Why social media's so addictive

People now spend more time on social media platforms than watching tv and movies.

Social media is our new addiction and while tv kept us on the couch, social media keeps us on our phones.

Our laptops, tablets, and phones provide endless content and distraction through social media feeds that we just can’t seem to ignore.

Whenever we stop using social media, notifications quickly prompt us to begin again. We’ve gained instant access to content and escape from boredom, but we’ve traded our attention in return.

This exhaustion of our attention is ushered in by social media platforms implementing effective techniques that tap into our human instincts to keep us engaged with their content. By hacking our brains, social media platforms have figured out how to create our addiction to them.

Interestingly, all the top social media platforms, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter, use the same techniques to keep us addicted.

How Social Media Platforms Keep Us Engaged and Addicted

Constant Stimuli

We have nearly unlimited options of how to distract ourselves throughout our day. In addition to normal distractions that work, friends, and family provide, our phones ensure there’s no downtime from distraction.

At the touch of our fingertips, social media platforms send us a continuous stream of aggregated content and persistently remind us to consume more only mere minutes after we stop.

Companies have aggregated content for our consumption in the same way we experience today for a very long time.

Newspapers and magazines have artistically spun sensational headlines and entranced us with eye-catching pictures for over 100 years. Publishers in the past aggregated content for the same reasons Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter do today: advertising revenue.

The reasons why companies aggregate content hasn’t changed. What has changed is the nature of our addiction.

Extremely low-cost distribution and constant optimization of content enable our massive addiction, but implementing two techniques from behavioral psychology into content platforms has had the most impact.

Investment of Social Capital

Social media embeds personal incentives into platforms to keep users engaging with content.

In our desire to connect with others, we share personal details of our life: thoughts, feelings, and meaningful moments in our lives. As we share more and more, we invest our social capital into these platforms and amplify the reasons to remain active users.

Consuming content on websites, whether it’s news, culture, or sports, is mostly an optional activity.

When the content on these websites fails to satisfy our needs and wants, we simply stop visiting them. If the content on these websites doesn’t meet our standards for quality, there aren’t compelling reasons to continue reading it.

To continue consuming content on social media platforms, it doesn’t need to meet strict thresholds for content quality because there are so many other reasons we use it.

In our own desire to connect with friends, we view countless videos, pictures, and articles. The majority of this content isn’t created by our friends but created to sell products and services.

With so much of our social connection tied up in social platforms, we consume tons of content because doing so is part of how we connect with other people.

Intermittent Variable Rewards

Social media platforms curate content using algorithms that are designed to deliver positive and unpredictable feedback to users. Researchers call this concept intermittent variable rewards and it’s the biggest reason why we are addicted to social media.

People find positive and unpredictable feedback by its very nature addictive.

Positive feedback attracts users’ interest while its underlying variability inspires their fear of losing its opportunity. This recipe is a powerful way to capture attention.

We scroll through social media feeds to find interesting content and the randomness of how content is organized keeps us engaged. By not showing the best content first, and instead varying its location within the feed, we don’t know where the best content is, so we keep scrolling to find it. Since we don’t actually know where the best content is, we keep scrolling until we experience fatigue or something else catches our attention. The result is that we become lost in the act of consuming content.

Using intermittent variable rewards is such a powerful influence on behavior that it’s the secret behind why gambling is addictive.

Casino games use intermittent variable rewards by delivering random outcomes that make success seem more likely than it is. When the resulting spin of a slot machine shows gamblers that they seem to have almost won, their instinctual motivation to look for success causes them to feel good and inspires them to keep playing. The odds of success never enter the equation.