How Social Media make us addicted?

7 min read -

People spend 1/7 of their waking time on social media, according to Datareportal. And honestly it’s not a surprise, screens are omnipresent in our lives, it’s the first thing we use when we wake up and the last thing we use before falling asleep, you are looking at one right now. Nowadays, big tech companies hire neuroscientists to design our experience on social media, in order to make us use them as much time as possible.

How to create habits?

In Hooked, Nir Eyal explains the process of what he calls a “Hook”, which is “an experience designed to connect the user’s problem to the company’s solution with enough frequency to form a habit”.

The Hook schema

The Hook schema

The trigger is the first part of building a habit. Indeed, new habits need a foundation upon which to build, it’s the actuator of behavior and it comes in two types: external and internal.

  • The external trigger is a technology which prompts to action and tells the user what to do next. For example, a Facebook notification that informs you of a new friend request.
  • But external triggers are not enough to build habits, users must trigger themselves with internal triggers, which represent their intrinsic motivations. Indeed, the product must connect to the internal goals of a user in order to make him activate the external trigger. Boredom is a common internal trigger, if Facebook sends to the user a notification while the user is bored, there is a lot of chance for him to open it. He could even open the app without any external trigger, just because he unconsciously linked the feeling of boredom with the use of Facebook.

The action is the second step, it’s the simplest behavior done in anticipation of a reward. It’s as simple as opening Instagram, looking for a “reward”, which in this case is new pictures in the feed. To make users perform an action, it’s crucial to fit the Fogg model: B =MAT (Where B = behavior, M = Motivation, A = Ability, and T = Trigger). Indeed, without enough motivation or ability from the user nor any trigger to activate, no action will be taken.

Then, the reward, it’s the reason why the user opened the app in the first place like new tweets on Twitter for example. But to create strong habits, it’s not efficient enough to just deliver constantly a reward. The nucleus accumbens is the pleasure center of the brain, which becomes active when we crave something, like sex, food, drugs, etc… What is interesting is that it becomes more active in anticipation of a reward than when it gets it: The moment between the action and the reward “supercharge” this itch. Furthermore, habits will be even stronger if the reward is granted after a random number of action, this psychological tool is called the Variable Reward Schedules. It’s the unpredictability of that process that makes it so addictive.

The hook is complete in the last step: investment. When the user contributes to the improvement of the product, the value he will bring to the product will increase drastically. In the case of YouTube, a user may subscribe to some channels so he will see more content he likes and YouTube will know more precisely what is better to show him.

Now, think about it, which successful social media does not use these mechanisms ? (Spoiler: none)

Use case: Tinder

Tinder is the number 1 dating app. With an estimated 50 million worldwide users and 2 billion swipe per day, Tinder understood very well how to create habits.

Here is how Tinder works: Several profiles are presented one by one to the user, who can swipe to the right to “like” someone or swipe to the left to pass. If someone likes the user back it’s a “match” and these two users will be able to text each other.



The reason why someone would use Tinder is simple: It’s to meet people and have sex. It’s interesting because it’s one of the most primitive internal triggers someone could have, but it’s not the only one. Indeed, the prevailing reason for using Tinder is the ego, knowing that someone finds you attractive is extremely satisfying and it’s not uncommon to meet someone who uses Tinder only to have matches, but without any intention to send messages and meet people.

Tinder also has powerful external triggers, when there is a match, a notification is sent to both users. It’s hard to ignore this notification because it’s itching to know who likes you, so the user will open the app and see who he matched. Eventually, the user goes to the home screen and start to swipe again.

Swiping make users addict because it’s an action which fit the Fogg model:

  • Motivation: The promise to have a match satisfies the user’s need to be socially accepted and to feel attractive. He could also meet this person and fulfill his need for affection or sex.
  • Ability: Swiping with fingers is easy and fast, everyone can do it with only one hand available
  • Trigger: The UI (User Interface) of the app makes it very clear to the user what he must do to get the reward.

The reward of swiping is clear: have a match, which fulfills many human needs, like the desire of sex, affection, feeling attractive… And it’s also unpredictable because it uses the Variable Reward Schedules: ****potential matches will be randomly dispersed. Every swipe is like starting a slot machine, where the jackpot is a match. It’s also interesting to note that when a user launches Tinder, his few first swipes will have more chance to activate a match, increasing the pleasure in his brain and push him to continue.

Finally, every time a user swipes someone, it contributes to have this person swipes him back and create a match, it’s an investment. Furthermore, with every action taken on the app, the Tinder algorithm works better and makes you even more addicted by showing you profiles you will find attractive.

All social networks apply the hook model. As an example, the infinite feed is a feature most social networks use to never break the user’s navigation on the app. Any feature in any social network is designed to make users spend as much time as possible on the app.

What social networks want is your attention

The term **attention economy **refers to the supply and demand of a person’s attention. Most social networks are free for the users, as Facebook says right on their home page: “it’s free and always will be”. But if users don’t pay with money, they pay with their attention. Indeed, advertisers are the true customers of social media, whereas the product is users’ attention. And the more time you spend on social networks, the more ads the social network can show you. As Sean Parker, ex-president of Facebook, said at an event in Philadelphia, the objective while developing Facebook was “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?”.

Also, with each action a user does on a social network, it knows more about him and can show him more personalized ads. As the Cambridge Analytica case demonstrated, data is very powerful: The more data social networks have on a user, the more it can target him precisely with ads.

Cambridge Analytica claimed to have collected up to [5,000 data points on over 220 million Americans]

Cambridge Analytica claimed to have collected up to 5,000 data points on over 220 million Americans

How bad is it?

According to Chamath Palihapitiya, former Vice President of User Growth at Facebook, “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works”. He feels guilty, just like Aza Raskin, the inventor of endless scrolling, but how much this addiction to social networks affects society?

A large part of society has become addicted to social media. In a study published by Lookout, 73% of people say they feel panicked when they lose their phone, and according to another study from Mediatik, people spend more time on social media each day than they do on eating, drinking, and socializing combined: it’s 5 years and 4 months in a lifetime. Also, 83% of people have experienced phantom phone sensations, the false perception that one’s cell phone is ringing, vibrating, or blinking. This addiction is, of course, time-consuming, but can also lead to depression.

Tristan Harris was a design ethicist at Google, in one of his essays, he explains how tech companies design people’s lives and why it’s a problem. He points out a problem he calls fundamental misalignment: What the attention economy wants is not the same as what users want for their lives. He calls for a new kind of ergonomic in technological products, the holistic ergonomic:

“Holistic Ergonomics recognizes our holistic mental and emotional limits and aligns them with the holistic goals we have for our lives. Holistic Ergonomics is built to give us back agency in an increasingly persuasive attention economy.”

Tristan Harris is not the only one who wants to break the wheel of the users’ attention race, but is it even possible to achieve this utopia where social networks and users are moving towards the same goal?