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It’s a common scenario for anyone who has ever used social media: you post something online – maybe a photo of your latest meal, a new profile photo, or a short video of your pet doing something adorable – and you eagerly wait for the likes and comments to roll in. Every hour or so, you probably check back in, just to see how it’s going. In some cases, you might get so frustrated by the slow influx of likes that you begin to hit “refresh” in your browser repeatedly. And then, suddenly, it happens – your post seems to hit some kind of critical mass and takes off. It might even go viral. You are positively elated at this point.
If that’s the case, then you’ve probably experienced the amazing dopamine rush that it’s possible to receive using social media. Each new like, each new upvote or each new comment is helping to flood your brain with neurotransmitters that signal “pleasure.” If this were a lab experiment, you’d be the rat in the cage, repeatedly pressing the lever for the next dopamine hit. If you are checking your social media feeds at all hours of the day and night, then there is a good chance that you might actually have a social media addiction.
The hedonic treadmill
And it gets even worse than that, due to a phenomenon that researchers have dubbed the “hedonic treadmill.” This term refers to the tendency of a person to remain at a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive changes in their life. It was originally conceived as a way to express why we all feel like we’re “keeping up with the Joneses.” No matter how much money we make, how many friends we have, or how successful we are in life, there always seems to be somebody richer, more popular, more beautiful and more successful. It’s a treadmill that we can’t get off, no matter how hard we try.
And you can apply this concept of the “hedonic treadmill” to social media. No matter how many likes we get on a post, how many comments we get, or how many views we get, it always seems like we should have gotten more. If you post a beautiful photo of your breakfast on Instagram and it does well, what’s your next step? Of course – it’s to keep taking more photos of your breakfast, each time adding new filters or new backgrounds. If your #nofilter photo got 100 likes, then surely a photo with a really cool filter would get 125 likes, right?
Social media companies and the psychology of addiction
The interesting point in all this is that social media companies are always looking for new ways to feed your social media addiction. The very construct of the social media newsfeed – a never-ending stream of clickable content – is meant to keep you on the site or in the app as long as possible. The official marketing term is “engagement,” and it simply refers to efforts to keep users clicking, liking and commenting as much as humanly possible.
Moreover, all that engagement (and especially the “alerts” that they love to send your way anytime someone posts content) helps to create what some researchers have dubbed “FOMO” or the “fear of missing out.” That’s right – you start to get a deep sinking feeling in your stomach anytime you’re away from social media for more than a few hours: “OMG what if I missed something important! “As you result, you’ll often see people bent over their mobile phones, intently staring at their screens, swiping, and furiously clicking away.
It’s clear that the biggest social media companies – and especially Facebook and Twitter – are very much locked in on this psychology of addiction for their very survival. They want to get you hooked, and are continually coming up with clever new ways to keep you using their social media platform as much as possible. But at some point, you have to ask yourself: How much is too much?