Social Media

Can't stay away from social media? You're not alone; social networking is engineered to be as habit-forming as crack cocaine - Mike Elgan

Social Media

image by: Social media Addiction


Social networks are massively addictive. Most people I know check and interact on social sites constantly throughout the day. And they have no idea how much actual time they spend on social media.

If you're a social media addict, and your addiction is getting worse, there's a reason for that: Most of the major social network companies, as well as social content creators, are working hard every day to make their networks so addictive that you can't resist them.

Facebook: I wish I knew how to quit you

Cornell Information Science published research earlier this month that looked at (among other things) the difficulty some people have in quitting Facebook and other social networks. They even have a label for the failure to quit: "social media reversion." The study used data from a site called, which encourages people to stop using Facebook for 99 days.

The site and study are interesting because they revealed the difficulty people have quitting Facebook because of addiction. Participants intended to quit, wanted to quit and believed they could quit (for 99 days), but many couldn't make more than a few days.

The addictive aspect of social networking is associated with FOMO -- fear of missing out. Everyone is on Facebook. They're posting things, sharing news and content and talking to each other 24/7.

The network effect itself is addicting, according to Instagram software engineer Greg Hochmuth, as quoted by The New York Times. (A network effect is the idea that any network becomes more valuable as more people connect to that network. The phone system is the best example of this phenomenon -- you have to have a phone because everybody else has a phone.)

In fact, Hochmuth and artist and computer scientist Jonathan Harris created a web experience called Network Effect. The site simulates the experience of browsing through social media by giving you a feed of people engaging on various activities. Then, after a few minutes, the site won't let you watch anymore (for 24 hours) so you can experience the subtle withdrawal symptoms.

In the world of social networking, Facebook benefits most from network effect. Facebook happened to be the top social network when social networking busted out as a mainstream activity. Now, everybody's on Facebook because everybody's on Facebook. And even people who don't like the social network use it anyway, because that's where their family, friends and colleagues are -- and because of addiction.

The contribution of network effect to the addictive quality of web sites is accidental. But social sites are also addictive by design.

That notification number

One trick social networks use is a notification number, showing you the number of people at a glance who have mentioned or followed you. Notification numbers appear on the app icon to draw you in, then on the top or bottom menu to draw you in further. They play the same psychological trick on you that clickbait headlines do -- they tell you that there's information you really want to know, but they don't tell you enough to satisfy.

A headline could say: "Patti LaBelle's Pies Are Selling for $40.99 on eBay." But the clickbait version is: "You Won't Believe How Much Patti LaBelle's Pies Are Selling for on eBay" -- which, you'll notice is even longer.

Notification numbers work just like that. Seeing a red "3" on the Facebook notifications bar is like a clickbait headline: "You won't believe what three people have said about you." You've got to click or tap. It's compulsive. And over time, it becomes addictive.

The biggest tool in the social media addition toolbox is algorithmic filtering. Sites like Facebook, Google+ and, soon, Twitter, tweak their algorithms, then monitor the response of users to see if those tweaks kept them on the site longer or increased their engagement. We're all lab rats in a giant, global experiment.

The use of algorithms for making social streams increasingly addictive explains a lot. It explains why Facebook (which has been tweaking its addiction algorithm the longest) now gets more than a billion users a day. It explains why Google never let you turn off algorithmic stream filtering all the way. And it explains why Twitter wants to algorithmically filter feeds, despite the general objection of users.

The tweaking of algorithmic filters for addiction means that in theory social sites get more addictive every day, and that the sites are in a war for survival where only the most addictive sites will survive. Meanwhile, our innate human ability to resist this addiction doesn't evolve.

YouTube: The perfect cocktail of addictive ingredients

YouTube is addictive, too, especially for people under the age of 20 or so, who use YouTube as their main source of entertainment. Serial YouTube video clicking is akin to the compulsion to TV channel-surf. You flip through the channels endlessly because surely something better must be on right now. YouTube is like TV, but with a billion channels.

What habitual young YouTubers are watching is a key to understanding why it's addictive for them. Most of this watching involves videos where YouTube stars talk to the camera. Here's an example. Here's another. (Note how many viewers these videos are getting -- it dwarfs the audiences of any TV show.)

Shows like these trick the human brain into feeling like the YouTuber star is talking directly to the viewer, and makes the viewer feel like they have a personal relationship with the person in front of the camera. Meanwhile, there's another Darwinian contest taking place. YouTube stars have learned how to speak in a way that grabs and holds the attention of the viewer. They've learned how to make their own on-screen personalities addictive.

It combines the innate human attraction for social interaction with a Darwinian contest among stars to master the art of attention-grabbing charisma plus the channel-surfing compulsion plus an addictive social networking element in the comments sections.

How to kick the habit

Social media addiction is real, and it can damage careers, degrade life and even harm relationships. For most of us, though, we're simply being manipulated by the social sites and content creators to waste far too much time in a way that benefits them, not us.

The best solution I'm aware of is to visit social networking sites once per day. Schedule it. And keep track of how much time you're spending there. Try it. And if you succeed, you're on your way to beating addiction without going cold turkey.

And if you can't stick to your once-a-day habit, well, it sounds like you've got an addiction problem. I'll see you at group therapy.

Source: Mike Elgan, Social media addiction is a bigger problem than you think, Opinion, ComputerWorld, December 14, 2015.

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Last Updated : Sunday, October 13, 2019