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Adolescent Social Media Use

How do social media operators facilitate habitual use?

This post is part 1 of 2.

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Last year, the UK government launched an enquiry into young people’s social media use to understand the effect of social media on young people’s mental health. I was asked to give oral evidence to the Science and Technology Committee following our written submission outlining the evidence concerning excessive social media use and social media addiction. Although there are many who will say that individuals cannot become addicted to social media, research suggests that a small minority of adolescents genuinely become addicted to social media in the same way that other individuals become addicted to activities such as drinking alcohol or gambling. More specifically, such individuals experience what I consider to be the six core components of addiction (i.e., salience, conflict, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, and relapse).

For these individuals, using social media becomes the single most important activity in their lives (salience); they engage in social media use to the neglect of everything else in their lives and compromise their social relationships and educational and/or occupational activities (conflict); they use social media as a way to modify their mood states (mood modification); they have built up the amount of time they spend every day on social media (tolerance); they experience unpleasant psychological and physical effects if they can’t engage in social media use (withdrawal effects); and they have trouble in trying to cut down and stop using social media (relapse).

I am the first to admit that the number of adolescents that would fulfill all of these criteria is small, but that does not mean social media addiction does not exist. Most adolescents who are heavy users of social media are what I would describe as habitual users (rather than addicted users). Some habitual users may experience problematic aspects to their social media use (such as decreased productivity at school or college, and/or not spending enough quality time with their family), but these individuals would not be classed as social media addicts using my own criteria. However, there are many psychological ‘hooks’ that play a part in habitual social media use and explain why it is so prevalent. Over the course of two articles, I’ll briefly outline some of the main factors facilitating habitual social media use among adolescents (i.e., unpredictable rewards, social affirmation and validation, FOMO [fear of missing out], smartphone sounds and vibrations, social connection, reciprocal liking, social competition, and psychological investment).

Unpredictable rewards

One of the key psychological characteristics in habitual social media use is the unpredictability and randomness of what happens within social media platforms. The rewards—which may be physiological, psychological and/or social—can be infrequent, but even the anticipation of one of these rewards can be psychologically and/or physiologically pleasing. The rewards are what psychologists refer to as variable reinforcement schedules and is one of the main reasons why social media users repeatedly check their screens. Social media sites are ‘chock-a-block’ with unpredictable rewards. Habitual social media users never know if their next message or notification will be the one that makes make them feel really good. In short, random rewards keep individuals responding for longer.

Social affirmation and validation

Another key ingredient that facilitates habitual social media use is the ‘like’ button. The feature was first introduced by Facebook back in February 2009, but such a simple characteristic has reaped huge rewards in terms of adolescents repeatedly coming back to check their social media platforms, and what some have described as a ‘craving for validation.' Some media reports have described the use of ‘like’ buttons as ‘hijacking’ the social reward systems of a user's brain. While I have little doubt that such rewards (or the anticipation of such rewards) release dopamine, the idea that dopamine ‘hijacks the brain’ and leads to ‘compulsive loops’ are analogies used in the media rather than the phrases used by scientists (the word ‘hijack’ is emotionally-laden to say the least). It has also been claimed that the few seconds it takes for social media applications to open on mobile devices is a deliberate ploy to increase anticipatory feelings of the user (because the anticipation of a reward is almost as good as the reward itself in releasing dopamine). Justin Rosenstein, one of the designers of the ‘like’ button on Facebook said that:

"The main intention I had was to make positivity the path of least resistance, and I think it succeeded in its goals, but it also created large unintended negative side effects. In a way, it was too successful."

Fear of missing out

Recent research has suggested that high engagement in social networking is partially due to what has been named the ‘fear of missing out’ (FOMO). According to Andrew Przybylski and his colleagues, FOMO is “a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent." Higher levels of FOMO have been associated with greater engagement with Facebook, lower general mood, lower wellbeing, and lower life satisfaction, mixed feelings when using social media, as well as inappropriate and dangerous social networking site use. In addition to this, research suggests that FOMO predicts problematic SNS use and is associated with social media addiction.

Part 2 to follow.


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