• Kristen Balisi

The Hidden Ways Social Media Is Built to Be Addictive

Have you ever glanced up from your phone and became shocked to find out that 30 minutes flew away?


If you answered yes, you are certainly not alone. Moment, a time-tracking app with more than 4.8 million users, found that the average person spends nearly 4 hours on their phone every day. Put into proportion, that is equivalent to one-quarter of our waking lives, with much of this time dedicated to apps like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.


Nevertheless, our inclination towards social media apps is by no means accidental. In reality, you are falling into the exact trap tech designers have set to lure you in. That is because, from the get-go, social media is built to get us hooked.



Currently, we are living in the era of social media. To provide you with a sense of the enormous role social media plays in our lives, there are approximately 3.8 billion social network users worldwide. Every day, these users collectively send 500 million tweets, upload 70 million images on Instagram, and post 300 hours worth of videos per minute on Youtube.


First and foremost, why do social media companies want to get us addicted?


Using social media platforms and signing up for an account is absent of charge, so it’s a fair question to ask, “How do they make money while offering free services?” These social networking sites are free because we are not the customers. In actuality, advertisers are the customers, and our attention is the product they’re trying to purchase. Overall, advertising is the primary way social media companies gain money. The more time we spend on social media, the greater the chances for advertisers to present us with ads. Since this generates more money and helps platforms become more profitable, this explains why app designers work towards effectively holding our attention for long periods.


With that said, what factors and features make social media so irresistible?


To captivate our attention, app developers employ the use of crafty tricks that can manipulate our brain chemistry. This phenomenon is known as “Behavioural Design,” which involves shaping and influencing human behaviour with the use of psychology. This method has not only yielded some of the most famous apps and games but the most addictive as well.


The Tricks Hiding Up Social Media’s Sleeve


Firstly, we are going to examine the pull-to-refresh gesture. This ubiquitous social media feature prompts the screen to reload when users swipe down. What makes this very compelling to people is the possibility of a reward. Sometimes, when you pull down, there is a new exciting photo or tweet waiting for you, other times an ad, or in some cases, nothing at all. As seen, you never know what you are going to get, and the unpredictability of this feature is what gets people addicted and running back for more. All in all, our brains are attracted to the opportunity for rewards, regardless of how uncertain the odds.


Interestingly, some of these attention-catching strategies are identical to those utilized by casinos and their slot machines, which have been dubbed the most addictive machines in the world. You might not have noticed, but the action of pulling down to refresh your screen is very similar to the movement of pulling the lever down on a slot machine. When guests sit down in front of a slot machine, the casino wants to keep them there. It achieves this by trying to eliminate any external distractions, ensuring that you focus on the slot machine and the slot machine alone. It explains why a majority of casinos are windowless and without clocks. Just like the gamblers in casinos, when we become trapped in the act of scrolling through our seemingly never-ending feeds, social media platforms work their hardest to guarantee we don’t look away.


For this reason, stopping cues that typically break users free from their social media trance or prompt them to move onto another activity has been taken away. The end of a chapter in a book, for instance, is a stopping cue, seeing as it gives the reader a place to stop. When you arrive at the bottom of a google search page or when you complete one level of a videogame are examples of stopping cues too. Rather than completing things all at once, these cues encourage people to finish things in manageable chunks and take much-needed breaks. However, social platforms do the exact opposite, which is evidenced by their bottomless feeds. Netflix and Youtube employ this method too by automatically queuing up the next episode or video within mere seconds of the previous episode’s or video's end, making it all the more tempting to continue watching.



The Power of Dopamine


These manipulative tactics cause our brains to release a feel-good neurotransmitter called dopamine, which plays a leading role in the brain’s pleasure and reward system. When we eat the food we crave, for example, our brain secretes this hormone, which results in feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. Whenever we see a notification alerting that someone has liked our photo or when we find an interesting post in our feed, dopamine is secreted. Our minds soon begin to perceive social media as a ‘reward’ and we crave it more. As this cycle repeats, dopamine starts secreting in mere anticipation of checking our devices.


Examples of dopamine triggers:

  • The like button: Providing users with the chance to give a video or picture a click of approval, this is one of the most fundamental features of many social media apps. This component takes advantage of our desire for external validation and our habit of watching as our like count piles up. For some, likes act as a symbol of a gain in reputation, and as a result, these people may tend to work towards gaining more likes, comments, or shares, which can drive them to use social media for increasingly higher amounts of time.

  • Gamification elements: Gamification refers to the incorporation of game elements to non-game things, such as social media apps. Since gamified elements leave users with a sense of achievement, it can motivate them to return to the app. This component, therefore, helps increase traffic. One example includes leaderboards. Fitbit, for instance, hosts weekly step challenges that inspire users to engage in competition among friends and see who can reach the highest amount of steps. Soon, habits begin to form as users check their FitBit more often to see who is in the lead. Duolingo is another example, and it utilizes progress displays. Progress indicators are beneficial for those trying to achieve a goal, such as learning a new language, because when people see their language progress level, it can further incentivize them to keep on learning and working harder.



Unfortunately, the dopamine system is unable to differentiate beneficial triggers, such as eating nourishing food or exercising, from bad triggers, such as smoking or using drugs. Dopamine can make habits become addictions, regardless if it is being secreted in response to a trigger that is detrimental to our well-being.


Altogether, there is no doubt that social media’s attempts to catch our attention have been very successful and effective. However, app creator Kevin Holesh says, “Social media isn’t designed with your long-term happiness in mind: it’s designed to capture as much of your attention as possible right now.” He is correct: Although social media designs are efficient for generating high profits, social media can pose damaging consequences to our mental health when not used wisely.


Tips to help you use social media more mindfully:


  • Instead of scrolling through social media immediately on reflex, take a moment to consider your intentions and think about what you hope to gain out of your time. If you are unsure or simply reaching for your device to quell boredom, attempt taking a temporary break because it is more difficult to find satisfaction through social media if you are unclear about your intentions.

  • As you scroll through your feed, practice being present in the moment. It can help you better identify your emotions and figure out what posts might be the instigator of negative emotions.

  • Display authenticity and strive to post about things that fulfill or inspire you, rather than posts that will earn the most likes.

  • Avoid posts, people, or topics that stir up negative feelings. All in all, social media should be a positive experience, and if you are having trouble finding positivity through it, it is okay to take a break. You may find that taking a break not only helps you better connect with the world around you, but it helps you better connect with yourself.


In closing, social media plays an incredibly prevalent role in our daily lives, especially with app developers working to make them increasingly irresistible and that much harder to put down. Nevertheless, we have the power to decide how we use social media and whether we allow it to control us or not.


The question is, how will you use social media, and will you let it control you?