By Bethany Lynch, M.Sc.
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 cannot get enough of.
Globally, Facebook is the most popular social 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, it’s how I like to fill my time when I have a bored few minutes to myself and how I like 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 just wasted two 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 it’s 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 you’re compulsive clicking onto the site starts to become a serious drain on your time.
But what is it about Facebook that keeps so many of us coming for more each day?
From a behavioural science 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 have been dying to try. But why would you when it is so much easier to just login 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.
Behavioural science has found that people distribute their time between 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 phenomena 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.
So there you have it! My take on why we can become addicted to using 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 harshly criticise 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, keep in mind that moderation is key.
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.
Beth created her blog Behaviour Babble in 2015 after she graduated from Bangor University with an MSc in Applied Behavioural Analysis. It is her goal to spread the word about behaviour analysis, debunk the jargon and to explain how you can apply this approach to enhance several areas within your life. Be sure to check out her blog www.behaviourbabble.com and her Facebook page www.facebook.com/behaviourbabble !