Why You Can’t Quit Social Media

What is the fuel of our social media habits? To answer that question researchers from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles analyzed user behavior across established social media platforms. They offer insights into user habit formation, but also explain the dynamics and technology that prevent users from gaining control over the daily-use habits on social media.

tl;dr

If platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are the engines of social media use, what is the gasoline? The answer can be found in the psychological dynamics behind consumer habit formation and performance. In fact, the financial success of different social media sites is closely tied to the daily-use habits they create among users. We explain how the rewards of social media sites motivate user habit formation, how social media design provides cues that automatically activate habits and nudge continued use, and how strong habits hinder quitting social media. Demonstrating that use habits are tied to cues, we report a novel test of a 2008 change in Facebook design, showing that it impeded posting only of frequent, habitual users, suggesting that the change disrupted habit automaticity. Finally, we offer predictions about the future of social media sites, highlighting the features most likely to promote user habits.

Make sure to read the full paper titled Habits and the electronic herd: The psychology behind social media’s successes and failures by Ian A. Anderson and Wendy Wood at https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/arcp.1063

(Source: Getty Images/iStockphoto)


Social media platforms serve our communities in a variety of functions. Anybody can participate, share stories or become a community leader by creating user-generated content that is available to a specific group of people or the entire public. Connecting with people is human, but the frequency, means and reach as well as the how and who we connect with is not. In particular the dichotomy of conflicting social interests and user habits is discussed in this paper, which explains on a high level fundamental social media platform’s need to draw on user habits and how these habits are cultivated by sophisticated technology. In  fact, social media platforms are designed to encourage habit formation through repeat use. This is demonstrated by its ever-expanding options to find new people to connect and share content, new entertainment products and means to build larger online communities. This is to generate consistent revenue through effective, targeted marketing of its users.

One aspect of the paper explores whether frequent use of social media is habitual use and if overuse is tantamount to an addiction. What are the contributing factors that make people form a habit to frequently check their social media profiles? How can you manage these habits more effectively? What does it take to rewire these habits? The researchers found that users who post more frequently also reported increased automation of their actions. In other words, these users logged onto Facebook or Twitter posted about something without deliberately thinking about the act of posting itself. Some of the factors that contribute to forming a habit are the repeated steps it takes to participate on social media. For example, the login process, posting original content, exploring new content from others, liking, sharing or discussing content. In psychology this phenomenon is called ideomotor response wherein a user unconsciously completes an order of steps to perform a process. Of course the formation of a habit is not only due to repetition but rewards of continuous use. Likes, shares and general interaction with people on social media are a double-edged sword for it brings us closer together while also appealing to our subconscious need for affirmation. The former helps us to build positive attitudes linked with the particular platform. Whereas the latter often remains unrecognized until the habit is already established in one’s daily routine. Initial rewards subside fast, however, as these motivations are replaced by habitual use that is linked to a specific gain arising from a certain community engagement. These habits, once formed and established, are hard to overcome as demonstrated by an experiment with well-known, sugared beverages: 

“In an experiment demonstrating habit persistence despite conflicting attitudes, consumers continued to choose their habitual sugared beverages for a taste test even after reading a persuasive message that convinced them of the health risks of sugar”. 

It must be noted that social media use is not the same as drinking soda pop, smoking cigarettes or snorting cocaine. Social media use is also not a mindless, repetitive action. Rather it is a composition of different, highly individualized behaviors, attitudes and motivations that compound depending on the particular use case. For example a community organizer who uses Facebook Groups to bring together and coordinate high-school students across a county to play pickup ultimate frisbee will establish different habitual behaviors from someone using social media purely to connect online with a closed-circle of family and friends. The researchers found that active engagement on social media is linked to positive subjective experiences of well-being. Users who are more passive, scroll and read only reported lower levels of life satisfaction. Scrolling introduces an element of uncertainty for the user. Thus it is among the top rewards that don’t require active engagement. Unexpected posts tend to surprise users with sometimes highly emotional content such as misinformation or community nostalgia. Needless to state, controversial content tends to spread fast and far increasing the reward for engagement. Moreover it entrenches habitual use for users to come back to discover more emotional content.

To put this into perspective: social media habits form because the platform highlights signals that makes us feel good and keep us engaged. Preexisting emotional and social needs are captured by an easy process to use the platform. Notifications, likes, comments and shares increase participatory experiences that emulate real-world communities. Reciprocity between family, friends and others as well as elements of uncertainty are adjusted based on tailored content delivery through sophisticated algorithms. These lines of code ensure that once a user establishes a footprint on the platform, enough incentives are created to encourage and facilitate repeat use. Therefore further ingraining the platform in our daily lives, daily-use habits.

Maybe We Should Take A Break

In my thought provoking headline I challenge the notion that it is impossible to reduce or quit social media altogether. Note I wouldn’t want anybody to reduce or quit social media if it adds value to your life. Facebook is invaluable with regard to connecting with family and friends. YouTube or TikTok offer some of my favorite pastimes. And Twitter has become the newsstand of the 21st century. Nevertheless I believe this research paper is an important contribution to raise awareness of our daily habits, our time management and how we consume information. I would be remiss to not contemplate options to improve my social media diet. In psychology research the terminology for quitting a habit is coined discontinuance intention. Forming an intent to cease social media is a decision process at times overshadowed by feelings of regret, lack of alternative means to communicate across our social graph and general, societal inertia (take these Google search queries pictured below as an indicator for the impact of societal inertia). If you find yourself wanting to change your social media diet then be on the lookout for these factors: 

  • Familiarity Breeds Inaction: the longer a user is with a social media platform, the more likely feelings of familiarity and a sense of control prevent actions to reduce time spent on the platform
  • Habits Trump Intentions: everyday signals manifested in our phones, computers or environment trigger ideomotor responses to use social media despite social norms, resolutions etc. Remember the old saying “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” is true for managing our social media habits
(Source: Interest over time on Google Trends for delete tiktok, delete facebook, delete twitter, delete instagram, delete snapchat – United States, Past 12 months)


Straight-forward self-control has been found to be an effective strategy to reduce the use of social media. Discipline to use social media with a specific intent and for a specific purpose equals freedom from habitual, time-consuming use. However, the researchers found that self-control is hard to maintain and a more effective strategy is changing the signals upon which we use social media. For example, leveraging silent or airplane mode on our phones, turning off push-notifications or unsubscribing from notification emails help to dig a moat between a healthy daily routine and mindless use of social media. Interestingly, the researchers found short term absences from social media, i.e. only a few days, is less effective than an entire week or longer breaks from social media. It will depend on an individual’s preferences, needs and benefits that must be carefully balanced against the inherent cost of social media use. Of course all of this is highly subjective. I recommend reading this well-written research paper as a start. It helps to formulate a balanced strategy for social media use and online habit management.

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