What Makes Social Media So Addictive?

Maddy Osman

October 19, 2017

Maddy Osman

October 19, 2017

When you venture out of your home, it isn't uncommon to see people walking with their heads bowed down, looking at their phones. Peeking over their shoulders, you’re more than likely to see their mobile screens filled with the news feed of a popular social media site.  

According to a study by the marketers at Mediakix, people spend more time on social media each day than they do on eating, drinking, and socializing combined. One of the most compelling social media addiction statistics is that people spend two hours a day on social media, which equals 5 years and 4 months in one lifetime! And that’s just based on current social media use—no one knows exactly what the future holds.

Another study by SmartInsights found that, in a minute, people publish 3.3 million Facebook posts, 448,800 tweets, 65,972 Instagram photos, and 500 hours of YouTube video. Clearly, it’s getting harder and harder to put our ever-present phones down.

Part 1: Why Is Social Media So Addictive?

One thing that probably contributes to social media being so addictive is the role it played in the rise of the digital age. While social media was becoming popular, the internet also became more widely used, cheaper to access, and faster to load content.

The rise of mobile phones with internet capabilities and mobile internet also made it easier for social media to be available wherever you go, and regardless of whatever you’re doing. Thanks to the popularity of social media, you can constantly and instantaneously update your network about what you’re eating, what you’re wearing, and who you’re with.

So which factors and features make social media addictive?

The Like Button

When Justin Rosenstein—one of the four designers of Facebook’s ‘Like’ Button—came up with the idea for it, he did not think it would turn into a cultural phenomenon.

“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.”

The negative side effects he refers might include the fact that so many offline activities by Facebook users are now driven by “likes”. For example, are you traveling somewhere new? Your social media addiction may result in you feeling the need to post about it on social media for positive affirmation in the form of likes. It’s possible that being able to post about your trip on social media was in fact one of the driving forces pushing you to take it in the first place.

It has gotten to the point where people do a lot of crazy things for the sake of updating their social media feeds, and while these things may not contribute positively to mental health, it is certainly a good avenue for marketing and advertising efforts by businesses. Brands are spending 65% more on social advertising this year than last, and total social media ad spend is estimated to be $35 billion in 2017.

But why exactly should brands spend on social advertising? Because it’s easy to see why social media is addictive. It’s hard to imagine something more effective than working to reach customers where they’re constantly (and happily) hanging out.

Your Ego

Having your own space online means you have free reign to post about your favorite subject: yourself. After all, your profile, your rules, and no one is forcing you to ‘friend’ them or ‘follow’ them. In general, humans spend 30-40% of conversations talking about themselves. Interestingly, that number reaches up to 80% on social media posts.

FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)

FOMO is one of the leading drivers of social media addiction. People use social media to post about the best things happening in their life, which gives them a self-esteem boost—especially when the people in their networks affirm them.

But even when experiencing something great, people often wonder if there is something better and more exciting happening at the same time, so they go on social media to check. Social media provides the proof that there are other great things happening, through photos and status updates. When people compare what they’re doing to what other people are doing, they may start to feel negative about what they would otherwise perceive as a good time.

Sometimes people forget that social media can be both a world unto itself (suitable for undirected exploration) and also an extension of real life. Even if you’re not bothered by other people having more fun than you, social media is a compelling place to procrastinate.

A "High" of Sorts

When you see people reacting to or ‘liking’ what you post about, it validates you and makes you feel good. When you see that new notification alert, your brain secretes a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which controls the brain’s pleasure and reward center. The more dopamine released, the more the brain recognizes that it is triggered by a reward (and the brain always craves more).

This concept is best explained by NYU professor Adam Alter, author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked:

“When someone likes an Instagram post, or any content that you share, it’s 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. If you knew that every time you posted something you’d get a 100 likes, it would become boring really fast.”

This video does a great job of explaining how to take this concept into your own hands to create habit-forming products: 


Related to a high is the idea of gamification—particularly on mobile. In addition to goofy applications like Farmville and Candy Crush contributing to Facebook addiction, Snapchat and Instagram are great examples of social networks that use gamification by allowing users to play around with filters. Snapchat even has their own points system and rewards users with trophies to encourage them to send high quantities of snaps, all the time.

Your Own, Personal Bubble

Social media can serve as your own personal chunk of the internet. There are many who grew up with Xanga, Blogger, and now Tumblr blogs. They turned to these online platforms and internet strangers in order to express what they couldn't tell the people in their “real” lives.

Thanks to different levels of privacy both then and now, it’s easy to create a news feed that only contains the thoughts of like minded people. While this effectively cuts out the trolls it can also encourage a homogenized world view. It’s up to you to decide if you’re OK with that when trimming your friend list based on viewpoint differences.

On the idea of social media acting as a personal bubble, consider what British filmmaker Adam Curtis said in a New York Times interview:

On a social-media network, it’s very much like being in a heroin bubble. As a radical artist in the 1970s, you used to go and take heroin and wander through the chaos and the collapsing Lower East Side, and you felt safe. That’s very like now. You know you aren’t safe, but you feel safe because everyone is like you. But you don’t have to take heroin, so it’s brilliant. You don’t get addicted, or maybe you do. Mostly you do.”

It’s for this same reason that the term “attention economy” was coined.

The Attention Economy

The term “attention economy” is relatively new and refers to the supply and demand of a person's attention, which is the commodity traded on the internet.

The concept is pretty simple: the more attention a platform can pull, the more effective (and valuable) its advertising space becomes. Unfortunately, human attention is a limited resource, so social networks are working hard to make each experience as seamless and as engaging as possible, feeding off our attention little by little through dopamine boosts.

If companies aren't already taking advantage of being on social media, they should start. Consider the benefits of:


But with so many people to compete with, how do you make your social media posts stand out?

Part 2: How to Make Your Social Media Posts Stand Out


Posting at the Best Times—Consistently

Consistency is key, which includes regularly posting updates. On that note, it helps to post at a set time, making (and testing) assumptions for when your target customer will likely be online. Though data varies by industry and audience, consider the best times to post on social media. If you're not always online, you can schedule content by using tools like Rivuu, which has a built in time picker that pulls historical data directly from your Facebook account, showing you when you had the most impressions over the past two months as you are writing the post.

Target Your Posts with Content Categories

Of course, the timing of your posts doesn’t matter if the content isn't specifically tailored to your audience. Ideally, you’ll create and post a variety of content related to your niche: videos, photos, infographics, branded tips, and blog posts.

With limited budget or time, you can repurpose content by changing its form (ex/ make a blog post out of a video). It also helps to categorise your content to make it easier to schedule, and ensures that each posts fits to a specific segment of your audience.

This adds to the consistency of your posting, so that users receive a regular and familiar prompt to check their newsfeed for your latest update.  A typical example of this would be an e-commerce store running a weekly flash sale on a different product. By creating the "Flash-Sale" content category, aimed at bargain hunting customers, you are prompting them to check every Monday for the latest offer.

Be Genuinely Helpful

Make sure that whatever content you post is genuinely helpful to your audience. If you can create a social profile for your company that acts as a guide to those interested in your industry, they’ll be compelled to frequently check back for updates. As a reward for the awesome information you provide, they’ll then be more receptive to the occasional salesy message from your company.

Over the past few years there has been an explosion of "lifehacker" content, ranging from baking tips to household DIY. Companies try to show the utility of their products through this kind of sponsored content in a way that will be instantly practical and meaningful in our everyday lives (although mostly not very profound!). 

 Ikea are a great example of a company that have cottoned onto the popularity of this hacking mentality, and have created countless DIY guides for customers in different niches.

Create a Distinctive Look & Feel

Consistency also refers to style and branding. Once you’ve found an aesthetic that works for your brand, stick with it. That way, when your posts come up on the news feed, your followers will know they’re yours right away.

kimk.pngKim Kardashian is the queen of a consistent aesthetic on Instagram.

Listen to Your Fans

Use social listening to determine the hot topics your audience is interested in. On that note, interact with your followers. The most popular social networks employ an algorithm to display posts that people frequently engage and interact with, so talking with your audience will not only give you insights into their opinions, but also allow their network to see how they've been interacting with you.

wendys.png
Wendy’s Twitter account is sometimes hilarious, but always helpful with regards to customer queries.

The addictive nature of social media has made it a favourite for marketers and advertisers as a way to reach targeted and engaged audiences.

Take advantage of this social media addiction by planning content accordingly, and using the right tools to be effective. If you need help achieving this, contact the Hello Social team.

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