Why We Are Addicted To Social Media: The Psychology of Likes

Social Media Addiction

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor who assists those struggling with substance abuse, gambling, gaming, and internet addiction.

On the go? Listen to the audio version of the article here:

Is social media this generation’s heroin? Are we raising a generation of social media junkies, dropping in and out of the “real world,” always chasing that next like-button high?

I’ve dug into the research to answer the question of why we are addicted to likes on social media, and this is what I’ve found:

Likes on social media are addictive because they affect your brain, similar to taking chemical substances. Likes symbolize a gain in reputation, causing you to constantly compare yourself to your peers.

Let’s look at the research in more depth.

Also, if you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, you can check out my resource page for suggestions on how to find help.

What’s Happening In Your Brain?

Although it seems harmless, recent evidence suggests that social media use activates the same reward centers in the brain triggered by addictions to chemical compounds.

Even though we are not consuming a chemical, compulsive social media use can be classified as an addiction. So if social media use can be classified as an addiction, what does it do to your brain?

Recent neurological research points to the importance of the brain’s reward-circuit. Meshi et al. (2013) used functional neuroimaging data to uncover the impact of Facebook use on the nucleus accumbens; the brains pleasure-center within the reward-circuitry:

“…reward-related activity in the left nucleus accumbens predicts Facebook use.”

Also, they found “gains in reputation” to be the primary reward stimulus. The brain’s mechanism for processing self-relevant gains in reputation through Facebook use mirrors the reward circuitry activated through addiction to psychotropic substances.

According to Polk (2015), addiction fundamentally results from a prediction error in the brain. When the nucleus accumbens is stimulated beyond an expectation, the ventral tegmental area (VTA) releases dopamine, encouraging learning, as held by the Rescorla-Wagner model. Polk emphasizes the role of dopamine as a neurotransmitter associated with craving and reward expectation, putting individuals at risk of compulsive behaviors when reencountering a trigger associated with the potential reward.

This reward circuitry applies to digital addictions such as Facebook through the stimulus of unexpected gains in perceived reputation when sharing a piece of content.

Likes, comments, and shares are all potential sources of these unexpected gains, stimulating the nucleus accumbens, activating the dopamine response from the VTA.

Over time, the nucleus accumbens adapts to the dopamine response, requiring increasing stimulation.

This may come in the form of seeking more likes, comments, shares, or spending an increasing amount of time using social media technologies, even at the peril of our safety and the safety of others while driving.

Recent legislation banning the use of hand-held technologies while operating a motor vehicle is a response to this increasingly prevalent addiction.

The impact of Addictive behaviors on the brain reflects changing attitudes toward addiction.

Addictions were once considered a moral issue based on the weak-will of the user. Then, addictions became classified as a disease under the medical model. More recently, addictions are often viewed as an ineffective way to cope with unmet life needs.

This humanistic approach is supported by the evidence explaining how social media and heroin have more in common than we might expect. As Adam Curtis states in an interview with the New York Times:

“On a social-media network, it’s very much like being in a heroin bubble. As a radical artist in the 1970s, you used to go and take heroin and wander through the chaos and the collapsing Lower East Side, and you felt safe. That’s very like now. You know you aren’t safe, but you feel safe because everyone is like you. But you don’t have to take heroin, so it’s brilliant. You don’t get addicted, or maybe you do. Mostly you do.”

A recent study on heroin use argues that everything we know about addiction is wrong. The main findings demonstrate that individuals were not abusing substances because they were chemically hooked; they are abusing substances because of a deeper underlying issue; they lack a sense of social belonging and connection.

This is why it is relatively easy for a socially connected individual to stop using painkillers after an operation when compared to individuals who are dealing with deeper issues such as social isolation.

But if Facebook is a social media platform, does it solve our underlying connection problem, or does it make it worse?

Does Social Media Isolate Us?

It depends on how you use it.

Facebook’s mission is to “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” But is social media actually bringing us together?

As a sociologist, I took a look at the research. Here is what I found:

Social media use is correlated with depression and low well-being. Yes, this conclusion itself sounds depressing, but let’s take a look at the data.

A 2016 study surveyed 1787 19-32-year-old men and women, finding social media use was “was significantly associated with increased depression.”

Another 2016 study found the following:

“Taking a break from Facebook has positive effects on the two dimensions of well-being: our life satisfaction increases and our emotions become more positive.”

Internet use is correlated with decreased loneliness among older adults. So it’s more complicated than the above studies might suggest.

According to this 2015 study looking at individuals 65 and older:

“Higher levels of Internet use were significant predictors of higher levels of social support, reduced loneliness, and better life satisfaction and psychological well-being among older adults.”

How you use social media makes a difference.  According to another 2016 study on the correlation between Facebook and well-being, the researchers found:

“Specific uses of the site were associated with improvements in well-being.”

So what made the difference?

Individuals who used Facebook to build relationships with strong ties received the benefits, while those who used it for wide broadcasting did not. Therefore, they concluded the following:

“People derive benefits from online communication, as long it comes from people they care about and has been tailored for them.”

Another 2016 study found the same for Instagram:

“Instagram interaction and Instagram browsing were both related to lower loneliness, whereas Instagram broadcasting was associated with higher loneliness.”

Antisocial uses of social media can be addictive. As described above, neurological research used functional neuroimaging data to uncover the impact of Facebook use on the nucleus accumbens, the brain’s pleasure-center within the reward-circuitry.

The researchers found “gains in reputation” to be the primary reward stimulus. The brain’s mechanism for processing self-relevant gains in reputation through Facebook use mirrors the reward circuitry activated through addiction to psychotropic substances.

This reward circuitry applies to digital addictions such as Facebook through the stimulus of unexpected gains in perceived reputation when sharing a piece of content.

Likes, comments, and shares are all potential sources of these unexpected gains, stimulating the nucleus accumbens, activating the dopamine response from the VTA.

Over time, the nucleus accumbens adapts to the dopamine response, requiring increasing stimulation. This may come in the form of seeking more likes, comments, shares, or spending an increasing amount of time using social media technologies.

Social Media does not necessarily make us more ‘social.’ It can further isolate us from family, friends, loved ones, or co-workers when abused as an addiction, spurring us to spend ever-more time constructing our carefully curated online identities, constantly seeking out more ‘likes’ to validate our self-worth.

Although social media can isolate us through voyeurism and identity-construction associated with social comparison and reputational enhancement, this is not the full story.

There are many non-addictive ways social media can be used.

Social media can be social when used in social ways. It can bring together international families grieving the loss of a loved one, connect soldiers in combat with their families back home, rekindle long-lost friendships, or as Facebook itself says:

“…help you connect and share with the people in your life.”

Social media is social when used in ways that help build deeper connections between us.

Facebook is a social media platform, but that does not necessarily mean it makes us more social. It can further isolate us from family, friends, loved ones, or co-works when overused.

In her recent book, IGen, Jean Twenge writes about the generation born after 1994, finding high rates of mental health issues and isolation:

“A stunning 31% more 8th and 10th graders felt lonely in 2015 than in 2011, along with 22% more 12th graders”…[.] All in all, iGen’ers are increasingly disconnected from human relationships.

She argues the increasing level of screen-time and decreasing level of in-person interaction leaves Igen lacking social skills:

“In the next decade we may see more young people who know just the right emoji for a situation—but not the right facial expression.”

This lack of in-person interaction leaves Igen vulnerable to mental health issues:

“iGen is on the verge of the most severe mental health crisis for young people in decades. On the surface, though, everything is fine.”

This idea that everything is fine on the surface comes from the need to present an ideal version of oneself online:

“…social media is not real life. Her photos, which looked like casual snaps, actually took several hours to set up and up to a hundred attempts to get right…”

Social media platforms encourage rampant voyeurism, drawing us into someone else’s constructed world, spurring us to spend ever-more time constructing our own carefully curated online identities for others to see.

Our friend-lists are paper-trails of past acquaintances, giving us a little window to voyeuristically peer into their lives, casually connect, or rekindle a friendship.

Paradoxically, we can feel alone in a sea of social media connections. Like Riesman’s (2001) “lonely crowd,” we are perpetually other-directed, scanning, and finger-scrolling screens, searching for a kind of stimulation that never seems to fulfill our sense that we are good enough.

How Social Media Affects Self-Esteem

Picturesque portraits in Machu Picchu, selfies in the sand in Santorini, engagements, children, and new homes remind us of how we always seem to be missing out on life’s milestones and adventures. We curate our online identities, attempting to live up to an impossible standard, ever-more concerned with our digital reputation.

According to a Pew Research report on Teens, Social Media & Technology, they report the following experience of a 15-year-old girl:

“It provides a fake image of someone’s life. It sometimes makes me feel that their life is perfect when it is not.”

This perfectionism is amplified by new technology on social media platforms that automatically edit your photos. Dr. Hamlet, from the Child Mind Institute, states the following:

“…there’s a so-called “pretty filter” on Instagram and Snapchat. Beautifying filters are used almost reflexively by many, which means that girls are getting used to seeing their peers effectively airbrushed every single day online. There are also image altering apps that teens can download for more substantial changes. Facetune is one popular one, but there are many, and they can be used to do everything from erase pimples to change the structure of your face or make you look taller.”

Rae Jacobson, from the Child Mind Institute, presents the experience of a young woman in the following passage:

“Look,” says Sasha, a 16-year-old junior in high school, scrolling slowly through her Instagram feed. “See: pretty coffee, pretty girl, cute cat, beach trip. It’s all like that. Everyone looks like they’re having the best day ever, all the time.”

The article goes on to describe the problem with this perfectionism is negative social comparison:

“Kids view social media through the lens of their own lives,” says Dr. Emanuele. “If they’re struggling to stay on top of things or suffering from low self-esteem, they’re more likely to interpret images of peers having fun as confirmation that they’re doing badly compared to their friends.”

The negative emotion produced by this social comparison can result in an attempt to bolster one’s low self-esteem by attempting to gain more likes on their own photos.

The problem with this short-term solution is that it creates long term problems, like any other addiction. Rae Jacobson goes on to state:

Teens who have created idealized online personas may feel frustrated and depressed at the gap between who they pretend to be online and who they truly are.

Social media is addictive because pretending to be someone else online further reinforces the idea that you are not enough. Receiving several likes is a temporary solution, but genuine self-esteem suffers in the long run.

As selfies gain popularity on Instagram, the research findings from a 2017 study on the topic reveal some important lessons. Here are the highlights:

• Selfie viewing was negatively associated with self-esteem.

• Groupie viewing was positively associated with self-esteem.

• Frequent groupie viewing led to increased life satisfaction.

• Frequent selfie viewing led to decreased life satisfaction.

• Need for popularity moderated the relationship between selfie viewing and self-esteem.

• Need for popularity moderated the relationship between selfie viewing and life satisfaction.

In our selfie-obsessed Instagram culture, findings like this are important to consider. Mindlessly scrolling through Instagram selfies may be affecting us more than we think.

What Makes New Social Media Different?

I grew up in the era of MSN messenger, chat rooms, message boards, and MySpace. I remember feeling heavily drawn to connecting with my friends online, often communicating more online than in person. But these online social platforms are fundamentally different from today’s platforms.

Today’s social platforms are more than a neutral space to communicate with friends. They are miniature broadcasting platforms.

I still remember a time before the Facebook ‘like’ button. The button was introduced in 2009 and made the platform more than simply about commenting and sharing. In 2016, the ‘reactions’ button came out, further allowing users to share their emotional reactions to your content.

The ‘like’ button amplified the social comparison potential. In an article featuring an interview with Dr. Max Blumburg, be states:

“…you’re making yourself vulnerable to the thoughts of others, so it’s not surprising that if it doesn’t elicit the reaction you’d hoped for your pride takes a hit. We’re seeking approval from our peers and it’s not nice when we don’t get it – you want people to think your ‘content’ is funny/interesting/likeable. ‘If you have low self-esteem and you don’t do well on social media, you’re going to feel particularly bad.

We are all miniature media companies, in a sense. The responsibility to manage one’s reputation online has skyrocketed since the development of these advanced technologies.

The thought of having a career as a social media celebrity was unthinkable not too long ago. Now, social media influencers are a key aspect of mainstream marketing.

We’re all having to become our own marketers online. This is something I think about quite a bit, given the fact that I created this website for the purpose of sharing my ideas in a non-traditional way.

Although you can use social media to further your professional career and build connections with like-minded people, it is important to be mindful of when it is having a negative impact on your life.

If you suspect your internet use may be having a negative impact, you can try the free Internet Addiction Test here.

Controlling Your Social Media Use

As described throughout this article, social media can be an addiction, like any other substance. For those struggling with an addiction to social media, you are not alone.

This is a very common issue that can be treated through self-help activities, psychological treatments, counseling, support groups, in addition to writing and introspection.

If you are simply looking to prevent any issues, it could be helpful to be mindful of the way you are relating to social media. If you find you are constantly seeking likes and validation, perhaps taking a break might help you clear your head.

Finding hobbies or new activities to engage in could help build your sense of self, in addition to building an in-person peer group.

If you decide to return to social media use, it is important to set limits on how long you intend to spend on it, how often you intend to check it, and considering whether or not you are using it in a meaningful way to connect.

It could also be helpful to turn off your push-notifications, so you are not getting constant beeps or buzzes.

If you are still having difficulties, treatment may also be helpful. Internet addiction is becoming increasingly recognized and can now be formally diagnosed in the DSM.

Treatment looks different for each individual, based on their unique experiences. Based on my research into evidence for psychotherapeutic treatments, Cogitative-behavioral approaches seem to have the highest level of evidence supporting their effectiveness.

Although this is the case, non-therapeutic factors such as therapist-patient relationship and therapist empathy are also correlated with effective treatment.

If you are seeking treatment for internet addiction, talk to your health care provider about coverage. In my home province of Ontario, these services are offered free of charge, including residential treatment programs, due to their association with government-funded problem gambling treatment services. Although this may greatly vary between jurisdictions, it is still worth looking into.

In Conclusion

Social media can be beneficial when used in ways that help build deeper connections between us. For example, the studies on the social media habits of the elderly demonstrate this lesson. Using social media in a balanced way to meaningfully connect with persons in your life can help relieve social isolation.

Unfortunately, social media is quickly becoming one of the strongest forces that divide us. We are drawn into the race for likes, competing with our followers, constantly comparing ourselves to an artificial ideal. We need to be conscious of how we use social media platforms so they can bring us together rather than divide us.

Getting rid of social media altogether is not the solution. The problem is not social media itself, but rather, the way we use social media.

Consider the place of social media in your own life. Is it acting as an opiate, numbing you to underlying issues? Or is it helping you stay connected to those who mean the most to you? Feel free to share your experience below.

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Want to Try Online Counseling?

Here are a few options worth checking out:

BetterHelp.com is one of the most flexible forms of online counseling. Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility through their mobile app, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily, until you find the right fit.

It’s almost like having a counselor in your pocket, since you can text, voice-message, or set up video calls whenever you need support. 

For persons struggling with anxious thoughts, depressed moods, low self-esteem, low motivation, or loneliness, check out Better Help here.

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*As an affiliate partner with Better Help and Online-therapy.com, I may receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

If you are looking for a specialist near you, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here. Although prices are generally higher on this directory, many of the practitioners accept insurance. 

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors are not consistent. If you are not feeling supported, it may be helpful to seek out another practitioner. I wrote an article on things to consider here.


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16 Comments

  1. ayahmdee

    I love this post 🙂 You are correct social media is addictive well, for me there are times that it’s boring to use it. Sometimes I stay away to other social media because there are a lot of negativity posts on it. It can help me communicate with friends 🙂 or can watch videos and quotes that are fun and can relate to myself.

    Reply
  2. taurusingemini

    You have a valid point there, because the more we’re into social media networking like Facebook, the more time we’d forced ourselves to stay logged on, and, eventually, we allow social media to take over other areas of our lives, and, become totally dependent upon it.

    Reply
  3. Abby Boid

    It’s not social media life vs real life – social media is now very much a part of real life. Like all the good stuff such as chocolate, booze, fire, sex, it will add to most people’s life. For a few, it will be a demon that destroys them. It is those few we need to keep an eye on and help out. As you say the reasons that they suffer will be to do with something far deeper and far more damaging than Facebook. Facebook, the beer, the sex, the chocolate can definitely be a problem but it is not THE problem. Thanks for writing this – very thought provoking.

    Reply
  4. NicoLite Великий

    Facebook usually just annoys the hell out of me, but it is useful from time to time. There was a time, however, when I was looking for something to emote, and facebook was very consuming then.

    Reply
  5. hughcurtler

    Not just Facebook, but also the electronic toys as well. Aliens landing on earth would be convinced we have a new form of god that is hand-held!

    Reply
  6. Inspired Visions

    If you go anywhere of importance, everyone is looking at their phone. I think Social Media definitely can distract people from real social interactions. Great Post!!!

    Reply
  7. Lucas @ Think Social Theory

    The part of this article exploring how social media reliance has comparisons to addiction was really interesting to read, great post. I recently did a post myself which examined how our psychological need for recognition makes us willing to engage is constant self-surveillance practises such as sharing what’s on our mind, photographs etcetera. If you’re interested its on my site here: https://thinksocialtheory.wordpress.com/2015/10/11/what-sigmund-freud-would-say-about-how-we-use-facebook-and-what-is-says-about-us/
    Best wishes.

    Reply
  8. chevvy8

    A very relevant and sobering post. Thank you!

    Reply
  9. Muthoni Gathinji

    Great article. I think the truth lies in this statement ….. they are lacking a sense of social belonging and connection …. Social media has its place and I personally love using it to connect with my friends around the world.

    Reply
  10. Walter Boomsma

    Well done… I believe we need some tests we can self-administer to determine if our social media use is healthy–I’m working on that! I do believe that social media can be delusional in both a positive and negative way. One of those delusions is a belief that we have control on FB — unlike a face to face interaction which is more spontaneous and unpredictable. As this article suggests, we are simply justifying our use which, too often, is an attempt to compensate for a lack of social skills and fundamental laziness in our relationships.

    Reply
  11. deartheophilus

    At the beginning of this year I signed off Facebook permanently. I knew all of this but yet kept checking it. The negativity and exaggerated emotions were too much. I found I was becoming more judgemental and less loving and didn’t want that to be any part of me. Now I speak to people generally face to face or at least directly over the phone, I know fewer people but I like more of them. I feel free of the false-fronted world.

    Reply
  12. Leeby Geeby

    Great post. I have asked similar questions about social media myself. If you take a look at how disconnected social media can make people from their present awareness and indeed the deep neurosis that it can trigger (speaking from personal experience after losing my smartphone) there is serious cause for concern. Thanks for following my work. Looking forward to reading more of your stuff.

    Reply
  13. thinkdigest

    Hello Steve! your article is really knowledgeable. Yes Social media sure is addictive. By the way, we’re in an information generation, where information sure is power. Which means we get information at our fingertips but it comes with its own disadvantages and communication is one of it. I’ve experienced this and I had to take weeks and months off it to be able to learn to control it. Just hope that it doesn’t take out our normal human senses since more get connected into it. Have a nice day.
    Much love,
    George

    Reply
  14. Shannon Travers

    Thanks for writing this! I also want to write something on this topic but a little more niche-y. Creating a sense of false identity.

    Reply
  15. Sonny R.

    I totally agree with this.

    Reply

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