Social Media Addiction Is A Pain In The Dome: Why Rewarding Behaviour Leads To Addiction And How Developers Can Prevent Social Media Overdose

Social Media Addiction

Image used under Creative Commons Attribution. Source: johanl via Flickr

Bored? Read some tweets. Lonely? Scroll your Facebook feed. Uninspired? Browse the endless boards of Pinterest. Blue? Watch the latest funny cat compilation on YouTube. The list goes on. When a new tech satisfies a need, it becomes users’ go-to place for instant gratification and reward. There was a time when we called upon that innate facility to help us find answers and deal with our feelings. Hang on, let me Google the name of it. Oh yea, that’s it, ‘brain’. I really miss that guy.

It’s clear from the stats on social media use that the major players in the social media world are creating a first-to-mind dependency on their sites. Here are a few eyebrow raisers:

  • Mobile phone users check their device 150 times a day.[1]
  • 890 million people check Facebook every day.[2]
  • One out of every five page views in the US is on Facebook.[2]
  • 500 million Tweets are sent every day.[3]
  • I checked Messenger three four five times while writing this introduction.[4]

Keeping users coming back again and again has a lot to do with satisfying a need. Depending on the need, we have a number of options to achieve satisfaction. When wanting some social interaction, for example, we could shoot the breeze with a friend, pop down to the local for a pint, or check Facebook (or combine all three!). Facebook is an attractive option because it’s so easily accessible. The next time we’re feeling lonely, we’re once again charmed by our phone’s convenience and decide to check Facebook. Same thing happens the time after that. And so on and so on until over time we’ve associated the recurring need, loneliness, with the new solution, Facebook. Before we know it, we’re routinely checking our phones every few minutes.

But that’s hardly an addiction. Faced with a competing need, especially something more crucial to our survival, surely we’ll choose to satisfy it ahead of a social media fix…right?

Is Facebook More Irresistible Than Sex?
In 2012, 205 lucky men and women in Germany were paid to participate in an experiment aimed at finding out which was more tempting; checking their phone or having sex.[5] No prizes for guessing the outcome of the study—although limiting participants to just those involved in intimate relationships and not paying people to check their phone could have provided more reliable results. According to the article, University Professor Bob Larose said of the study, “It’s surprising that self-regulation fails so much more often for media use than for sex, alcohol or food”.[5]

I was surprised by Professor Bob’s surprise. I mean, the uses and gratifications theory (UGT) suggested decades ago that people actively seek out media to satisfy five needs:[6]

  1. I need to find information.
  2. I need to see what people are up to in the news.
  3. I need to be entertained.
  4. I need to be part of society.
  5. I need to escape my stressful life for an hour or two.

Bringing the research on UGT into the digital age, a study in 2013 identified ten uses and gratifications for social media: social interaction, information seeking, pass time, entertainment, relaxation, communicatory utility, convenience utility, expression of opinion, information sharing, and surveillance/knowledge about others.[7] 

“Self-regulation fails so much more often for media use than for sex, alcohol or food”
By opening up two-way interaction, giving us our own media presence, providing us with the autonomy to control the content we seek, entertaining us more, serving us highly-personalised content, and being instantly accessible, social media has doubled the number of desires we can satisfy just by using it. Sex, on the other hand, fulfils a paltry single desire. Our primal needs simply can’t compete in terms of irresistibility.

But I don’t want to belittle our primal needs altogether. We will make more effort to satisfy needs with high reward value;[6] and food is right at the top of the reward ladder. Social media is just easier to, er, digest and we carry it with us everywhere we go. Relying on UGT as the explanation for social media addiction, then, does suggest we still maintain a level of control over our media use and neglects to mention the possibility of something deeper, something more physiological at work.

To understand addiction better, let’s talk about hijacking.

Journey to the Pleasure Centre of the Brain
Remember the guy I mentioned earlier, brain? Well it turns out he never left. He’s actually been hijacked by a hormonal terrorist. Tied up and tortured, the brain is a victim of the neurotransmitter, dopamine. Dopamine, an ironic anagram of ‘dome pain’, commandeers the vehicle that is your body by flooding the brain’s pleasure centre—otherwise known by the more sciency, less sexy name of nucleus accumbens—and drives you to complete the behaviour.[8]

While dopamine releases are natural and necessary to our survival (think food and procreation), addictive habitual behaviours (think gambling and gaming) or substance abuse (you got this one) causes frequent and particularly powerful surges of dopamine.[8] Repeated dopamine surges overwhelm the brain’s reward system, which increases the compulsion to seek out that behaviour or substance and leads to addiction.[8]

Here’s how it works using the development of Facebook addiction as an example:

  1. Brain needs social interaction and wants me to take action.
  2. I go on Facebook and notice I have a new Like on my post. Brain gets a sweet dopamine buzz.
  3. Brain needs social interaction and wants me to take action.
  4. I go on Facebook and notice I’ve been tagged in a friend’s new photo. Brain gets an even sweeter buzz.
  5. Brain needs social interaction and now wants me to go on Facebook. Brain is learning Facebook = sweet buzz.
  6. I go on Facebook and watch cool video after cool video in my feed. Brain gets sweet buzz after sweet buzz.
  7. Brain needs social interaction and feels the buzz before I even log in.
  8. I go on Facebook but Brain isn’t happy. Brain has built a tolerance to Facebook. Brain wants more Facebook.
  9. I’m now on Facebook all day, every day.

Let’s examine this progression more closely. In stages 2, 4, and 6, I had no way of knowing there would be a Like, tag, or cool video. They just happened to show up when I was on Facebook. And when I noticed them, I got my dopamine hit. Could it be that unpredictability makes compulsive behaviour more intense? It does. And it seduces the Facebook user, the gamer and the hungry rat.

Dude, Where’s My Pellet?
In The Willpower Instinct, author Kelly McGonigal describes why the purposely-built variable reward systems developed into video games compel gamers to continue searching for them[9] like the psychologist’s rat in a cage eagerly pressing the lever for randomly-released food pellets.

Just ask 20-year-old Chris Staniforth from the United Kingdom. Oh wait, you can’t, he died of a blood clot in his lungs during one of his frequent 12-hour-long Halo sessions; most likely the last one.[10] That puts computer games—those developed with variable rewards—in the same category as sedentary lifestyles and long-haul flights in the list of activities (or rather inactivities) susceptible to deep vein thrombosis (DVT).

McGonigal believes social media compels users to seek variable rewards, such as the next awesome photo or interesting news article, in much the same way as gaming yet does so unintentionally.[9] But is it really an accident? Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, thinks not.

“Social media addicts are using social media sites to satisfy up to ten different needs.”
One of the stages of the Hook Model describes the excitement of the next unexpected reward. For Eyal, the intentional supplement of unpredictability by social media developers keeps users hooked.[11] Why? Because unpredictability further increases dopamine levels in the brain, which makes the anticipation of when and how the next reward will appear in their feed too much for users to end their current social media fix.[11]

Just ask 18-year-old Katrina Fish from Australia*. Oh wait, you can’t, she died of exhaustion after spending 15 hours straight trying to get to the bottom of Pinterest’s infinite scroll. Ok not really. As far as I’m aware, no-one has yet reportedly died from an epic social media session. But think back to that hour-long scroll to find photo gold scattered amongst countless boards of crap. Remember you only visited Pinterest to view that magazine-worthy holiday snap your friend sent you.

A 2013 study found that users spend more than 5 hours on social media sites—a massive increase from the 1.5 hours found in 2008;[12] a predictable conclusion when you consider more and more of the world’s population have instant, 24/7 access to the internet on mobile phones. As mobile technology marches on, perhaps it’s only a matter of time before we read about the first blood-clot death of a social media user from a ridiculous-sounding yet highly-probable 15-hour social media session; especially when people start to prefer their experience of life through Oculus Rift.

Looking at gaming addiction through UGT, it seems gamers are relentless in their quest to satisfy their entertainment needs. If social media addicts are using social media sites to satisfy up to ten different needs, what does that say about the emotional state of these people?

Research published in 2009 proposed that depression and a weaker ability to regulate social media habits are closely related.[13] When you add the suggestion that Facebook users have higher overt narcissistic traits than people not on Facebook,[14] the result is a vulnerable person constantly turning to social media to boost their self-esteem. You may have heard the story of a selfie addict, UK teenager Danny Bowman, whose obsession got so out of hand that he considered suicide to break his 200-a-day selfie habit[15]—one of many unpleasant situations social media sites have the opportunity to prevent.

Opportunities for Social Media Developers
If you made it this far without checking your phone then high fives all round. According to Karen North, you couldn’t stop yourself from at least looking down at it in the last couple of minutes[5]—caught you Facebook addict! The previous sections detailed the reasons behind the progressive stages of addiction from consciously seeking gratification through media use to dopamine releases made more intense by variable rewards.

Now I’d like to change pace and discuss opportunities for social media developers to help users control their addiction before they overdose. First, let’s lighten the mood with some trivia, Jeopardy style:

Rich Walker: “I’ll take Relationships for $200, Alex.”

Alex Trebek: “36% of under-35s do this after sex.”[16]

RW: “What is text, tweet or check Facebook?”[16]

AT: “You’re RIIIGHT! I used to smoke after sex but, eh hem, that’s a story for another day. It’s now time to play Double Jeopardy!”

RW: “Ok, I’ll take Addiction for $400, Alex.”

AT: “Managing social media addiction is the responsibility of this person.”

RW: “Who is a social media addict?”

AT: “You’re RIIIGHT! It’s now time to play Final Jeopardy! It all rests on this. Encouraging safe and sensible use of social media platforms is the responsibility of these people.”

RW: “Who are the social media developers?”

AT: “You’re RIIIGHT! After all, even the gun manufacturer adds a safety switch!”

Despite what it may sound like from my successful run on Jeopardy, I want to be clear that I am not supporting strict regulation of social networking sites, or the right to own a gun for that matter. And addicts should not view themselves as victims of social media. But suppose social media sites could prevent and manage addiction in some of the following ways:

  1. Little supervision is needed for those trained in the ways of the social. Post nude pictures, they will not. For those struggling with self-governance, and possibly even related bouts of depression,[13] an easy-to-follow set of guidelines, or Community Standards as Facebook calls them, helps clarify acceptable practice. But there exists the potential for further development of these guidelines. Betting sites dedicate a whole section to promote responsible gaming and offer a number of tools and support for addicts. Imagine how effortlessly social media sites could follow this example.
  1. Like the gambling addict practicing self-governance, social media users could make use of an exclusion tool to prohibit access. Yes it would seriously hamper the ability to profit from that user but exclusion hasn’t exactly annihilated the gambling industry. Unlike gambling, which is damaging to the wallet as well as the mind, social media has a host of benefits. Social media is not here to reduce a person’s connection with the rest of the world. That’s why part-time exclusion offers a better solution. Part-time exclusion could be used to set daily time restrictions with users paying to use the service above their personally-set time limits.
  1. Microsoft’s Healthy Computing Guide recommends computer users to take frequent breaks.[17] But more could have been done to help internet and gaming addicts with deficiencies in self-regulation. Intermittent pop-up messages can remind users to get up and move around. Just think…an hourly, two-minute, no opt-out pause for breaks while the Master Chief reloads his weapon may have saved the life of a DVT victim.
  1. From the accidental nip slip to the freedom of speech advocate and terrorist organisation or two, all pushing the boundaries of acceptable practice, many social media sites most likely won’t have the resources to monitor every single piece of content published on their sites. This is where other users come in. Social media users employ collective intelligence and are encouraged to apply concertive control to look after their communities and the people within by using a tool to report any content deemed to break the rules. Yet there’s no reporting tool for concerned friends and family of an addict to reach out to the site for support.

Any of these opportunities, and any improvements of them, could make the social media world a better place. After all, “giving people a voice, like most things in our society, is something that we must make incremental progress towards,” says Mark Zuckerberg[18]. If one of the other things in society Mr. Zuckerberg is referring to is managing addiction then we, the social media users, scholars and developers, are at the forefront to lead this progression.

*Apologies to any and all 18-year-old Australians named Katrina Fish if you’re reading this. You’re not dead. May you pin, tweet and share in good health.


1. Meeker, M. (May 29, 2013). 2013 Internet Trends. Retrieved on April 4, 2015.

2. Noyes, D. (February 10, 2015). The Top 20 Valuable Facebook Statistics – Updated February 2015. Retrieved on April 4, 2015.

3. Twitter usage. Retrieved on April 4, 2015.

4. Damn!

5. Yahoo News (October 28, 2012). Facebook More Irresistible Than Sex? Retrieved on March 15, 2015.

6. McQuail, D. (2010). McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory. London; Los Angeles: SAGE.

7. Whiting, A. & Williams, D. (2013). Why people use social media: A uses and gratifications approach. Qualitative Market Research, 16(4), 362-369. doi:10.1108/QMR-06-2013-0041

8. Understanding Addiction: How Addiction Hijacks the Brain. Retrieved on March 5, 2015.

9. McGonigal, K. (2012). The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, And What You Can Do To Get More Of It. New York: Avery

10. Twomey, R. (July 30, 2011). Xbox Addict, 20, Killed By Blood Clot After 12-Hour Gaming Sessions. Retrieved on April 4, 2015.

11. Eyal, N. (2014). Hooked: How To Build Habit-Forming Products. Penguin UK.

12. Ezumah, B. A. (2013). College students’ use of social media: Site preferences, uses and gratifications theory revisited. International Journal of Business and Social Science, 4(5)

13. LaRose, R., Lin, C. A., & Eastin, M. S. (2003). Unregulated Internet Usage: Addiction, Habit, or Deficient Self-Regulation? Media Psychology, 5:3, 225-253, doi: 10.1207/S1532785XMEP0503_01

14. Ljepava, N., Orr, R. R., Locke, S., & Ross, C. (2013). Personality and social characteristics of facebook non-users and frequent users. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(4), 1602. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2013.01.026

15. Walker, D. (March 24, 2014). Selfie addict teenager says he didn’t leave his house for six months and contemplated suicide in first TV interview. Retrieved on March 12, 2015.

16. Van Grove, J. (October 12, 2009). Young Social Mediaphiles: 36% Tweet and Check Facebook After Sex. Retrieved on March 30, 2015.

17. Healthy Computer Guide.

18. Goel, V. (March 16, 2015). Facebook Clarifies Rules on What It Bans and Why. Retrieved on April 4, 2015.

Post image used under Creative Commons Attribution. Source: johanl via Flickr

Social Media Addiction Is A Pain In The Dome: Why Rewarding Behaviour Leads To Addiction And How Developers Can Prevent Social Media Overdose

2 Responses

  1. Great post, extremely thoroughly researched with a lot of valuable insight from the author. Already decided to cut down on my social media usage!

    Gimme your money April 12, 2015 at 8:14 am #
  2. Hello, just wanted to mention, I liked this article.
    It was inspiring. Keep on posting!

    jacque January 31, 2016 at 4:19 am #

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