Illustration: Benjamin Currie (Gizmodo)
Giz AsksGiz AsksIn this Gizmodo series, we ask questions about everything and get answers from a variety of experts.

Social media is awful and whatever pleasures it confers in the form of mildly amusing memes or a fleeting sense of community/belonging are massively outweighed by its well-documented downsides. Their psychic consequences are of interest to its owners only in the sense that, past a certain threshold, people might turn away from their platforms and cut off the endless stream of monetizable private data that sustain their business models and corrode conventional ideas about privacy, self-determination, etc.

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I guess this is something I believe, though even typing it out is embarrassing—because at this point it’s so obvious/trite, and because its obviousness/triteness hasn’t stopped me or anyone I know from using it. Some vague comfort is extractable from the fact that these platforms were designed to foster just this kind of behavior, but it might be nice to know how, exactly, that end was/is achieved. To that end, for this week’s Giz Asks we’ve reached out to a number of experts to find out why social media is so addictive.


Mark D. Griffiths

Distinguished Professor, Behavioural Addiction, Nottingham Trent University

Research suggests that a small minority of individuals genuinely become addicted to social media in the same way that other individuals become addicted to activities such as drinking alcohol or gambling. For these individuals, using social media becomes the single most important activity in their lives—they engage in social media use to the neglect of everything else in their lives and compromise their social relationships and educational and/or occupational activities.

Most individuals who are heavy users of social media are what I would describe as habitual users (rather than addicted users). Some habitual users may experience problematic aspects to their social media use (such as decreased productivity at work or educational study, and/or not spending enough quality time with their family) but these individuals would not be classed as social media addicts.

Addiction is complex and is due to a mixture of individual factors (e.g., a person’s biological or genetic predisposition, their personality characteristics, etc.), situational characteristics (influence of advertising and marketing, accessibility and opportunity to use social media), and structural characteristics (e.g., psychological ‘hooks’ that designers deliberately build into social media to increase repetitive use).

One of the key psychological characteristics in habitual social media use is the unpredictability and randomness of what happens within social media platforms. The rewards—which may be physiological, psychological and/or social—can be infrequent but even the anticipation of one of these rewards can be psychologically and/or physiologically pleasing. The rewards are what psychologists refer to as ‘variable reinforcement schedules’ and is one of the main reasons why social media users repeatedly check their screens. Social media sites are embedded with many unpredictable rewards. Habitual social media users never know if their next message or notification will be the one that makes make them feel really good. In short, random rewards keep individuals responding for longer.

Another key ingredient that facilitates habitual social media use is the ‘like’ button. The feature is such a simple characteristic but has reaped huge rewards in terms of individuals repeatedly coming back to check their social media platforms, and what some have described as a ‘craving for validation’. There is also ‘reciprocal liking’. This is the tendency for individuals to like others who express a liking for themselves (‘I like you because you like me’). For instance, when an individual presses the ‘like’ button on a selfie that has been uploaded onto a social networking site, the individual receiving the ‘like’ is more likely to reciprocate if the other individual posts an online selfie. Social media operators can exploit this human condition of reciprocal liking by alerting individuals when another person has read something posted or communicated online. Such alerts encourage the receiving individuals to respond.

In addition to the human need to connect and reciprocate, individuals also like to be socially competitive. This can also be a driving force in repeated and habitual social media use. As soon as the ‘like’ button was introduced, it also meant that individuals could keep count of the number of ‘likes’ they received in relation to the content posted. ‘Likes’ have a numerical value and users use such statistics as a way of raising or boosting self-esteem. This make social media users create a routine and habitually check their social media.

Research also suggested that high engagement in social networking is partially due to ‘fear of missing out’ (FOMO). FOMO refers to the apprehension that other social media users might be having rewarding experiences while the individual is not on social media themselves. FOMO is a predictor of problematic social media use and is associated with social media addiction.

Sound can also be important. What do most individuals do when they hear the ring, ping, buzz, or vibration of an incoming message or notification? For the overwhelming majority of them, they react to this stimulus by looking at the screens on their mobile devices and checking out what was sent. This creates a trigger for a routine and is exactly what social media operators want you to do. Sounds and vibrations are deliberately designed and distracting technologies that facilitate users’ attentions away from the offline world and back to life online—pulling individuals ‘out of the moment’ and is an example of ‘persuasive technology’

Finally, the more that an individual invests in something (whether it is time, money and/or effort), the more they tend to persist in the behavior. The introduction of streaks on Snapchat are a good example. The whole point of a Snapchat streak is to see how long an individual can keep it going. The higher the streak score, the longer an individual is likely to persist in sending photos every day to the other person.

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Krista J. Howard

Associate Professor, Health Psychology and Neuroscience, Texas State University

Social media addiction implies that one spends so much time and effort on social media platforms that it interferes with their regular life activities, including school, work, relationships, and general well-being. My research team has been studying psychological factors related to specific social media behaviors, such as addiction. We have a paper that has recently been accepted for publication with the journal Human Behavior and Emerging Technologies, entitled “A Biopsychosocial Approach to Understanding Social Media Addiction.” For this study, we surveyed a large sample of undergraduate students using validated scales to measure social media behaviors and psychological factors. We identified several psychological factors to be significantly related with social media addiction: low empathic concern for others, low conscientiousness, high perceived stress, and having major depressive disorder.

For individuals who score low on conscientiousness and empathy, social media is the perfect place to troll. We have found that individuals who have a high likelihood of trolling on social media tend to focus on downward social comparisons (seeking out others they perceive to be “worse off” then themselves). These individuals often derive pleasure from eliciting distress in others. Stress and depression both deal with negative emotions, so it is postulated that social media may be used as a coping mechanism, possibly though distraction and avoidance. Our research has also shown that individuals who have major depressive and anxiety disorders tend to spend a lot of time focusing on upward social comparisons (i.e., comparing themselves to others who they think are “better off” than they are) on social media platforms.

While the intent of these actions (trolling vs coping) are very different, increased social media use can become problematic when individuals find themselves disengaging more and more from the real-world. If you find that you’re spending a lot of time on social media, you don’t need to give it up completely. But try take some breaks, turn of the notifications, talk to the humans.

Jenny Radesky

Associate Professor, Pediatrics, University of Michigan, whose research focuses on family digital media use, among other things

Use of the word ‘addictive’ or ‘addiction’ is common when talking about technology or social media, but I don’t use the term for a few reasons.

First, talking about ‘addictive behaviors’ or ‘addiction’ locates the problem within the individual and their response to media, rather than in the media design itself. I think it’s important to emphasize that the problem can be more easily solved by changing the design of the digital environment rather than asking each individual user to resist products that are designed to be optimally engaging.

I also wonder whether use of a psychological or medical term like ‘addictive’ to describe digital design is still subtly trying to highlight the flaws of the user, in order to obscure the fact that major social media companies often design their products to serve their bottom line, rather than users’ best interests. Facebook profiting by allowing microtargeted political ads is a perfect example.

I’m a researcher, so I like using precise terms that describe mechanisms underlying behavior. In this case, instead of calling it ‘addictive,’ I think it’s more accurate to call the design ‘engagement-promoting’ or ‘data-extractive.’ The more time a user spends on a social media site such as Facebook or YouTube, or the more often they re-engage with a platform, the more revenue the platform and advertisers make. The more likes and shares and online behavior the user can demonstrate, the more data is extracted to feed profiles that make it easier to market to that user. Products are beta-tested and the most engaging one survives. It would be great to make these processes more transparent to users, so they could see that it’s not that they are weak or ‘addicted,’ but that they were responding to nudges and reinforcers intended to keep them engaged for the purpose of profits.

Finally, I study the social and emotional processes that contribute to parents’ technology use, and those dynamics are not captured by the ‘addiction’ metaphor. Frictionless, personalized digital environments are sometimes a relief from a chaotic world—or at least are a more pleasant alternative to a whining child or grumpy partner.

I’m amazed at the complicated scheme that social media platforms, app developers, ad networks, and data brokers have created to make money off of these engagements. Unless it gets dismantled with regulation, or social media platforms start being comfortable with making less money, it will probably be up to users to try to recognize and resist engagement-promoting design.

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Miriam Liss

Professor, Psychology, University of Mary Washington

Social media is so addictive because it plays on one of the most fundamental aspects of what it means to be human—our need for social connection with others. We post and wait for other people to like or comment on our posts. We like and comment on other people’s posts as an act of social reciprocity, and it feels as though we are connecting to others.

The rewards are intermittent and unpredictable—we never know when we log on whether we have gotten more likes, comments, or followers. It is well known that intermittent and unpredictable rewards are the most addictive—think about slot machines. The anticipation while the app loads heightens the excitement and addictive nature. Features like streaks in Snapchat play on our desire not to let other people down (and break a streak) as well as the idea that the more time and investment we have put into something (known as sunk costs) the more investment we have in keeping it going.

Interestingly, our desire for social rewards can make us act in ways that undermine the value of those rewards. We often present only the partial truth about ourselves and manipulate our stories or photos in order to make ourselves look better to increase our likes and positive comments. When we do that, however, the likes and positive feedback can seem hollow and make us feel bad. I recently published a study with my colleague and students that linked photo manipulation on Instagram to feelings of depression through a sense that one was being disingenuous about what was posted.

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Anna Lembke

Associate Professor, Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University

Social media is addictive because we’re a social species, wired to connect with other people as key to our survival. Social media provides the means for social connection in rapid, continuous, uber-potent forms, in the same way dabbing is a way to ingest super-potent cannabis.

A recent study by my colleagues at Stanford shows that oxytocin, the love hormone, leads directly to a bump in dopamine in the brain’s reward pathway. Love is addictive, which is not news; but with Tinder and Grinder you can fall in love twenty times a day, which makes it addictive because the more potent a drug, and the more you ingest it, the more likely you are to get addicted to it, independent of other risk factors.

I’m the first to say that social media can be positive, for example when we use it to augment real-life relationships. But it’s negative when we use it to substitute for real-relationships.

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Ofir Turel

Professor of Information Systems and Decision Sciences at California State University and Scholar in Residence at the Decision Neuroscience Program at the University of Southern California

This question assumes that social media so-called “addiction” exists, but this is not yet agreed upon. We can all agree that it is engaging, can be excessive for quite a few users , can replace other activities, that it is distracting, time consuming and highly absorbing.

However, there is much disagreement regarding the term “addiction” with regards to social media use, or more broadly technology-mediated behaviors, such as video gaming. What makes an activity addictive is its out-of-control, beyond one’s- will-power repetition, despite the actor/person experiencing significant impairments of normal functioning. The issue, like with any other addictive behavior, is defining what is “significant” and what is “normal functioning.” Normal functioning is socially construed, and can evolve over time. For example, 100 years from now, face to face social interaction may seem abnormal. The term “significant” is even more difficult to define—does being late with school work due to using social media constitute a “significant impairment”? What if it only happens once? Or once a week? Is neglecting offline leisure activities and social life a “significant impairment,” or does a person need to fall off a cliff and die while taking a selfie for this behavior to be considered a “significant impairment of normal functioning”? Each person can have his or her own answers to these questions, but from a medical-scientific standpoint, these questions are very important, and are yet to be fully addressed.

Having said this, I acknowledge that social media sites can produce addiction-like symptoms (e.g., withdrawal when deprived of use, sense of thrill when using the system again, conflicts with other life activities, and failed attempts to self-regulate the use of such sites), and this state of excessive use that infringes upon normal functioning can for now (until we have a better term) be called “addiction.”

The root causes of this state of affairs relate to the motivations of tech-providers, the features they use given such motivations, and to the way our brains are wired. Specifically, from a tech-provider’s standpoint, social media sites (and many others sites/apps) are designed to compete in the “attention economy.” In this economy, humans’ attention is a commodity with limited availability. Humans have limited time beyond working, sleeping, and school hours, and tech-providers (e.g., video game developers, websites like Gizmodo, and social media sites) compete for slices of our free time, and even for time we spend on other important tasks, such as work, school, and sleeping.

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This is necessary for their survival. After all, in many cases their revenues depend on the time users spend on such sites and their levels of engagement. Examples include in-game purchases in video games, network effects and advertising revenues on social media sites. Hence, it is not fair to say that social media sites are more or less “addictive” then other sites/apps—they use the tools that are available to them for increasing use time and engagement and for competing and/or surviving in the “attention economy.” If they do not grab users’ attention and time, another site/app will try to do it. Whether they have tried to increase engagement or to make their sites “addictive” is something we can just speculate about. It seems, though, that the addiction-like symptoms we see in users are a (hopefully unintended) byproduct of the successful engagement mechanisms these sites have developed.

This leads me to the second element: the above-mentioned competition motivations have propelled tech-providers to use common behavioral psychology tools for grabbing users’ attention and to try to lure them to spend more time on their websites/apps. Examples include the attempts to make the use of such sites easier, repetitive and automatic (e.g., the no need to login when using an app, infinite scroll, automatic continuous playing of videos), attempts to make use more engaging (e.g., selecting topics to be presented in the “feed” to maximize use time and engagement), employing mechanisms that provide immediate rewards, such as “likes” on an unknown schedule (which resembles the variable-reward schedule F.B. Skinner used with his pigeons), and creating internal motivations to keep one engaged with the site, through the use of features such as “streaks” on Snapchat. Such features create a strong motivation for repetitive use of such sites, which can often grow beyond people’s awareness (i.e., it becomes subconscious). To illustrate this subconscious-automatic aspect, many participants in our studies were shocked when they observed for the first time the level of their activity on social media. They thought it was much lower than it actually was. We also observed subconscious automatic approach responses toward social media cues in users’ brains and strong implicit attitudes toward social media use, that drove use beyond intentions. Thus, such features can very effectively lead to automatic use, beyond awareness, and users often in retrospect, cannot provide good logic for using such sites; and this use may seem irrational. For example, in one of our studies, 40% of users reported checking social media while driving at least once in the last week, and 5% reported doing it every time they are driving; such behaviors can in many cases be perceived as irrational, in retrospect, when considering the risk (dying) vs. the benefit (short term enjoyment from “likes” , responses, or posts) of such behaviors.

This leads me to the third element—motivations of tech providers and the use of the above-mentioned features would not have worked well, unless our brains were not wired for the rewards social media sites provide. Humans have many important needs that are served by social media sites- need for recognition, achievement, socialization and many others. As such, the use of the above-mentioned features can be highly rewarding; which in the brain translates into dopamine release (a neurotransmitter that makes us feel good). Specifically, the use of such sites is often triggers activation of the reward system in the brain (primarily the nucleus accumbens). Overtime, these systems learn to want more of this enjoying activity and can become sensitive to social media cues. This results in functional sensitization and possible structural changes in this region. For example, several studies show how “likes” activate this reward center in the brain. In my own research we show that changes in this brain region and its hyper-activity are associated with addiction-like symptomology in relation to social media use. This, however, is not different from other “rewarding” behaviors such as eating or shopping. We did not observe impairments to self-control brain faculties, which suggests that the observed addiction symptoms in relation to social media use are primarily rooted in a very sensitive reward processing brain system, but can be controlled by most (certainly bot all) users, if the users have sufficient motivation to do so. In that sense, social media so-called “addiction” is more similar in terms of brain underpinnings to light smoking than, say, to cocaine use (in which case there is often a major impairment of self-control brain faculties and neurotoxicity). Nevertheless, without such motivation to self-regulate one’s behavior and considering that some users can have very weak self-control abilities, the sensitive brain reward system can drive some users to use social media excessively, and ultimately present some impairment to normal functioning, and lose control over social media use. This can, for now, be portrayed as an “addiction”.

In sum, the perfect storm between social-media providers’ motivations to compete in the “attention economy,” the tools/features that they can employ, and the way our brains are wired to process and want more of the “rewards” (dopamine release) social media sites provides has drove the emergence of out-of-control social media use, that in some cases can be associated with addiction-like symptoms and the impairment of normal functioning. Whether this is a true “addiction” is yet to be determined. Whether the use of such sites should be more closely monitored and/or even regulated are also interesting questions, with no obvious or easy answers. It seems that social media sites are making some strides toward curbing the decline in normal functioning of some users, through for example adding screen time management tools, restriction the age of subscription to their services, or removing the ability to see the number of “likes” other people receive. Nevertheless, more research has to be done to examine the efficacy of such approaches in curbing out-of-control and normal-functioning harming use.

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Pierre Berthon

Professor of Information Design and Corporate Communication and Chair of Information Design, Marketing & Strategy at Bentley University

This can be answered on three levels: intrinsic, engineered and emergent.

First, its intrinsic to the product. Social media addresses two basic human needs: the need to belong and the need for self-presentation. The need to belong reflects the importance of others. We see ourselves through the eyes of others, indeed our “selves” are in part the relationships we have with others and the groups we identify with. The need for presentation is the flip side of the need to belong. If we see ourselves through the eyes of others, then how we appear or present ourselves becomes of primary importance: the image we create of ourselves is reflected back to us in the relationships and groups to which we belong.

Second, over and above its intrinsic characteristics (see above) it’s designed to be. Applying lessons from the gambling industry and behavioral psychology, programmers have consciously engineered social media experiences to be highly addictive. Techniques include variable ratio reinforcement, social manipulation, Zeigarnik loops (endless anticipation and deferred satisfaction), and induced hyperfocus and perseveration (negative ‘flow’ states of uncontrolled, endlessly repeated cycles of behavior). Such techniques coupled with zero entry barriers (‘free’ pricing) and ubiquity (always available, anywhere and anytime) are designed to maximize addiction. For a comprehensive overview of why and how social media is engineered for addiction see Berthon et al 2019.

Third, over and above the generic and the engineered, there is another factor accelerating addiction of which few are aware: the emergent influence of artificial intelligence. Just as AphaGo beat the World Champion Go player using never seen before strategies, AI programs are developing and discovering ways of manipulating and controlling humans that extend far beyond what is known by psychologists, sociologists and businesspeople. Moreover, even the programmers developing these AI systems do not understand the models or insight their own creations are developing: neural network are closed box systems. This is deeply unsettling because these systems are in some sense beyond the understanding of their creators. They also undermine one of our most deeply cherished beliefs: the belief that humans are some how special and ‘over and above’ mere machines. Moreover, in the arms race between social media companies, the reliance on AI is becoming ever more pronounced: ironically these companies are becoming addicted (in terms of business success) to the very things that are addicting consumers.

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