Social Media Rehab?

Hi, my name is Kelly and I’ve been an addict for over 10 years now.

I started listening to music on MySpace back in high school and then my friends started talking about this new thing called Facebook. I heard it was popular with college kids so it piqued my interest. Once I created an account and started uploading photos for those sweet, sweet likes, I knew I was hooked. Now I’m 26 years old and I’m mainlining Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat every goddamn day. I even do it in public places like the train and in line for a sandwich and everyone just turns a blind eye. I need help.

Really? We sure live in a strange world.

I’m a fan of Real Time with Bill Maher and he recently came out with this piece for his segment “New Rule” where he says social media is the new nicotine. You should watch it, I’ll wait patiently…

Bill is always very cutting with his insights and usually he nails it right on the head. However, I think he’s a bit misguided on this topic. Let’s break it down.

Comparing social media to nicotine is like comparing weed to heroin

Nicotine is one of the most addicting substances on earth. Addicts become physically dependent on it and experience withdrawals without it, similar to heroin. People can become mentally dependent on marijuana, but if they stop cold-turkey, there won’t be shaky hands and grinding teeth. The same can be said about social media.

You could say, “You’re being too literal, Bill was just making a relatable simile.” I disagree, because I think metaphors and similes are too powerful to leave up to interpretation.

There’s a very important distinction between mental and physical addiction.

People can be mentally addicted to anything.

Drinking coffee in the morning. Biting fingernails. People can even become addicted to healthy things like jogging.

This is John and he’s an addict

We all associate experiences with a mental feeling and that is what forms habits. That doesn’t mean the vehicle that delivers the experience is inherently a bad thing.

The Real Time segment says every time you check your social media, you’re playing a game of slots to see what variable reward is waiting for you.

While that’s true, is that a bad thing? If I post a picture on Instagram, am I hurting my health or finances by seeing which friends commented on it? Is it any different than an author reading reviews for a book she just released?

I would say no, no, and no.

People crave social validation and it’s a good thing

Humans are social beings and we shape our personalities based on feedback from others. If I walk around naked outside, people will give me weird looks and I would probably get arrested. Negative feedback. I shouldn’t do that again.

Social media is the same idea but on a smaller, more frequent scale. No matter how inconsequential a post seems, the person posting is either trying something new to test the reaction or recreating a previous post that got a positive response.

If it bothers you someone can post a picture of a water bottle with an inspirational quote and get a thousand likes on Instagram, your problem isn’t with Instagram, it’s with society in general. At the end of the day, those thousand likes are validation and they show that people very much like and desire that type of post.

Don’t like it? Stop following that person.

Consumption is the foundation of capitalism

Whether you like the idea of capitalism or not, that is the economic system we have in place. In the video, Bill Maher blames Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg for purposely designing addictive applications.

Of course they do!

It takes a lot of effort to make a quality piece of software and people rightly want to be compensated for it. Well, it turns out the only way to keep users from flocking to a competitor is by making them feel invested in your product. That’s where the Hook Model comes into play:

The Hook Model essentially takes human psychology and incorporates it into product development. There’s an amazing book called Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal which dives into the details of this model.

If you have a problem with creating addicting products for the sake of consumption, then I’m guessing you also hate capitalism.

Do we blame Disney for getting children addicted to their movies and advertising expensive trips to Disney World? What about television news channels that tease the next story before the commercial break in order to retain viewers? How about those punch cards which have you buying eight smoothies in order to get one free?

It doesn’t seem fair to hold tech companies to a different standard than everyone else playing the game…


So in Nir Eyal’s book, he dedicates a whole section to using the Hook Model ethically because there are definitely ways to manipulate users into unhealthy habits. For example, “freemium” mobile games let users play for free but require small payments in order to unlock premium features. Young and elderly users are most susceptible to this type of manipulation and end up spending thousands of dollars on frivolous mobile games.

South Park has a great episode about freemium mobile games

This type of addiction is harmful.

However, the current array of social media actually provides a lot of value to users. Facebook is a great tool for remembering birthdays and creeping on attractive acquaintances. LinkedIn lets you network with professionals and creep on attractive acquaintances. They each offer something unique and valuable, or else they wouldn’t have millions of users to begin with.

It’s not news to anyone that social media can be addicting, but as long as people are able to weigh that awareness against the value that the platforms provide, it’s a fair battle.

If someone becomes addicted to pizza and dies of heart disease, should everyone be banned from enjoying Lou Malnati’s? I don’t want to live in a world where that’s even a consideration.

I’d love to hear what others have to say about this topic. Leave your thoughts in the responses!