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Are Smartphones Addictive?: How Social Media Algorithms Cause Addiction
How are social media and smartphones programmed to be addictive? Understanding why smartphones are addictive and why social media is addictive will help you avoid getting sucked into the algorithm of addiction and make the conscious decision to avoid situations that hijack your brain. Once you understand how social media and smartphone apps are programmed to hijack your brain, you’ll be better equipped to create healthy boundaries with your computer, smartphone, and other devices.
What You Need to Know:
- Social Media platforms are designed to be addictive. They are funded by advertisers and then developed by programmers to cause users to become addicted to it.
- A recent Harvard University blog post discusses smartphone addiction and social media addiction and how they “leverage the same neural circuitry as slot machines and cocaine” to keep users constantly engaged.
- To overcome a social media addiction, you have to understand your body, your mind, and how it is being hijacked by digital technologies to regain control.
- By using natural substances that exist in foods and plants, you can hijack your own neurochemistry to overcome your addiction more easily.
How Smartphones and Social Media Hijack Your Brain
When social media giants give orders to their programmers to code algorithms for platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, or Twitter, they use psychology and the science of addiction to decide what the programmers are supposed to do. Recently, groups of programmers at these companies have started speaking out about this problem. Many digital technologies today are designed and developed to hijack the brain and behaviors in the same way that drugs of abuse are developed in a lab to be addictive.
Social media, cocaine, and slot machines are all made to keep people using. Smartphones have made social media into a legal “fix” that’s readily available anytime, anywhere. Using short-term dopamine-release-driven feedback loops, the big players in the social media industry have been able to create digital technologies that make it hard for people to put down their mobile phone for any length of time to engage in Real Life.
Creating Healthy Social Structures
People are social animals. We crave socialization and in real life beyond the screen on your smartphones, tablet, or laptop, social structures tend to consist of only about 150 people. But your smartphone and other devices contain the potential for 2 billion social connections. Our drive to be connected has actually disconnected us from real life social interactions which leads many social media users to compulsively engage with these platforms and manifest addictive behaviors and cravings that are almost identical to what cocaine users experience.
Reclaiming your place in a normal, healthy social structure of about 150 people is an important part of reclaiming your mental health! The first step is to look up from your smartphone and your social media accounts to see what’s going on around you. In time, you’ll find that there are other people around you who are doing the same thing. You’ll start to connect with these people through eye contact, the way that nature intended and, over time, develop a real-life friend group of people who have boundaries on their social media and smartphone use. Without the smartphone or a social media app between you and the other people, you’ll begin to have normal relationships instead of feeling a perpetual sense of desperation about your place in the world.
Repercussions of Smartphone and Social Media Addiction
Scientific studies have shown that social media and smartphones have led to a general increase in the following issues in users:
- Increased anxiety
- Increased depression
- Increased risk of car injury and death
- Poorer sleep and insomnia
- Higher rates of divorce that are directly attributable to inappropriate social media use
- Reduced productivity at work due to constant checking of smartphones/social media accounts
- General relationship issues
- Lack of identity
- A perpetual sense of desperation about one’s place in their social group and the world
Dopamine in Social Media
Though there are a number of neurotransmitters that may play a role in addiction, the most studied is dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that motivates us. It’s released in the brain when you have sex, exercise, or when you eat really good food. But most importantly, it’s there when we have positive social interactions with people.
In summary, dopamine is a molecule in the brain that rewards us when things are going well. It helps us know when to go and when to stop at a particular behavior. But a lack of certain nutrients in the diet can make people deficient in dopamine. Recent diet trends where people are not eating meats or animal products can quickly lead to dopamine deficiencies particularly if the diet is high in refined sugars, white breads, white rice, or high glycemic foods like corn syrup. Add a lack of positive social interactions in real life into that paradigm and the brain may become resistant to releasing dopamine without a lot of coaxing.
Luckily, you can take control over the dopamine levels in your brain through intelligent, anti-addiction nutrition, and the use of specific anti-addiction supplements, and by seeking out positive, in-person social experiences outside of social media. By creating positive boundaries around your social media and smartphone use you can get your life back and begin to be able to enjoy things like a sunset or the sense of accomplishment that should come from a job well done at the end of a day at work.
Smartphone Addiction and Profit
Just as casino owners and drug pushers make a huge profit off the addictive nature of the items they’re peddling, social media giants make a huge profit off people who get addicted to their platforms. Advertisers need to know that social media “users” will be there to see their ads. And social media developers know this and work to create psychologically powerful algorithms that will hijack user behaviors such that the user does what they want them to do.
With social media, posting a photo, making a post, or a comment is like pulling the lever on a slot machine. After you make your post, you wait for the final outcome with the same kind of anticipation that you would have if you were playing the slots in a casino. The outcomes of making a post are both positive and negative (mixed). So your brain gets confused and you end up on a downward spiral toward addiction.
How Social Media Is Programmed to Hijack Your Reward Centers
The Problem of Mixed Outcomes
One of the key components of making an algorithm addictive is to make sure that the user experiences Mixed Outcomes. Slot machines are a great example of Mixed Outcomes. When you play the slots, sometimes pulling the lever will result in a positive experience. Maybe you receive a minor reward of just a few coins. Sometimes, you have a negative experience where you receive no reward at all. Every now and then, someone will hit the jackpot. Even if it isn’t you, if you see another person hit the jackpot, it motivates you to keep trying.
Scientists have been studying how to hijack human behavior using social and environmental cues since the 1930’s. And businesses like casinos have added new levels of anecdotal knowledge to back what scientists discovered nearly 100 years ago. Social media apps use a positive experience reward pattern that’s designed to keep you engaged as much as possible. They use something called Variable Reward Schedules that were developed in the 1930’s by B.F. Skinner.
Variable Reward Schedules to Keep You Hooked
A Variable Reward Schedule happens when rewards are “scheduled” by developers to seem random to users. As a social media user, you can’t predict when you’ll have a rewarding experience and when you’ll have a negative experience. The sense that the reward pattern is random can lead to obsessive, addictive behaviors especially if it seems “easy” to get the rewards in the first place.
Social media is designed to get you to check in regularly to get those seemingly random rewards. But the rewards are NOT random. Programmers are instructed by CEO’s at Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter to design apps so that you receive rewards in random, but regular intervals that will keep your brain hooked.
As humans, we’re wired to experience positive feelings in response to positive social experiences. Any social experience that’s positive reinforces whatever behavior preceded it. In other words, the social stimuli that we receive through social media causes a release of dopamine similar to a hit of meth or cocaine.
Notification Algorithms: What You Need to Know
Notification Algorithms on Instagram are a great example of how social media has been designed to cause addiction. The Instagram platform was designed to withhold “likes” when you post a photo. So, your friends might “like” a post that you make right away, but you won’t see these likes immediately. Your brain is primed by this “disappointment” at the apparent lack of response to your post and the negative social outcome in response to your behavior.
Later, at a seemingly “random” time in the future, the Instagram algorithm will deliver a large burst of these “likes” to you. The dopamine centers in the brain respond more forcefully to these larger bursts of likes. This platform therefore makes use of the Variable Reward Schedule and Notification Algorithms to hijack our human desire for social validation and they use it to make a profit off of you. The algorithm was developed to deliver a balance of positive and negative stimuli to control your brain and your behaviors and to make you into a social media addict.
Major Takeaway: A Summary of Addictive Social Media Design Elements
-The outcomes associated with making a social media post are both positive and negative (mixed).
-Mixed outcomes can confuse your brain, especially if your brain is low on mind-fuel such as specific amino acids.
–Variable Response Schedules and Notification Algorithms are programmed into apps to make you believe that your social group is behaving differently toward you than they actually are. This can lead to a sense of alienation, depression, and it can create dissension and conflict in your social group.
Did You Know? Facebook was purposefully used to spur a social uprising in Myanmar that led to the current Rohingya crisis in that country. In many developing nations, Facebook is pre-installed on mobile phones and the people in these nations believe what they see on Facebook without ever questioning it.
-People who are addicted to social media make the platform perform better financially for shareholders
-Addiction is extremely profitable for social media.
-Social media outcomes (whether or not your posts get likes or comments) does not just depend on whether friends see and respond to what you’ve posted. Rather, the outcomes you experience and the outcomes you get to see are determined by a Notification Algorithm that may withhold or increase the number of likes and comments that are fed to you at times when it seems like you might be losing interest in the platform.
-Social media shareholders manipulate your relationships and your emotions about the people you’re close to in order to make a profit.
-Social media platforms are designed to prey on normal, unconscious human needs in a way that creates and maintains addiction to the platforms.
For more compelling information about why Social Media is so addictive, watch the documentary The Social Dilemma.
Other Important Links:
Haynes, T. (2018). Dopamine, Smartphones, & You: A Battle for Your Time. Retrieved December 12, 2020 from http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2018/dopamine-smartphones-battle-time/#:~:text=Most%20of%20your%20dopamine%20is,different%20areas%20across%20the%20brain.&text=Every%20notification%2C%20whether%20it’s%20a,social%20stimulus%20and%20dopamine%20influx.
AddictionCenter.com (n.d.). Social Media Addiction. Retrieved December 12, 2020 from https://www.addictioncenter.com/drugs/social-media-addiction/