Want to Treat Your Social Media Addiction? Text a Therapist

Want to Treat Your Social Media Addiction? Text a Therapist
Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

Around 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. personally experience mental illness in a given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Of them, a mere 41% of them received mental health treatment in the past year. 

There are a number of barriers preventing Americans from getting help — among them, cost, insurance coverage and lingering social stigma. 

A service called Talkspace is aiming to eliminate those barriers — and since launching in 2012, it's certainly been lowering them. The app, which lets you talk to therapists via text, photo, audio and video messages, now has more than 200,000 users — and that number is continuing to grow, according to co-founder Roni Frank.

"We are scaling like crazy," she told Mic, noting that around a year ago, its user base was down around 30,000 or 40,000. "It's a huge growth."

How a Talkspace therapist might communicate with a client.
Source: Talkspace

Using Talkspace is nothing like your standard trip to the therapist's office. Once you sign up, you're matched, based on your individual mental health needs and time zone, to one of Talkspace's hundreds of licensed therapists. Then, through your phone, you and your assigned therapist can message each other asynchronously — in other words, not in real time, but at your own convenience. It's like therapy on the go — there's no need to book appointments or sit in waiting rooms reading outdated magazines.

Talkspace is also more affordable. Face-to-face therapy can cost more than $100 per session for people who don't have insurance, or whose therapists don't accept insurance. Talkspace doesn't currently accept insurance, but it charges $49 for a single week of unlimited messaging, with a lower weekly price for customers who sign up for monthly, quarterly or yearly packages. 

The company's also crushing stigma by staging various public stunts to let people know it's OK to seek treatment for mental health issues. In November 2014, Talkspace set up see-through domes in New York City's Madison Square Park and invited people to step inside and text a therapist — in full view of passersby.

"By installing transparent domes, we want to say there's nothing to be ashamed of," Frank told this reporter in a 2014 interview for the New York Observer.

Another public stunt highlighted the links between social media and mental health.
Source: Talkspace

Talkspace is helping millennials get over their social media addictions. Modernizing therapy also means addressing uniquely 21st-century mental health issues. In the fall of 2015, Talkspace launched its Social Media Dependency Program, a 12-week program helping people use social media in healthier ways. 

Frank got the idea for the program after noticing her own habits while on an RV trip with her family. They didn't have connection for two or three days, and Frank said she "started to freak out. I just couldn't bear not being connected," she recalled.

"Instead of being engaged with what was going on [and] my kids, I was looking for connection all the time," she said.

"Everybody is, in a way, competing with everybody, and you're getting feedback 24/7. It never stops."

A GlobalWebIndex poll of 170,000 internet users aged 16 to 64 found that people spent an average of 6.15 hours a day online in 2014. Around 30% of that time was spent on social networking sites — an average of 1.72 hours a day. (Millennials spend as many as 18 hours a day using social media, according to a 2014 study.)

Research has shown links between social media use and mental illness. One recent study of 467 teenagers found the pressure to be available on social media at all hours of the day causes anxiety and depression. Another found a link between Facebook use and poor body image. Yet another found a link between "social comparison" on Facebook and depressive symptoms. 

In the world before social media, people would compete with their schoolmates, their friends — people who were close to them geographically, Frank explained. "Now people compete with the whole world," she said. "Everybody is, in a way, competing with everybody, and you're getting feedback 24/7. It never stops. You can log on at 4 a.m. and continue this kind of feedback — this cycle of posting and needing feedback." 

"It's not like alcohol [or] substance abuse, where you really know you're killing yourself," Frank said. But with social media addiction, "it's damaging your mental health, not your physical health. You kind of think it's OK because everybody's doing it, but you don't understand how damaging it is to your mental health."

Source: Talkspace

Here's how the program works: To start, a Talkspace therapist assesses the client's social media behavior — how many hours a day they're using it, how many sites they use, whether it's impacting their work or their relationships.

"Then what we see is people will report that they're not very happy with their social media use, but they're not going to stop either," Nicole Amesbury, a Talkspace therapist and the company's head of clinical development, told Mic. "They're kind of afraid to change anything."

Using cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, the therapist helps the client identify harmful patterns in the way they use social media and their way of thinking. "For example, logging onto Facebook and seeing how fabulous your friends are, and how you're not, isn't necessarily true, is it?" Amesbury said. "People are only posting things they want to show. They're not posting sitting alone eating a Swanson TV dinner."

Once a client identifies those patterns of behavior, they can work with their therapist to find out what keeps the cycle going. Often, examining unhealthy social media behavior leads to the unearthing of deeper problems. 

One of Amesbury's clients found she was very jealous of other people's posts. "Seeing them and their so-called perfect life was giving her really anxious feelings, whenever she would see someone's happy family and how great they were," Amesbury said. 

Eventually, they found the root cause: "She had lost her own mother when she was pretty young — in her teen years — and she had never really dealt with the grief," Amesbury told Mic. "She was seeing these posts of women with their moms on Mother's Day, and was just getting so emotional, but couldn't really put the pieces together."

"She was seeing these posts of women with their moms on Mother's Day, and was just getting so emotional, but couldn't really put the pieces together."

For a client who feels they spend too much mindless time scrolling through their feeds, his or her therapist might suggest they schedule one time each day to check social media. "If they're creeping or stalking an ex or whatever, you might try minimizing that a little bit," Amesbury said.

Amesbury asks clients what they would choose to do if they weren't surfing. Then, she suggests they make a list and display it wherever they typically "log on."

Talkspace doesn't encourage clients to go on so-called social media fasts. "What happens at the end of those 30 days?" Amesbury asked. "Usually people log back on and go full force and see what they missed." 

Instead, it's about learning to use social media in a way that supports mental health.

"What we're hoping is not to banish social media, but for people to use social media, and not have social media use them," Amesbury told Mic.

Source: Getty Images

So far, enrollment in the program has been slow. For "people that [have] addictions" — be it drugs, alcohol or social media — "this is like the toughest audience for us," Frank said. "When someone is addicted, they really prefer to live in denial."

Other people might know they have a mental health issue — such as poor body image — but not realize it's connected to their social media use. 

People might know they have a mental health issue but not realize it's connected to their social media use. 

And because millennials, for the most part, have grown up with the internet, they're less likely to see their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram use as an addiction, Frank said. 

Frank knew it would be hard to get people onboard, and said their goal was never to subscribe huge numbers of people, but rather "to spark a conversation."

"We wanted to start creating awareness that social media [abuse] is unhealthy," she said, "and we wanted people to talk about it."