The Science Behind the Addiction of Social Media

Updated: Mar 29, 2021

By Nathan Park Class of 2023


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Have you ever promised yourself to spend only 10 minutes on social media only to find that an hour has passed since you picked up your phone? Well, it turns out that over 210 million other people around the world face this problem every single day. With the average person spending approximately two to four hours a day on social media and teens spending up to a whopping 9 hours a day. Social media has become a worldwide phenomenon affecting both the new and current generation.


Dopamine is a chemical produced in the human brain that plays the role of motivating us to do the things that we do. It is what motivates people to constantly repeat behaviors that have been helpful to them such as winning a basketball game, finishing homework, and also interacting with others.

The Cost of Our Attention


Before diving into all of this, we need to first understand why social media companies would make their apps so addictive for users and how these tactics are able to make them so much money. As most people may know, Facebook makes a lot of money, like a lot. It has a market value of over 500 billion dollars and the CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, makes a whopping 6 million dollars per day. Despite this, the app is free this is because none of Facebook’s money is made through its app users, but through its advertisers. These advertisers pay Facebook for their users’ attention and so the longer we spend on social media, the more money they are making. Not only this, but the longer we spend time on social media, the more data we provide for the company to accumulate and sell. By recording our activities and analysing them, social media companies use this data to provide content that the users may enjoy, so that they can spend longer periods of time on the app. Thus explaining the reason for why social media companies would need our attention, because it makes them lots and lots of money.



The Dopamine Effect: What effect does social media have on our brains?


Dopamine is a chemical produced in the human brain that plays the role of motivating us to do the things that we do. It is what motivates people to constantly repeat behaviors that have been helpful to them such as winning a basketball game, finishing homework, and also interacting with others.


There are four main dopamine paths inside the brain. Three of them are used to release dopamine to different areas of the brain and the last one, called the tuberoinfundibular path, is used to control the release of a certain hormone called prolactin. When a person is experiencing an activity that results in an award, the three pathways create an association between that activity and the reward, thus sending a message to the brain saying, “If I do this activity, I will get an award that makes me feel good.” The more the person experiences a reward from his or her response to the stimulus, the stronger the association becomes, resulting in the increase of the intensity of the person’s response to the stimulus.


In this case, every time we open a social media app and finding something we like or enjoy, our brain creates this association between the action of checking social media and the joy that we feel because of it. This tells our brain that checking social media is worth doing again, thus creating this constant urge for us to check our social media. When turning on notifications, our brain becomes even more obligated to release dopamine due to the anticipation that we feel even before we check our phones.


Social media also uses other innate social characteristics such as our fear of missing out (FOMO) or our obligation to repay someone back for what they did for us. An example of this is Snapchat’s “streaks” feature that measures the amount of times you and another person has “snapped” or texted one another. To keep this “promise” that you and the other person has made, you can feel obliged to use the app, for the sake of keeping this digital promise of communicating with one another on the app for a certain consecutive number of days. Even a simple text from someone, makes someone feel this obligation to text them back.


[Reference]


  1. https://www.sciencefocus.com/future-technology/trapped-the-secret-ways-social-media-is-built-to-be-addictive-and-what-you-can-do-to-fight-back/

  2. https://sites.psu.edu/siowfa15/2015/09/15/whats-the-science-behind-social-media-addiction/

  3. https://mediakix.com/blog/how-much-time-is-spent-on-social-media-lifetime/

  4. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160791X16301634

  5. https://mediakix.com/blog/social-media-addiction-statistics/

  6. http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2018/dopamine-smartphones-battle-time/


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