The Real Reasons Why Social Media is Addictive
You know it.
I know it.
Deep inside, we all know it.
Social media is addictive.
And in today’s post, I’ll explain exactly why.
Social media addiction is real
Social media consumption has increased by over 50% since 2012. According to numbers from Statistia, the average user spends more than 2 hours per day browsing social platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat.
At the same time, we’re seeing warning signs appearing across the globe:
One recent study in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology suggests there’s a link between social media and depression. It concludes that reducing time spent on social media can improve mental health and even reduce loneliness.
We’re also seeing an increase in social media rehabilitation centers, online support groups, and websites like Break the Twitch, all dedicated to one thing: helping people overcome their addiction to technology.
Social media addiction is becoming a worldwide problem. And there are many reasons for this, which we’ll explore in the rest of this article.
Social media elicits dopamine
“Engagement with social media and our cell phones releases a chemical [in our brain] called dopamine,” Simon Sinek said in an interview on Inside Quest. You know that rush you get when you see a new comment on your profile picture on Facebook, or that kick you get out of getting new followers on Instagram? That’s triggered by dopamine.
“Dopamine,” Sinek adds, “is the exact same chemical that makes us feel good when we smoke, when we drink, and when we gamble.” It’s a neurotransmitter that signals to our brain that what we just did felt good – and that we should get more of it.
That’s why you’ve already checked your smartphone 50 times today. It’s why you keep pulling down to refresh your Facebook feed. You’re waiting for that notification – that reward – that gives you a small hit of dopamine. It feels good.
You might question why, at all, our brains would release dopamine when it’s causing us to develop terrible addictions to substances and social media. It’s because our survival depends on it. At least from an evolutionary perspective. We’re social animals, and social media gives us a validation that’s similar to being socially accepted by a tribe. It’s confusing our brains to think that we need it.
Social media is designed to be addictive
The software engineers and designers of Silicon Valley are well aware of these vulnerabilities in our brain, and they have figured out how to exploit them and profit off of them.
Whistleblower and former product manager at Google, Tristan Harris, states in an interview with 60 Minutes that “there’s a whole playbook of techniques that get used to get you using the product for as long as possible.”
For example, there’s the endless newsfeed on Facebook and ensures you scroll much more than you really need to.
There’s also a more subtle technique used by Instagram. You may have noticed that, when you open the app, you’ll see a picture for a split second before it updates your feed and sends that picture to the bottom. This intentional design encourages you to scroll all the way down to see the initial photo you saw.
And as a final example, there are Snapstreaks, a Snapchat feature that shows how many days in a row you’ve sent a snap back and forth with one of your friends.
All three of these features are designed in such a way that they elicit a response in your brain and make you come back for more. And they’re but a drop in the ocean of all the design techniques out there.
“So you could ask,” Harris continues,” when these features are being designed, are they designed to most help people live their life or are they being designed because they’re best at hooking people into using the product?”
Social media companies make money on our attention
Big social media companies like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have a straight-forward business model. They make money by selling advertisements.
And they’re making a killing on it. For the year 2018, Facebook, Inc. reported a total revenue of over $55 billion. A whopping 98.5% of this total came solely from selling advertisements across their products.
Most social media platforms are run by for-profit companies with a single goal: to increase shareholder value. And, to increase shareholder value, they need to make more money on ads.
And to make more money on ads, they need to increase the amount of time we spend on their platforms.
They are highly motivated to do everything in their power to keep us scrolling for as long as humanly possible, whatever it takes, because their business depends on it.
Social media gives us a false sense of accomplishment
The social media companies have incorporated features that make us feel more productive, when in reality they’re just taking away our time and focus from the truly important things.
For example, clearing away our notifications on Facebook feels a little like putting a nice checkmark on our to-do list.
We get a similar sense of accomplishment when we’ve scrolled far enough on Instagram to get the “You’re All Caught Up!” message.
Not to mention how social media companies urge you to complete your profile. They wave that satisfying “100% complete” badge in front of you when, in reality, all they’re doing is enticing you to give up more of your data for their algorithms.
These features give us a false sense of accomplishment. They give us a dopamine hit. We feel productive when actually should be feeling unproductive.
And because it’s so easy, takes so little time, and feels so good, we keep doing it. We keep coming back for more, often unaware, and sometimes hundreds of times per day.
Social media is readily available
It’s on our laptops, on our mobile phones, and even on public devices like airport tablets or flight screens.
And whenever we feel bored, we pick up our phones. People are even so addicted that they’ll scroll through social media at the dinner table because the shallow validations they get from hearts or thumbs-up are a faster reward than the process it takes to build meaningful relationships with our families and friends.
As Tristan Harris pointed out, it’s like carrying a slot machine in your pocket.