The Adolescent Social Media Use

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Last year, the UK government launched an enquiry into young people’s social media use to understand the effect of social media on young people’s mental health. I was asked to give oral evidence to the Science and Technology Committee following our written submission outlining the evidence concerning excessive social media use and social media addiction. Although there are many who will say that individuals cannot become addicted to social media, research suggests that a small minority of adolescents genuinely become addicted to social media in the same way that other individuals become addicted to activities such as drinking alcohol or gambling. More specifically, such individuals experience what I consider to be the six core components of addiction (i.e., salience, conflict, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, and relapse).

For these individuals, using social media becomes the single most important activity in their lives (salience); they engage in social media use to the neglect of everything else in their lives and compromise their social relationships and educational and/or occupational activities (conflict); they use social media as a way to modify their mood states (mood modification); they have built up the amount of time they spend every day on social media (tolerance); they experience unpleasant psychological and physical effects if they can’t engage in social media use (withdrawal effects); and they have trouble in trying to cut down and stop using social media (relapse) according to Mark Nicholas BBC Social correspondent

I am the first to admit that the number of adolescents that would fulfill all of these criteria is small, but that does not mean social media addiction does not exist. Most adolescents who are heavy users of social media are what I would describe as habitual users (rather than addicted users). Some habitual users may experience problematic aspects to their social media use (such as decreased productivity at school or college, and/or not spending enough quality time with their family), but these individuals would not be classed as social media addicts using my own criteria. For Digital Marketing Agency Check Vivid Digital 

However, there are many psychological ‘hooks’ that play a part in habitual social media use and explain why it is so prevalent. Over the course of two articles, I’ll briefly outline some of the main factors facilitating habitual social media use among adolescents (i.e., unpredictable rewards, social affirmation and validation, FOMO [fear of missing out], smartphone sounds and vibrations, social connection, reciprocal liking, social competition, and psychological investment).

Unpredictable rewards

One of the key psychological characteristics in habitual social media use is the unpredictability and randomness of what happens within social media platforms. The rewards—which may be physiological, psychological and/or social—can be infrequent, but even the anticipation of one of these rewards can be psychologically and/or physiologically pleasing.

The rewards are what psychologists refer to as variable reinforcement schedules and is one of the main reasons why social media users repeatedly check their screens. Social media sites are ‘chock-a-block’ with unpredictable rewards. Habitual social media users never know if their next message or notification will be the one that makes make them feel really good. In short, random rewards keep individuals responding for longer.

Social affirmation and validation

Another key ingredient that facilitates habitual social media use is the ‘like’ button. The feature was first introduced by Facebook back in February 2009, but such a simple characteristic has reaped huge rewards in terms of adolescents repeatedly coming back to check their social media platforms, and what some have described as a ‘craving for validation.’ Some media reports have described the use of ‘like’ buttons as ‘hijacking’ the social reward systems of a user’s brain.For more info check SEO Services in London

While I have little doubt that such rewards (or the anticipation of such rewards) release dopamine, the idea that dopamine ‘hijacks the brain’ and leads to ‘compulsive loops’ are analogies used in the media rather than the phrases used by scientists (the word ‘hijack’ is emotionally-laden to say the least). It has also been claimed that the few seconds it takes for social media applications to open on mobile devices is a deliberate ploy to increase anticipatory feelings of the user (because the anticipation of a reward is almost as good as the reward itself in releasing dopamine). Justin Rosenstein, one of the designers of the ‘like’ button on Facebook said that:

“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.”

Fear of missing out

Recent research has suggested that high engagement in social networking is partially due to what has been named the ‘fear of missing out’ (FOMO). According to Andrew Przybylski and his colleagues, FOMO is “a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent.” Higher levels of FOMO have been associated with greater engagement with Facebook, lower general mood, lower wellbeing, and lower life satisfaction, mixed feelings when using social media, as well as inappropriate and dangerous social networking site use. In addition to this, research suggests that FOMO predicts problematic SNS use and is associated with social media addiction.

Smartphone sounds and vibrations

What do most adolescents do when they hear the ring, ping, buzz, or vibration (if the smartphone is on ‘silent’ mode) of an incoming message or notification? For the overwhelming majority of them, they react to this stimulus by looking at the screens on their mobile devices and checking out what was sent. This creates a trigger for a routine and is exactly what social media operators want you to do. In 2017, Julian Morgans described the ‘attention economy’ referring to the demand of individuals’ attention, with attention being the commodity that is traded online. He also noted:

“The business model is simple: the more attention a platform can pull, the more effective its advertising space becomes, allowing it to charge advertisers more”. Sounds and vibrations are deliberately designed and distracting technologies that facilitate users’ attentions away from the offline world and back to life online – pulling individuals ‘out of the moment’ and is arguably an example of what Adam Alter calls ‘persuasive technology’.

All online commercial operators are competing for an individual’s time and attention. First, they have to get an individual’s attention (using every method at their disposal) and when they have got the person’s attention, they have to try and make the experience on their website as engaging as possible. Sean Parker (founding president of Facebook) recently acknowledged that the company was formed to distract individuals rather than unite them.

More specifically he said that Facebook’s thought process was simple: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible? Facebook’s architects exploited a vulnerability in human psychology. Whenever someone likes or comments on a post or photograph we give you a little dopamine hit”.

Social connection

Human beings have been described as ‘social animals’ and as such most individuals want to be connected with other like-minded individuals. Social networks provide the medium for adolescents to connect in an instantaneous way (and is another key ingredient in repetitive use).

Reciprocal liking

Reciprocal liking is tendency for individuals to like others who express a liking for themselves (‘I like you because you like me’). Social relationships online are often facilitated by simple forms of social reciprocity. For instance, when an individual presses the ‘like’ button on a selfie that has been uploaded onto a social networking site, the individual receiving the ‘like’ is more likely to reciprocate if the other individual posts an online selfie.

Social media operators can exploit this human condition of reciprocal liking by alerting individuals when another person has read something posted or communicated online. Such alerts encourage the receiving individuals to respond.

Social competition

In addition to the human need to connect and reciprocate, individuals also like to be socially competitive. This can also be a driving force in repeated and habitual social media use. As soon as the ‘like’ button was introduced on Facebook, it also meant that individuals could keep count of the number of ‘likes’ they received in relation to the content posted. ‘Likes’ have a numerical value and users use such statistics as a way of raising or boosting self-esteem.

This make social media users create a routine and habitually check their social media. Numerical indicators keep individuals coming back for more likes and individuals also want to beat their own numerical scores as well as those of others. In some recent research we did on obsessive selfie-taking, social competition (i.e., getting the most ‘likes’ for selfies posted online) was one of the major reasons for posting selfies in the first place.

Psychological investment

The more that an individual invests in something (whether it is time, money and/or effort), the more they tend to persist in the behaviour. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘sunk cost’ bias referring to a cost that has already been incurred and cannot be recovered. Such behaviour helps explain why individuals carry on playing a national lottery game despite never winning large jackpots.

It can also help explain why some individuals carry on investing large amounts of time in social media. Individuals have spent so much time psychologically invested that to stop doing it would mean that all their previous time spent on social media sites has been a complete waste of their time. The introduction of streaks on Snapchat are a good example. An individual’s streak number is simply the number of consecutive days that they have been ‘snapping’ with another individual (e.g., a score of 100 would mean that one individual has sent photos to another individual on Snapchat for 100 consecutive days).

The whole point of a Snapchat streak is to see how long an individual can keep it going. The higher the streak score, the longer an individual is likely to persist in sending photos every day to the other person. The more friends that an individual has on Snapchat, the greater the number of different streak scores and the more time they spend on Snapchat.

Concluding remarks

Scholars such as Adam Alter do not believe that social media platforms are designed to be addictive per se. However, they are certainly designed to get users (many of which are adolescents) coming back again and again (so-called ‘stickiness’ that relies on the unpredictable and random rewards). Habitual behaviour is a powerful reinforcer. It is about using daily routines to create habits (turning on a video game console as soon as a teenager enters their bedroom, or making a drink as soon as you as an individual gets back home from school).

The more an individual invests in carrying out a behaviour, they more they will persist in repeating it. Social media operators are trying to grab adolescent attentions and can do it through sounds, vibrations and/or notifications. Other psychosocial factors are also involved in habitual social media use such as fear of missing out (FOMO), social connection, reciprocal liking, and social competition.

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