The Pew Research Center estimates that nearly 79% of adults who are active online use Facebook1, and from the looks of it, they’re all having a ton of fun.
It’s no secret that we post the best of ourselves on social media. We take 25 selfies just to find that one flattering shot, and while you’ll see lots of photos from the party last night, you won’t see any of the hangover the next morning. Whether it’s our families, our careers, or our personal lives, social media over-glamorizes everything – including substance use, and research is beginning to show how that over-glamorization can have an impact on sobriety, particularly when it comes to teens.
An annual survey on National Attitudes about Substance Use conducted by CASA2 found that nearly three-quarters of teenagers who saw social media posts of other teens partying were more inclined to do the same, with half of them believing the partiers in the photos were having a good time. Even more alarming, teens that saw online photos of drug or alcohol use were between three and four times more likely to have tried drugs or alcohol themselves.
While it’s clear that teens can be easily influenced by social media posts involving drug and alcohol use, it’s less clear how social media affects those who are in recovery from substance use disorders. In 2014, the National Institute of Health offered research grants in an effort to "understand health-related social media interactions and their role in shaping attitudes about behaviors and health."3 Research is ongoing, but it seems that as with all aspects of addiction, treatment, and recovery, the effect depends upon the individual. Each addiction is unique, so each recovery plan needs to be unique, too. For some, social media might be a road to relapse, but for others, it can be a lifeline that helps them stay sober.
One of the big dangers of social media for a person with addiction is that posts or photos may activate “triggers” that make a sober person want to start using drugs or alcohol again. To avoid relapse, people in recovery are encouraged to avoid triggers, which can include everything from physical places where a person used drugs or alcohol, to the people with whom they would drink or get high, to emotions and feelings like fear or loneliness4. Social media may be unedited, unverified, and uncensored, and a person in recovery may be exposed to a range of potential triggers, including:
• An unrealistic portrayal of drug and alcohol use as glamorous or sexy
• Posts that emphasize the “fun” of getting drunk or high while ignoring the consequences
• Cyber-bullies who perpetuate the stigma of substance use disorder by suggesting it’s a weakness instead of an actual disease
• Attitudes that minimize the importance of recovery and downplay the dangers of addiction
• Incorrect information that can lead to relapse
• Brain stimulation that mimics the “rewards” aspect of substance use addiction through a behavioral addiction to social media
• Comparisons with others (real or fake) that makes their own progress seem insignificant
• Photos or comments from friends that create fear of missing out (FOMO)
These are just some of the potential risks social media can present, and exposure to any of them can be harmful to a person in recovery’s efforts to stay sober – particularly during the early stages. Studies have shown that the first 90 days are critical to a person in recovery’s success.5 During this time when relapse risk is high, seeing friends partying or reading a fake information post (i.e.- drinking apple cider vinegar will prevent addiction so it’s safe to use) may influence someone who’s already very vulnerable to resume drug or alcohol use.
Of course, there are two sides to every coin, and there are also circumstances in which social media can be a powerful tool in helping someone to stay in recovery. The internet can be an informative resource, with sites like SAMHSA, NIDA, and Shatterproof providing education on and support for addiction. Social media might be particularly beneficial to someone in recovery by:
• Presenting credible information and resources from reliable sources like SAMHSA or NIDA
• Providing support group access to those in rural areas without many treatment facilities
• Increasing anonymity for those likely to be stigmatized or who want additional privacy
• Presenting real-world reviews of treatment providers and facilities
• Creating a community of supportive individuals who’ve had similar experiences and have similar goals
• Connecting those with specialized circumstances to others with whom they might not have access (like single moms in recovery or transgender recovery groups)
• Providing information about cutting-edge treatments or new scientific research regarding recovery
At its heart, social media is about connection, and these are just some of the opportunities for a person in recovery to create connections that support sobriety. By devising a strategy to minimize the risks and maximize the benefits, social media has the potential to be a powerful tool for helping you stay substance-free.
As mentioned, there isn’t much research available about social media and sobriety, but one study conducted about the uses of social media to sustain sobriety by Fielding Graduate University suggests that combining social media support with face-to-face groups like Alcohol Anonymous may be most beneficial.6 In surveys, participants self-reported preferring face-to-face support groups like AA, but they also reported being more honest about how long they’ve been sober in online groups. Participants also said they still attended face-to-face meetings while participating in online support groups, so combining online sober groups with face-to-face meetings as part of a recovery plan may offer the best of both worlds.
When it comes to recovery, there is no one size fits all. It’s important to work with a healthcare professional or treatment team to discuss the pros and cons of social media to fully understand how it can impact recovery and then create a strategy. Whether you decide to block it out altogether or to incorporate certain aspects that can help you stay sober, there is no right answer – there’s only the answer that’s right for your recovery. And don’t worry: You can always adjust your strategy down the road to ensure you’re using (or not using) social media in whichever way will help you to stay sober and substance-free.