There’s no question about it by now, social media addiction is a very real and steady growing phenomenon in the 21st century. Technology has improved and enriched our lives in myriad different ways, but it also comes with a cost in the form of addiction to electronic screens, it would seem.

Nowhere is this addiction more apparent than with social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and so on.

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So why is this? What makes social media so addictive that people are literally willing to lose sleep over it?

Social media is highly visual, interactive, and engaging, providing instant feedback and rewards to all of its users. Receiving a like on Facebook, for example, provides a cheap source of thrills, a rush of endorphins without giving up anything in return. The same goes for receiving validation for a photo you post on Instagram, a re-tweet on Twitter, and receiving subscriptions and comments to videos that you post on YouTube.

One aspect of what makes social media so addictive is its interactivity. The feedback is instant and at your fingertips and becomes intoxicating, so users typically hang around their screens looking for that instant high. This is why those who exhibit traits of social media addiction have tendencies similar to those of drug addicts.
FOMO or “Fear of Missing Out” is another reason for social media’s addictiveness. FOMO is characterized by the desire of social media users to stay constantly connected with the newest content. Missing out on the newest joke or meme could mean social exclusion, which is why people stay so glued to their screens. Ironically, studies have shown that too much social media actually leads to increased social isolation and struggles to form and maintain relationships in the physical world.

Better understand social media addiction

To help further explain social media’s addictiveness, let’s take a look at Instagram specifically.

Nir Eyal, a Stanford University lecturer and author of the book “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products” states that the app is addictive for a whole range of reasons including:

1) The act of taking a picture

The act of capturing pictures has been a habit among humans forever. There is this innate fear that “if I do not capture this moment, it will be lost forever.” This thought is frequent among social media users and helps give insight into the fear of missing out.

2) The ease of use

Taking pictures on Instagram is instantly rewarding and easy to use which is a potentially harmful combination for one’s mental health. Eventually, Instagram becomes the default picture-taking application.

3) Never wanting to miss out

Being able to say “I was there” and being able to share in those experiences with others is a huge part of the appeal of Instagram and all social media platforms. Being able to confidently say that you’re in on the latest craze, meme or joke is really important, especially to younger users as they feel that being out of the loop can lead to social isolation.

4) The Fear of Social Isolation

One reason for the widespread use of Instagram and other Social media platforms is the “cool kids” effect. If you’re not using social media in this day in age, you run the risk of being seen as “not cool” by others. This is especially important among the younger demographics.

The fact that Instagram is so addictive is by design and done on purpose as the founder of Instagram, Kevin Systrom majored in Symbolic Systems at Stanford, a field that lies at the intersection of psychology and computer science. Nir Eyal remarked that Systrom, “Knows a lot”.

Twitter is yet another major social media platform that helps explain the addictive nature of social media. The reason for Twitter’s addictive effect is that it plays on our brain’s natural reward tendencies and process: trigger, craving, reward.
A user thinks of an idea, creates a tweet, and receives a reward in the form of likes and re-tweets. This process causes an instant and easily attainable rush of dopamine in the reward center of the brain, the Nucleus Accumbens.

The more tweets the users make in search of that easy fix, the more time they spend on Twitter and other such platforms looking for that fix, thus the addiction.
One needs to look no further than the mission statement of Twitter to understand how it becomes so addictive. Twitter’s mission statement goes as follows: “to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers”.

On its own, there’s nothing inherently harmful about this as sharing information is a good way to learn, however, the power that comes with this agency and freedom to share whatever is on your mind can come with addiction.

Sharing ideas and thoughts on Twitter isn’t just limited to sharing positive or funny thoughts, it comes with a dark side. The same reward process takes place when users encounter an anger-inducing tweet. The brain cries out to take action, so users send a hate-filled tweet at (@) another user. The anger-inducing tweet acts as the trigger in this case. The craving is for revenge, to take action on the tweet and the user that upset you, and the reward comes in the form of validation knowing that you got the user back for their tweet. Worse yet, if the user in question has tons of followers, they can instruct a veritable army of trolls to attack. The army of trolls looking for their own source of validation takes part in its assault on the perpetrator of the original upsetting tweet.

It’s at this point we have to stop and ask ourselves, “why are we like this?” and if the high associated with using Twitter is worth it.

Social media is addictive because of its interactivity, visual-based nature, and easy access to dopamine. The way all social media plays on the reward center of our brain, our insecurities, and our need for validation and to be “in the know” is why social media can be so addictive.