Social Media addiction is a real thing. Correction: It’s designed to be a real thing. Let’s look at why and how to beat it.
Why Social is addictive
The brain’s reward center
As humans, we evolved a reward center within our brains designed to help keep us alive.
Whenever ancient humans would do things like eat or have sex, this reward center would excrete a chemical called dopamine.
From Scientific American:
In the middle of our cranium, a series of circuits known as the reward system links various scattered brain regions involved in memory, movement, pleasure and motivation.
When we engage in an activity that keeps us alive or helps us pass on our genes, neurons in the reward system squirt out a chemical messenger called dopamine, giving us a little wave of satisfaction and encouraging us to make a habit of enjoying hearty meals and romps in the sack.
Near-misses fuel the fire
Coupled with the brain’s chemical responses is the idea of near-misses. It’s best understood from the perspective of someone who’s got a gambling problem.
From Scientific American:
People with gambling problems got a mental high from the near misses— which … is probably why they gamble for so much longer than everyone else: because the near miss triggers those habits that prompt them to put down another bet.
And, from the same article:
Gamblers who keep betting after near wins are what make casinos, racetracks, and state lotteries so profitable.“Adding a near miss to a lottery is like pouring jet fuel on a fire,” said a state lottery consultant who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity. “You want to know why sales have exploded? Every other scratch- off ticket is designed to make you feel like you almost won.”
The slot machine is the perfect example of this: Each time someone pulls the lever and wins, it triggers a hit of dopamine. The same thing happens when someone pulls the lever and almost wins. We’re being chemically trained to expect pleasure from the unpredictability.
How’s a slot machine like Social?
Think that like or heart or thumbs-up is totally innocent? Think again! Those react options are designed to keep us hooked on the Social platform.
Think about the pull-down-to-refresh feature within Social apps. Now think of a slot machine’s lever. See any similarities?
From the Washington Post:
[Facebook is] perfectly designed, like a fruit machine in a casino, to give us a tiny sliver of pleasure when we use it and introduce a small measure of anxiety when we do not use it. A Facebook user says, “What am I missing out on? Did anyone ‘like’ my joke?” A casino patron says, “I wonder if THIS is my lucky moment or lucky pull of the lever.”
More tactics designed to keep you hooked
All of these seemingly harmless, useful features have a more sinister underbelly: They’re designed to keep you on the platform for as long as possible.
Many of these examples are from Medium:
- Likes, hearts, thumbs-up, etc.
- Social reciprocity / tit-for-tat
- When we feel indebted to other people, we’re likely to take specific action
- Read receipts are a perfect example! When we know someone will see we’ve read their message, we’re much more likely to respond quickly.
- Notifications, notifications, notifications
- Notifications are designed to grab our attention and lure us onto the platform
- Have you noticed that we’re being notified about fundraisers all the time lately? We’re being told we’re “following” a fundraiser, even though we’re not? This is combining both social reciprocity and notifications!
- Videos auto-playing in feeds
- You’re more likely to watch if it plays! It’s the “ooh, shiny!” effect
- Next video auto-starting
- Once you’re watching, if the videos keep playing, you’ll keep watching
- Infinite scroll
- Ever notice that the feeds never end? That’s not an accident!
Ever wonder why Social platforms are free?
So, all of this boils down to one big question: Why? Why is Social Media addiction a real thing? Why are Social companies deliberately addicting us to their platforms?
The simple answer: Money.
I’d argue that the platforms aren’t really free. True, we’re not paying with cash to use the apps. Instead, we’re paying with our attention.
The longer we’re on the platform, the more ads they can serve. The more ads, the more revenue.
If you’re not paying for a service then you are the product, and you also are being used as a guinea pig.
Need more proof? Take it from former Social execs.
From Science Focus:
I feel tremendous guilt… I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works,” said Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former vice president for user growth
Signs that you’re addicted
- It’s the first thing you do every day
- You can’t stand to be without Wi-Fi
- It’s tough to put your phone down, even when you’re with people
- You spend hours on Social, often without realizing
- It’s your first choice for recreation
- You feel the need to share everything you do
- You check in everywhere
What you can do to beat Social Media addiction
- Simply being aware of the problem will help you begin to curb it
- Make it harder to get to
- Disable / better control notifications
- Delete shortcuts
- Make it less appealing
- Try grayscale on your phone
- Spend more time engaging for real
- Make a conscious effort to put your phone down and engage in the real world
- Track your time & time limits
- Listen to Your Undivided Attention
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