KT Connections Blog

Social Media is Designed to Addict You


With the addition of “Internet Use Gaming Disorder” to the DSM-5 (the latest iteration of the manual), it’s just a matter of time before the DSM acknowledges the addictive properties of social media. These digitally-based additions to the DSM indicate how much being online and connected 24/7 can affect our overall well-being.

This isn’t the first time that we’ve discussed how addictive technology can be, either. In our previous blog about technology addiction, we mentioned that Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) wasn’t yet officially recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), despite being a real affliction.

As the ever-increasing accessibility to online content becomes the new normal, we can add social media into the mix of behaviors and/or disorders which -- if left unchecked -- can damage our personal and professional lives.

Don’t believe social media can be addictive? A study by Qualtrics and Accel noted that Americans aged 18 to 29 check their phone 150 times a day, every day. Generation Xers were shown to be just as dependent in a survey conducted by Pew Research Center - while 39% of millennials claim their use of their mobile devices is almost constant, those aged 30 to 49 had a response rate of 35% admitting the same behavior.

If that’s not a valid definition of addiction, then what is?

Social media addiction isn’t a random side effect, only affecting a small number of users. It is deliberate and based on well-established behavioral science. This behavioral theory, known as Variable Ratio Schedule, is used to make slot machines addictive and to keep people pulling the lever. Similarly, the goal of social media apps is to encourage users to spend as much time as possible online, clicking and consuming content.

Variable Ratio Schedule works by randomly granting rewards: sometimes big, sometimes small, sometimes nothing. In the case of a slot machine, a person wins an amount and is encouraged to keep trying. In some cases they become so immersed in the desire to ‘win,’ they stay at a machine ‘working’ it for hours, waiting for it to pay out. Every win no matter how small encourages them to continue playing, while every loss makes them more determined to beat the house. In their mind, it’s just a matter of time before the machine rewards them.

Social media mimics this effect with the loading new content prompt. That is, you scroll down the screen and are greeted with a progress wheel. As you wait for new content, the wheel spins, similar to the spinning wheels of a slot machine. All the while, your brain’s chemistry is being altered in the same way it is when taking a drug like cocaine. You are slightly euphoric while you wait and hope for something good to turn up on your feed.

Nothing good? Scroll again! The content will come ad infinitum, and so will the dopamine.

Here are some methods social media uses to develop addiction in users:

  • You’re Special - The system affirms a person’s value (likes, retweets, follows, shares). Who doesn’t want to feel validated?
  • Variable Rewards - It provides users with content of varying importance. (If I keep checking, maybe I will get something good).
  • Encourage FOMO (the Fear Of Missing Out) - I want to be in the know.
  • Engage the Senses - Audio alerts, physical vibrations, and visual cues: all designed to grab your attention and make it more difficult to ignore the prompts.
  • Community - Join a group and be a part of a team of like-minded individuals.
  • Commitment - I have invested so much time, so many photos and content, I can’t leave.
  • Financial Rewards - Some platforms offer monetary rewards for the number of people you have in your audience.

All these events in tandem have the ability to, for lack of a better term, “program” users into displaying behaviors designed to keep them engaged for long periods of time. Social media addiction works by changing people’s behavior in such a way, that when the correct trigger is fired, they will reach out for a ‘fix.’  In this case, this fix is provided by using their device to go online. This behavior will progress until they are spending as much time as possible on social media and it becomes an essential part of their daily ritual; transforming from habit to addiction. This isn’t harmless behavior, particularly if your office is taking advantage of BYOD.

However, it doesn’t have to be this way. The same tool (your smart device) which was used to hook you on social media can be used to reduce your consumption. Some techniques include:

  • Turning off notifications. - This way you’re not prompted continuously to look at your social media account.
  • Set a time limit for use. - Try using your smartphone’s ability for organization to monitor your social media usage.
  • Put your devices away. - Don’t hide behind your device when you’re interacting with people in the real world. Try to discourage sitting at the dinner table with family and friends with everyone on their device.
  • Take an inventory of the content you consume and remove or at least reduce those that aren’t critical to your work or personal life. - You’ll be surprised at how many time-wasters you have been spending your valuable time on.

Like all addictions, social media consumption can be difficult to shake. In a world where the IoT is the new normal, and even your dishwasher is connected, it’s difficult to disconnect fully. Furthermore, most of us have a legitimate need to access social media, whether it’s to do our jobs or keep in touch with family and friends. This makes resisting temptation even more difficult. The four tips listed above are a good start to taking control of your digital life and get on the road to social media independence.

For more tips and topics about technology that can affect your work/life balance, particularly in a BYOD environment, subscribe to our blog. To learn how Managed IT can help your business grow, thrive, and better compete, contact KT Connections or call us at 605-341-3873.

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