Social media is addictive, there is no doubt about that. In 2016 it was reported that the average person spends 1 hour and 49 minutes per DAY browsing social network sites. The usual suspects are the likes of Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest, but it is clear that Facebook is the network that we just can’t get enough of.
Globally, Facebook is the most popular network site. It has a higher rate of active users than any other site, with 55% of Facebook users logging on more than once a day! And if you were to ask me how often I’m guilty of checking my Facebook account, it is defiantly more than I’d like to think about. But hey, its how I like to fill my time when I have a bored few minutes to myself and how I like
to nosy at what the people I met in high school are up to nowadays keep in contact with friends. It almost seems like everyone claims to have a ‘casual addiction’ to the site.
Yet social media is more than just a harmless way to kill time. At best it can leave you feeling like you have wasted a few minutes of your life watching a video of a dog that cannot get out of bed in the morning (seriously though you should check out this video, so relatable!). At its worst, it can make you feel like your life just does not match up to the perfect house/night-out/hair/baking of your friends. Or when your compulsive checking of the site, just to make sure you’re not missing out on anything, starts to become a serious drain on your time.
But what is it about Facebook that keeps so many of us coming back for more each day?
From a behavioural psychology perspective, there could be two possible reasons.
1. Checking Facebook requires virtually no effort
The click of a button is all it takes for you to potentially access a whole range of things that you like. Sure you could use this time to do something more meaningful, like
learn to paint or cook that recipe that you’ve been dying to try. But why would you when it’s so much easier to just log in to Facebook and enjoy your time there instead? And the rise of the smartphone in recent years has made it even easier for us to access our favourite social networking site.
Behavioral psychology has found that people unconsciously distribute their time between doing alternative behaviours (i.e. go on Facebook vs send an important email) depending on several factors. Generally, people prefer to do things more often when they get a higher amount, quality and rate of reinforcement for their behaviour (Pierce & Epling, 1983). We also tend to behave in a way which requires less overall effort for us to receive reinforcement for our behaviour and which we can obtain sooner rather than later. This phenomenon is known in technical terms as the generalised matching law.
Therefore, it is very easy to become addicted to Facebook because it gives us high-quality reinforcement for our behaviour (through reinforcers such as social appreciation and connection) in large amounts. It is also easy to access and is instantly gratifying for the most part. Which brings us to…
2. Facebook is unpredictable. It only gives us what we want for some of the time.
Facebook is a tease. And it has us hooked.
Let me explain. Sometimes, your behaviour of logging onto Facebook is reinforced by you receiving something that you like. For example, you watch a funny video or get a lot of likes on your status. But then sometimes you find yourself scrolling down the site and no one is doing anything interesting. Or maybe the picture that you spent so long taking at just the right angle receives no likes.
Facebook delivers to us the things that we like on an unpredictable schedule. In behaviour speak, this is known as a variable interval schedule of reinforcement. When a behaviour is reinforced using this schedule, reinforcement is delivered at varying and inconsistent time intervals (Fleshler, & Hoffman,1962). You cannot always be sure of when you are going to get a Facebook notification. They often occur sporadically throughout the day. And only some of the notifications that you receive are genuinely interesting or exciting and relevant to you. Ultimately, it is this unpredictability that keeps us checking our Facebook page so often.
(Image credit: lkwoksocialmedia.blogspot.com)
So there you have it, my take on why we can become so addicted to Facebook.
And if you are curious as to how I stopped scrolling my own life away on social media, take a look at this article from my blog.
I hope you have found this post to be interesting and that it has given you a new perspective on why social media can become addictive. And maybe I have inspired you to apply a behavioural perspective to other areas of your life.
Note: The purpose of this article was not to trash Facebook. I still believe that it is a great way to keep in touch with friends, bring people together and to pass the time. But it is good to be aware that Facebook has qualities which can make it become addictive. And like most things in life, just keep in mind that moderation is key.
This article was originally posted on the bsci21 website with me as a guest author. You should check out some of their other posts, they cover a lot of interesting different topics from a range of different contributors.
Fleshler, M., & Hoffman, H. S. (1962). A progression for generating variable-interval schedules. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 5(4), 529.
Global Web Index Social Quarterly Report, 2016 www.insight.globalwebindex.net/social
Pierce, W. D., & Epling, W. F. (1983). Choice, matching, and human behavior: A review of the literature. The Behavior Analyst, 6(1), 57.
Cover Image from Giphy.