How Social Media Sites Are Designed To Get You Hooked

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How Social Media Sites Are Designed To Get You Hooked

By May Wilkerson 12/15/15

If you feel powerless over your use of social media, you’re not alone.

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If you’ve ever felt your heart speed up a little at the site of “notifications,” you know that social media addiction is real. Like many addictions, you may be spending even more time on social media sites than you realize. And it’s not (entirely) your fault. Most of these networking sites, like Facebook and Twitter, are built to get you hooked.

Earlier this month, Cornell Information Science published research that examined how difficult it is for many people to quit Facebook and other social networks. The study used data from a site called 99DaysofFreedom.com, which encourages people to take 99 days off from Facebook. Most people who signed up with the full intention of quitting couldn’t last more than a few days, the study found. Researchers say Facebook addiction is largely created by FOMO—or “fear of missing out”—that feeling many people have that they are missing out on conversations, events, and gossip happening online.

Instagram software engineer Greg Hochmuth says social networking sites are also addictive because of something called “the network effect.” This is the idea that a network becomes more appealing as more people are connected to it; if everyone seems to have a Facebook or Instagram account, no one wants to be left out.

These sites also rely heavily on tricks to get people addicted, including:

Notifications. Most social sites use a notification number, which shows the number of people who have mentioned, engaged, or followed you. To draw you in, the notification number appears on the app icon, then on the top or bottom menu. This psychological trick tells you that there's information you want to know, but requires you to click through to the site to find out more.

Over time, the brain becomes wired to associate the notification number with dopamine rush of attention or social engagement. It’s compulsive and eventually becomes addictive.

Algorithmic filtering. This is one of the most powerful tools that social media sites use to keep people hooked. Sites like Facebook, Google+ and, soon, Twitter, are constantly tweaking complex algorithms and monitoring users’ responses. They update how they filter information in order to maximize users’ engagement. So, the aim of these sites is to get more addictive over time, increasing how many people use them and how often. Facebook has been tweaking its “addiction algorithm” the longest, which could explain why the site now has more than a billion users.

YouTube is not immune to these tactics, either. The video-watching site is not exactly a social networking site, but it has become massively popular, especially among people under 20 who use it as their primary source of entertainment. YouTube encourages users to keep clicking through from one video to the next. This becomes a compulsion, like channel surfing, but on a TV with infinite channels.

Another trick YouTube videos rely on is conveying a sense of intimacy. YouTube subjects often speak directly into the camera to make viewers feel like they’re in a personal relationship with the person they’re watching. Additionally, the comments section of these videos offer users a feeling of social networking that is addictive for the same reason as Facebook or Twitter.

So how do you kick your addiction?

If you feel powerless over your use of social media, you’re not alone. Experts recommend that you try limiting your social media use to once a day. Schedule it, and carefully track the amount of time you spend on these sites. There are also apps, like “Freedom,” that let you disable your use of specific sites for a period of time.

Social media addiction is legitimate and can harm your career, relationships, and overall quality of life. Though “recovery” programs for social media addiction are still a new concept, there are increasing numbers of rehabs, “digital detoxes,” and 12-step groups aimed at treating this growing problem.

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