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Unhealthy social-media habits? Blame your early childhood experiences


Mental-health professionals and researchers who study social media’s impact on teens and young adults have long wondered why some develop unhealthy relationships with social media while others don’t.

An emerging body of research suggests that bonds formed with caregivers early in life shape online interactions along with real-life ones. People with the hardest time regulating social-media use also tend to be those who didn’t form trusting bonds early in life, recent studies have found.

“If you can’t connect with the person you really need connection from, social media offers a substitute," said Phil Reed, chair of the psychology department at Swansea University in Wales, who summarized the latest research in a recent article.

However, social media can’t fully replace deeper relationships, he said. “You’re feeling anxious and lonely and you think social media is going to help, but it doesn’t, so you feel worse, and you use social media more," he said.

The cycle is easy to fall into, regardless of childhood experiences. Such was the case for women I interviewed who said social media exacerbated their loneliness during the pandemic. It also could explain social-media giant Meta Platforms Inc.’s own internal finding, published by The Wall Street Journal last fall, that said Instagram was harmful to the mental health of a sizable percentage of young users, mostly teen girls.

There is help for people who feel caught, however, and below are some options (as well as a quiz to learn where you stand when it comes to attachment issues).

Anxious or avoidant?

For many young people, social-media overuse goes deeper than turning to Instagram when feeling lonely, said Adela Chen, an associate professor in computer information systems at Colorado State University, whose study on the connection between early bonds and later social-media use was published in the journal “Computers in Human Behavior."

“People who have low self-worth in relationships tend to be vigilant for signs of abandonment and rejection, and seek approval and reassurance from others," she said. The validation found on social media—in the form of follower and like counts—can provide an illusion of connection and approval, she said.

This new research is rooted in attachment theory, a psychological concept developed in the late 1950s by a psychoanalyst and a developmental psychologist. Attachment theory seeks to explain how early experiences shape the way people approach interpersonal relationships. In order for healthy social and emotional development to take place, the theory goes, very young children need to establish a strong relationship with a primary caregiver with whom they feel safe.

If a parent or other main caregiver is consistently sensitive and responsive to children’s emotional needs, appearing when they cry or comforting them when they are scared, the children are more likely to form a secure attachment. That sets them up to be self-confident, to regulate their emotions, to cope with stress, and to go on to form close, healthy relationships with friends and romantic partners, according to psychologists.

In cases where children don’t form secure attachments, the outcomes later in life can vary. Some children can become anxious and seek closeness and approval from their parents and, later in life, from friends and partners. Others have an opposite reaction, growing into distrustful and excessively self-reliant adults.

Psychologists say one’s attachment style is established by the age of 2, but it can be altered—for better or worse—by later life experiences.

Where do you fall?

Dr. Chen conducted a study of more than 300 college students who use Facebook every day, assessing both their attachment style and their social-media habits. She asked them how much they agree or disagree with statements such as “I sometimes neglect important things because of my interest in Facebook" and “I have made unsuccessful attempts to reduce the time I spend on Facebook."

The students who said they had the most difficulty managing their social-media use also scored highest on the anxious attachment spectrum.

Psychologists at Ozyegin University in Turkey came to the same conclusion after their own study of college students. They also assessed the students’ parents and found that parents’ attachment anxiety might indirectly contribute to their kids’ compulsive social-media use.

If you’re curious about where you fall on the attachment spectrum, take this quiz, developed by University of Illinois psychology professor R. Chris Fraley and his colleagues.

Focused mainly on romantic relationships, it asks you how you agree or disagree with statements such as “I feel comfortable sharing my private thoughts and feelings with my partner" and “I often worry that my partner doesn’t really love me."

What you can do

We can’t go back and change the way we were treated as young children. That doesn’t mean our social-media habits are fixed, though, or that we’ve ruined our kids if their early childhoods weren’t perfect. Psychologists offer the following advice.

For people who want to change their social-media habits: Experts say the best way to break one’s reliance on social media for connection is to seek meaningful in-person relationships. For tips on that, read this column.

Seeing a therapist might also help people understand their online behavior and figure out ways to change it. The American Psychological Association has a psychologist locator tool (and the Journal has a guide to finding one who accepts insurance).

Making a plan to step away from social media also can help, digital-health experts say. That plan should include specific activities, such as spending time outside or taking classes to fill time previously spent on social media.

For new parents: “The biggest enemy of parenting is stress," said Swansea University’s Dr. Reed. “Quality time with your children when you can be highly responsive to your child’s needs is better than low-level, halfhearted parenting 24/7."

Doing that requires having a partner or other support system in place, such as having your child’s grandparents nearby, to give yourself time to recharge. Dr. Reed also advises parents to stay off their phones as much as possible around their young children, to let them know that when you’re there, you’re really there.

For parents of older children: If you worry that you weren’t responsive enough to your children’s needs when they were very young, you may be able to help older children feel secure, said Gizem Arikan, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Ozyegin University, and one of the authors of its study. She recommends an intervention program for families called Circle of Security International. You can search for trained professionals on its website.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers age-segmented tips on how to make children feel secure.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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