Adolescent Social Media Use

How do social media operators facilitate habitual use?

Posted Jan 11, 2019

This post is part 2 of 2.

In my previous post, I overviewed some factors relating to how social media operators facilitate habitual use. Here is the second part to that article.

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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