How social media companies have captivated the attention of an entire generation.
A deep dive into the design methods of our favorite social media apps.
Do you ever find yourself aimlessly scrolling through Instagram or Twitter for hours on end? Sure you may spend 3+ hours per day scrolling through social media, but you’d never say you were “addicted” right? Addiction is for people with serious problems, and you can stop whenever you want. Right?
So you decide to take a break. You delete Instagram, Twitter, and all social media apps on your phone so that you can focus on being present. You type up a message to all your followers to tell them that you’ll be taking a leave of absence from social media. You feel proud of yourself.
4 hours pass.
You pick up your phone, scroll to where Instagram used to live on your home screen, and then quickly remember that you deleted it. This happens several more times throughout the course of the day. You start to feel moderate angst. You wonder if people have been commenting on your most recent post about taking a break. Nobody has texted you yet; what’s going on? You decide to quickly re-download Instagram to check your messages.
You’re back on all social media platforms within the week.
Welcome to the life of a teenager. According to the Addiction Center, psychologists estimate that nearly 5–10% of Americans today are addicted to social media. That’s somewhere in between 16.5–33 million people (for reference, the population of Texas is 29 million). So why are so many adolescents addicted to this new era of technology? Is there something fundamentally wrong with our generation? How have these social media platforms been able to completely command over our attention like this?
“So why are so many adolescents addicted to this new era of technology?”
It all starts with the business model.
Social media apps are free to use and so they make their money by selling advertisements. This means that if I have something to promote, I can pay Facebook to advertise it for me. Since they have over 2.6 billion active users, not only will they guarantee me that people will see it, but they also allow me to indicate the exact type of person to whom I’d like to show it (college kids, elderly aged, etc.). This is called targeted advertising, which allows millions of companies to optimize their marketing spend. You wouldn’t waste time trying to sell a pacifier to a college student in real life right?
In 2019, Facebook’s global ad revenue was ~$70 billion, which made up ~98.5% of their total revenue. Put simply, these companies have a vested interest in keeping your eyes on their platforms. But how do they actually do this?
Painstakingly intense product design.
Every social media company invests millions of dollars into hiring teams (engineers, designers, marketing, etc.) that specifically focus on making their platforms highly engaging. These products aren’t addictive by chance; they’re designed that way. Nir Eyal, a famous author and investor, calls these “Habit-Forming Products” and takes a deep dive into the methods these companies use to capture so much of our attention through his Hook Canvas.
To hook users into their platforms, social media companies use two types of triggers: External and Internal.
External Triggers are the direct methods that they use to get you onto the platform. For example, continuous notifications telling us that we’re missing messages, and constant emails telling us what we missed.
Internal Triggers are the subconscious associations that prompt you to open the platforms. These are far more important and are where these companies aim to influence you. Internal triggers are most effective when there’s a recurring negative emotion, such as boredom, and opening the app serves as a temporary relief. This is what leads to addiction.
After social media companies succeed in getting you to open the app, their next target is to make sure that you’re immediately captivated. They accomplish this through a process called variable rewards. B.F. Skinner, a Harvard psychologist, explored this topic in his famous experiment with mice in 1948. In this experiment, one group of mice would press a lever and randomly receive a small treat, a large treat, or nothing. The other group would receive the same treat every time. Overall he found that the group of mice receiving variable rewards pressed the lever voraciously while the other group pressed it at very low rates. Humans, similar to the mice, respond compulsively to variable rewards. The endless scroll through your Twitter feed all seems worth it if you can find just one tweet that’ll make you fall on the floor laughing.
Reward and Investment
Now that they have your undivided attention, they need to plant the seeds to make sure that you’ll come back every day. They want to be asked out again after the first date. They accomplish this through offering fleeting rewards and asking you for an investment. The rewards that social media platforms use are fairly similar across the board: likes, favorites, retweets, reposts, etc. From an outside perspective, these appear to be exciting and useful metrics that tell you how much your friends and other users are engaging with your content. In reality, these are designed to be ephemeral rewards that trigger the same neural circuitry as drugs such as cocaine, placing you in a constant feedback loop always wanting more. Finally, to make sure that you never dump them, they get you to invest time and energy into the platform. After months of building followers and curating your page, you’ll feel that you’ve devoted too much time to quit.
“These products aren’t addictive by chance; they’re designed that way.”
What’s really happening under the hood and what are the ramifications of these design strategies?
Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, etc. are designed to make users addicted to the platform. The more time that you spend on it, the more money these companies make from advertisements. These platforms’ reward mechanisms (likes, favorites, retweets) activate neurons in the hypothalamus causing an influx of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, to be released into your synapses. This is the exact same chemical reaction that your body undergoes while gambling or through the use of drugs. The brain receives a “reward” in the form of a temporary feeling of pleasure, and subconsciously associates the gambling, drug, or social media activity with positive reinforcement. Just as drug activity is most dangerous when used to alleviate pain, social media use is most pernicious when used to assuage negative emotions such as boredom, loneliness, or fear of missing out.
Social media addiction leads to common symptoms that we see in severe drug addicts: a preoccupation of the mind when not using it, mood modification during use, tolerance to reward mechanisms, conflicts with others because of frequent use, and apparent withdrawal symptoms when attempting to quit (often leading to a relapse). Most importantly, this can lead to prolonged affects on the human brain. Dar Meshi, a renowned neuroscience researcher at Michigan State, found in a 2019 study that excessive social media users face similar deficiencies in making value-based decisions to people struggling with substance abuse. On top of that, several studies have shown an undeniable correlation between frequent social media use, negative mental health, and low self esteem.
In the end, what does this all mean?
Should we stop using social media all together? I don’t think so. Social media can have immense benefits when used correctly: growing entire businesses, marketing, connecting with the world, staying up-to-date on news, etc. However, at a time in our society where depression, poor mental health, and suicide are rampant, I do believe that it’d be injudicious for us to not have awareness over the negative aspects of these habit-forming products. It’s imperative that we advocate for ways that our technology will be used for good.