Technology and Media | Consumer Fraud Protection

Why is Social Media Addictive?

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Social media platforms may appeal to certain components of our psychology and brain chemistry to keep us coming back, and studies have found social media usage can lead to addictive behavior and serious consequences. Read about how social media is addictive below.

What is social media addiction?

Although there is no formal diagnosis for social media addiction, researchers have started studying social media addiction using six criteria that are used to identify other types of addiction. These traditional criteria broadly reflect excessive use of a product, a compulsion to use the product, and continued use occurring at the expense of other things in the user’s life, such as their health.

One group of researchers has also developed an addiction metric specifically for social media addiction called the Bergen Social Networking Addiction Scale (BSNAS). This metric measures a person’s social media habits on a scale of 1 (very rarely) to 5 (very often) for each item. 

  1. Salience: A heightened state of attention. People are asked how much time they spend thinking about social media and planning to use it.
  2. Mood modification: Use of the platform to change feelings. Users are asked how often they turn to social media to forget about other things in their lives.
  3. Tolerance: The amount needed to satisfy increases. People are asked how often they feel the urge to use a platform and whether that urge has increased.
  4. Withdrawal: Consequences of not using the platform. Addicted individuals are asked to identify uncomfortable impacts and how bad they are, including restlessness, racing thoughts and poor moods.
  5. Conflict: How much social media negatively affects a person’s day-to-day life. People rate the negative impact of social media use on their real-life mental health, relationships, job or studies.
  6. Relapse: Addicts often try to stop using on their own before they seek help. They are evaluated on their attempts, how long they lasted and how often they’ve tried.

Using this scale can help determine the extent of a person’s use of social media, and can help people seeking treatment for their social media addiction while also helping medical professionals determine the best course of treatment. If you have a family member or other loved one exhibiting these addictive behaviors, it may indicate that it’s time to seek help.

Addiction to social media should be treated seriously. It can affect anyone, but platforms often target vulnerable groups like tweens and teens.

Contact a social media addiction attorney

You may be eligible to sue if you or your child’s mental health has been hurt by using social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. Contact Motley Rice today for more information about a social media lawsuit.

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How is social media addictive?

According to experts, the addictive potential of social media is caused by the way that social media platforms exploit our brain chemistry and psychology. In particular, researchers have identified intermittent reinforcement and dopamine secretion as two reasons for the addictive potential of social media. 

Intermittent reinforcement

In many ways, social media apps can work like slot machines, which give users rewards, such as lights and sounds when the user “wins,” but do so unpredictably so that users have to keep coming back to the machine rather than risk “missing out” on another reward.

On social networking sites, users are drawn in by the idea of being connected and entertained. They are rewarded with notifications, likes, comments, reposts and engagement, but they never know when these rewards are going to come so they have to use them over and over again.

Tweens and teens are at higher risk of social media addiction because their developmental stages make them more susceptible to this reward feedback loop. The parts of their brain responsible for impulse control are not fully developed compared to an adult’s.

Hormone secretion

Oxytocin and dopamine are colloquially known as the “happy hormones.” These neurotransmitters play an important part in how our brains experience rewards. When we become adolescents, we begin to receive a larger rush of these hormones whenever we have a positive social interaction. This includes receiving favorable attention on social media platforms.

Repeated activities that induce a dopamine release help create a stronger link between those activities and the happy feeling from the dopamine. With enough repetition, our brains may even release dopamine in anticipation of the activity—including using social media—not just during it. And even if we don’t have a positive interaction, the possibility that we might keeps us coming back again and again.

As New York University Professor Adam Alter has explained, using social media is “a little bit like taking a drug. As far as your brain is concerned, it’s a very similar experience. Now the reason why is because it’s not guaranteed that you’re going to get likes on your posts. And it’s the unpredictability of that process that makes it so addictive.” 

Is social media designed to be addictive?

The question at the heart of both social media lawsuits and legislation about the design of social media platforms is whether or not platform developers have purposefully shaped their algorithms to remain addictive. After all, social media sites make money from collecting user information and selling ads, activities that are more profitable if users stay online longer.

Social media lawyers are working to prove that these platforms know exactly what they are doing. According to the master complaint, platforms have designed their products to draw young people in and keep them coming back, so that they can collect more of kids’ data to protect their bottom lines.

“Each Defendant [Meta, Snap, ByteDance, Google] has designed, engineered, marketed, and operated its products to maximize the number of children who download and use them compulsively. Children are more vulnerable users and have more free time on their hands than their adult counterparts. Because children use Defendants’ products more, they see more ads, and as a result generate more ad revenue for Defendants. Young users also generate a trove of data about their preferences, habits, and behaviors. That information is Defendants’ most valuable commodity. Defendants mine and commodify that data, including by selling to advertisers the ability to reach incredibly narrow tranches of the population, including children.”
- Social Media Harm Lawsuit Complaint Excerpt

Use of social media may lead to low self-esteem, eating disorders, body image issues and mental health issues. These effects of social media addiction are particularly concerning for young people.

Read the FAQs below to learn about what lawsuits assert about some social media platforms and apps.

Frequently asked questions about social media addiction

Why am I addicted to social media?

Social media apps are designed to appeal to our brain chemistry and psychology. Apps like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat are seemingly designed to keep users engaged by preying on our brain's natural instincts and keep us online or coming back for more. 

Why would kids get addicted to TikTok?

TikTok utilizes a simple user interface focused around the platform’s “For You” feature that draws young users in and keeps them scrolling with minimal interruptions. A 2022 Pew Research Center survey found 67% of American teenagers use TikTok, with more than half (58%) using it daily. Parents have filed mental health lawsuits alleging TikTok addiction has hurt their children.

Why is Instagram so addictive?

Meta, Instagram’s parent company, has designed the app interface to be highly engaging. One complaint against Meta says, “intermittent rewards keeps users endlessly scrolling in search of a dopamine release, oftentimes despite their desire to put their phone down and move onto other activities.” This complaint says overuse of Instagram can lead to behavioral addictions.

Why is Snapchat so addictive?

Snapchat has one of the most unique app structures of the top platforms. It uses disappearing messages and “streaks” to create an artificial sense of urgency in its users. This can lead users to obsessively check the app for new messages and ensure their streaks continue uninterrupted.

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  2. Brown Undergraduate Journal of Public Health. What Makes TikTok so Addictive?: An Analysis of the Mechanisms Underlying the World’s Latest Social Media Craze.
  3. American Psychological Association. Why young brains are especially vulnerable to social media.
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  6. Business Insider. What happens to your brain when you get a like on Instagram
  7. Emily Vogels et al. Teens, Social Media and Technology 2022. Pew Research Center