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Jennifer Chen
May 4, 2021

Why is social media so addicting?

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You’re about to go to bed, so you decide to wind down with a bit of “bedtime browsing.” Typical stuff—Instagram, TikTok, Pinterest... But the next thing you know it’s been two hours, your mind is spinning with questions about singing and dancing cats from your YouTube rabbit hole, and you have an 8am meeting in 5 hours.

Before you get too down on your lack of willpower, know that social media platforms are purposely designed to catch your attention and suck you into interacting and feeding data back into them. This creates a cycle that feels like an addiction—sometimes even a cat video addiction. That’s because social media products are optimized for your maximum engagement. Under the shiny veneer of perfectly curated content from people who share your interests is a system created to keep you scrolling and tapping for as long as possible, regardless of how it makes you feel.

Why is your engagement such a win for content-driven apps? The way we mindlessly like, post, and read is so seamlessly ingrained into our daily life that it’s become a habit. And the more you like, post, and read, the more data you give to the system’s algorithms to help it pinpoint what keeps you scrolling. Once the algorithm knows what keeps you on, it can use that data to subtly tune what shows up on your timeline, feed, or dashboard.

This “hook model” of user engagement and habit-forming has been well-documented in the past few years. Many times, your engagement habits are formed by the app or platform sending you a trigger (e.g. notification), which leads you to take an action, that leads to some reward or satisfaction that causes you to want to invest more time into it, and the cycle continues[1].

Let’s use Twitter as an example. A Twitter trigger could be getting a notification that a comedian you like just posted. You tap into the notification and retweet with your commentary, or even respond directly to it. Then, more users continue to interact with you, whether by retweeting you or responding. The “reward” of people interacting with you show up as more triggers in the form of notifications (@datacurious liked your Tweet). This whole time, the more you interact and engage, the more time you invest in—if you want to stay relevant, you have to keep participating.

Even though it’s appealing to make a mid-year resolution to “quit social media cold turkey,” there’s no clear solution here. Opting out is a valid option, but there are other actions you can take before going to the “all-or-nothing” route. You can try taking a more questioning approach to the material you’re consuming, and ask yourself:

  • Is this content I am genuinely interested in?
  • Does this content make me feel good? Does it improve or worsen my mental state?
  • What’s my reason for following this person or looking at this type of content?
  • Am I okay with the tradeoff that my data from this session will be used to fine-tune my browsing?
  • What time is it, anyway? How do I want to spend my next half hour? Continuing on this app, or...

If any of these questions make you want to reframe how use engagement-heavy apps (no offense, YouTubecat videos), there are actions you can take that help you curate your experience to be what you want:

  • Block, mute, or unfollow users whose content you may not be interested in. (Remember, you don’t have to follow someone just because they follow you.)
  • Take advantage of apps that let you block certain keywords so any posts that contain that content won’t show up in your feed.
  • Use your “screen time” feature on your devices to check in on how much time a day you spend on different platforms.

While social media is inherently designed to take advantage of your attention span—even at the cost of your mental wellbeing and privacy—it’s important to note that social media is not all evil, or that good things can’t come out of it. Just try to be mindful of what content you’re taking in, and shape your social media experience into one that’s healthy for you.


[1] Eyal, Nir, “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products." Penguin, 2014.

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