Does Social Media Help or Hinder Recovery?

Technology can be a double-edged sword. Some studies report the hazards of technology and cell phone use while others say social media makes people feel better. With recovery-oriented social media and addiction recovery apps growing, we spoke to David Sack, MD, who is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine and chief medical officer of Elements Behavioral Health, about the pros and cons to our love for social media.

Recent studies say social media can make people depressed and move them to drink, but can also make them feel positive and uplifted. What are your thoughts about social media?

Dr. Sack: There are ways to have meaningful relationships that are largely virtual, either because people activate memory circuits of things that they’ve experienced before or because they have Facebook relationships with friends or relatives that they grew up with. This may be enough to sustain that relationship and be as rewarding as if you spoke to them or saw them in person. But I’m not sure it’s easy to initiate new relationships virtually or maintain them long term. I also have not seen enough data to suggest we’re going to have more depressed people, more alcoholics or more heroin addicts because we have more cell phones or more social media access. The problem is deeper than social media.

Is social media too isolating to be healthy?

Dr. Sack: For some people, a virtual experience can meet many of the same needs as the actual face-to-face interaction. I think there are people for whom it will work, and people for whom it doesn’t work. And what we don’t really understand is who those people are and why it is helpful to some and not helpful to others. You can look at it this way: You wouldn’t have two billion people on Facebook if they weren’t feeling like it was meeting a need. On the other hand, if someone spends a lot of time on social media and finds they are getting triggered to use drugs or alcohol because they see photos of people with drinks in their hands, social media is not be the best place for them to spend time.

What about recovery apps and social media for treatment?

Dr. Sack: There are increasing numbers of organizations that are trying to tackle social media and addiction recovery apps by providing support and community to people who tend toward technology. They will attempt to provide monitoring for people. In some of these new apps they address things that are hard to do in person, such as get to therapy. For people in outpatient recovery programs, psychotherapy could work better if people could do it by telemedicine because they wouldn’t have to wait an hour driving from their home or their office and back. So they could focus on the treatment and not the time spent in transit. Or the app may be more focused on locating 12-step meetings and reminding someone when they are due to leave their current location so that they can get there on time.

Can social media and addiction recovery apps enhance recovery?

Dr. Sack: Researchers have been looking into whether a virtual interaction has the same power to motivate changes in our behavior as a personal interaction. There is some data that suggests that in some cases it works well and can get to the core of the therapeutic experience. There are a lot of modularized therapy programs that have been offered online and in apps, and studies say they can have a big effect. In my own experience, I don’t see people so easily moved when they’re not physically in your presence. But there’s certainly data that shows that both are possible.


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