But should we engage in these reward-inducing behaviors enough, explains the articles author, Harvard Medical School’s Department of Neurobiology research technician Trevor Haynes, we begin to become addicted to them, and expect a sense of reward when we perform them. And one of those behaviors, it turns out, is checking social media.
Source: Harvard University
The way that psychobiology plays out with something like Instagram, is that when you open the app, you expect to see notifications that your content has been liked or otherwise engaged with. We become accustomed to being rewarded for the behavior of opening the app, and therefore, addicted to doing so.
But when we open the app only to find no notifications, the sensation might be similar to biting into a piece of food that’s unexpectedly repulsive, or telling a joke for a crowd that completely falls flat.
Are Social Media Apps Designed to Be Addictive?
Okay, so maybe apps like Instagram play a big role in these dopamine triggers — but are social apps actually designed to be addictive? We asked 833 internet users across the U.S., UK, and Canada if they think so.
Over half of the respondents indicated that social media apps are not only addictive — but that they are, in fact, designed to be that way.
There may be some truth behind that public perception. According to a “60 Minutes” interview with technologist and neuroscientist Ramsay Brown, Instagram will sometimes withhold notifications of Likes and comments for a prolonged period of time, only to release them in a bulk at once.
That pattern of notification withholding-and-bursting encourages users to check the app more frequently, suggests Haynes.
“Your dopamine centers have been primed by those initial negative outcomes to respond robustly to the sudden influx of social appraisal,” he writes, which “takes advantage of our dopamine-driven desire for social validation, and it optimizes the balance of negative and positive feedback signals until we’ve become habitual users.”
So maybe that’s why it’s so hard to quit. To find out if I was alone in my challenge to stay away from Instagram for good, I ran another survey of 832 internet users across the U.S., UK, and Canada, asking: Have you ever tried to quit using Instagram?
Interestingly, about 40% of respondents indicated that they had never used Instagram in the first place.
When adjusting for that, just under half of the remaining 500 participants said that they had never bothered trying to quit using Instagram — or considered it — in the first place. And while these results alone can’t say for certain, it’s possible that this reluctance to quit the app altogether could be due to its aforementioned addictive nature.
Can the Phone-Checking Crisis Really Be Resolved?
It’s an interesting dichotomy — that such a considerable portion of people can both believe that social media apps are designed to be addictive, but at the same time, not want to quit using them.
We’ve discussed a similar phenomenon when examining the reluctance of many Facebook users, for example, declining to leave the site or delete their accounts despite the company’s many privacy-related crises. Why is it, I asked, that people continue to stick with social media networks, despite the various risks involved?
“My personal opinion is that people are making mental tradeoffs. It’s a primary connection point to family members, to news, to society at large,” HubSpot VP of Marketing Meghan Keaney Anderson said at the time. “And for now, there is no viable replacement to that. The trade off I’d argue people are making is the very real value of that connection point, versus the not-yet-personally-actualized threat to privacy or security of data.”
So on Instagram, it could be that the tradeoff comes in the form of sharing visual snippets of our lives with friends, family, colleagues and strangers — and being able to observe those moments of theirs, along with brands we follow, in return — versus the “threat” of addiction-like repercussions.
Of course, social networks and tech companies allege that they are responding in kind. There’s Apple’s aforementioned Screen Time reports, and both Facebook and Instagram have said that they’ll “soon” rollout tools to help users manage their time spent on both apps — though it seems that no one has seen or been able to use those features just yet.
As for how effective these tools will be — we’ll have to wait to find out. But in the meantime, this entire phenomenon may serve as an opportunity for marketers and content creators.
There are ways, for example, to encourage audiences to both engage with your brand on social media, while also enjoying life offline; for example, asking users to post a photo or video of themselves using your product or service in an offline setting, or sharing content that shows how your brand helps them spend more time doing what they love.
But if you’ll excuse me — I have some analog time of my own to attend to.