even if you only observe these conversations and never participate, you’ll take away a powerful message: that you are not alone in this fight, and there is always someone around you can talk to, even if it’s a total stranger.
The method Eric describes above is a form of digitizing empathy, in the words of Will Wright during his Ted Talk. Through his company Pack Health, Wright sends helpful text messages offering empathy, accountability, and support to those suffering with chronic illness.
Empathy is strongest when we are vulnerable with one another–and the act of sharing that you need help with a substance abuse disorder displays that vulnerability. Therefore, so long as users in a given social media community are acting authentically and empathetically, there is no reason why social media cannot replicate Wright’s results of offering support to those struggling.
Finally, social media can be a tool for helping others, as dictated in the Twelfth and final step of 12-Step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”
This is the work being done by Eric and others like him on social media. Sooner or later, you can transition from getting support via social media to giving it, thereby helping others the same way you’ve been helped.
When you’re recovering from a substance use disorder, there is a right and a wrong way to use social media. Done properly, however, social media can be a wonderful tool to receive and give support.