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The Psychology of Social Media Addiction: How It Works & Invaluable Lessons for Marketers

Social media addiction is not an accident. Social networks are consciously orchestrating a user experience designed to increase dependency. In fact, they’re using psychological triggers and tricks from casinos, among other tactics.

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These companies may not have wanted to create “slot machines”, but their goals have driven them to build such products. Some studies have even found that Facebook influences the brain just as alcohol or drugs might.

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Early last year, Facebook head of marketing for North America, Michelle Klein, bragged about how the average Millennial was spending about 145 minutes on the social network daily, and checking his/her phone about 157 times.

Tech platforms have begun to push apps for that very reason, so they can captivate users via devices that they always have on their person: mobile phones. Several users have already begun to classify social media dependency as an issue, as have mental health institutions.

They even have a term for when people attempt a detox, but succumb to withdrawal symptoms and fail. It’s called social media reversion.

While the ethics of enabling or leveraging social media addiction may be questionable, the fact remains that technology is evolving to embrace it and it holds lessons that you can use to increase conversions and customer lifespan.

Business and psychology professor Adam Alter discusses the evolution in his book: Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.

In the age of behavioral addiction, a basic understanding of how it all works is crucial. Why are so many products that are built today irresistible and addictive?

Here are seven principles behind social media addiction, and how you can use them in your social media marketing strategy, and to build an easy-adoption product and brand experience.

1. Illusion of control

People love being in control and having the power to make things happen, effortlessly. Many products use this behavioral tendency to build irresistible offerings.

Product designers work on creating controlled systems that mirror and manipulate the functioning of your mind. Essentially, all design is intended to drive you to perform certain actions, so there’s no room left for unguided thinking.

For instance, look at the infamous hamburger menu. You click on it and you’re given options. Users are given the power to execute a handful of actions (set choices), with the slight touch of a button.

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Here are the questions that don’t even occur to most users, as pointed out by Tristan Harris, formed designer and ethicist for Google.

  • What isn’t on the menu?
  • Why am I given a limited number of options?
  • What’s the intent of the person who designed the menu?
  • Is the menu actually furthering my needs or is it presenting alluring distractions?

You have the power to like and react to other people’s posts, but you’re in turn a slave to likes and reactions on your posts.

How to make ethical use of the power of control

  • Include users in your product-feedback loop. This not only puts users’ needs first, but also happens to be a great growth hack for Saas tools.
  • Be transparent about your values and intent as a company, so users aren’t subjected to trickery by any means.
  • Use click-bait titles that promise your audience control, but only when your content justifies them.

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You can use this type of title only if the mistakes are relevant and you’re giving your readers actionable advice they can use to avoid them.

Create marketing campaigns that truly add value to your audience. Share social media posts that are informative and useful, and keep company propaganda to a minimum.

You could use DrumUp to curate content related to your industry, and share fresh posts that are valuable to your audience.

2. Intermittent variable rewards

We discussed how the average millennial checks his/her phone over 150 times a day. Why do you think that is? Are these people making 150 conscious choices when doing so?

One of the most certain why to make an app addictive is by turning it into a slot machine.

How does a slot machine work?
It links a user’s action with variable rewards.

So if a user pulls a lever, he’s either given an exciting reward, or nothing.

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Twitter notifications and follower numbers are recognized as rewards by your brain.

App notifications are slot machines in a way. If you turn on your wifi or data on your mobile phone, you sometimes get notifications from Facebook and other times you don’t. Some of your Facebook photos end up being very well-liked, while others are ignored. But to check on them, you probably turn on your data and look at your device multiple times a day.

Slot machines in the US generate more revenue than theme parks, movies and baseball, combined.

How to make ethical use of rewards

  • Create more user-considerate, harmless designs that reduce addiction. Ensure that your notifications are easy on the eyes and don’t cause untoward disruptions.
  • Try and use notifications that help users achieve tasks important to them, against using them to serve your own purpose.

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Google’s notifications are well-designed, non-intrusive and more often than not received with appreciation.

  • Reduce the frequency of interruptions, to serve your purpose and protect users from addiction.

For instance, DrumUp sends you one notification a day, at a set time, to tell you that your content suggestions are ready, instead of notifying you each time it finds a story.

Since the notification comes at the same time everyday, you can predict and check your phone only then.

3. Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO)

99DaysOfFreedom is a website that encourages people to quit Facebook for 99 days. Cornell University used data from the website to study how people fared at Facebook detox. They found that many face withdrawal symptoms and ultimately fail.

The withdrawal symptoms are closely related to FOMO, or The Fear Of Missing Out.

If you’re convinced that an app is giving you a continuous stream of must-know information, entertainment, friendships and prospect sexual relationships, it’s hard to quit or unsubscribe, because you could miss out on something important.

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Computer scientist Jonathan Harris proved the network effect by creating a website. On the website, you can view streams of content showing people engaged in activities, much like on social networks. After a few minutes, the website locks you out, revoking access for 24 hours and allowing you to experience subtle withdrawal symptoms.

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How to make ethical use of FOMO

  • Make users curious about updates, new features and rewards. FOMO runs on the principle of curiosity, which is what you should aim to create.

When launching a new feature, create some mystery around it before you reveal it to users. You don’t need to have them checking in every minute, but saying things outright and plainly isn’t the answer either. Create a mild, workable balance of curiosity.

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  • Use urgency and exclusivity to drive sales. OnePlus created an invite based system when launching their first mobile device. Only people with an invite could buy the phone, and the limited stock created an exclusivity.

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  • Get users to share their experience visually, in a descriptive manner. 68% people who participated in a survey said they made a purchase influenced by reviews/testimonials.

UGC is a very compelling format of content. National Geographic’s #WanderLust contest is a good example.

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Incidentally, employee advocacy is an easy-to-execute form of UGC marketing, if your employees match your target audience and qualify as users.

4. Social validation

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Human beings have always been vulnerable to social validation. In the social media age, the behavioral tendency is carried onto social networks.

80% of our online conversations are self-admission, as compared to only 30-40% of offline conversations. This proves the desperate need for approval that social media nurtures.

Facebook uses automatic suggestions to drive people to act, causing a chain-reaction of social media interactions and interruptions.

My friend tagging me is a way more important event in my mind than it is in reality. Hari is also tagging me as a response to Facebook’s suggestion, and not an independent choice made by him. The human need for belonging and validation compels users to consistently participate in such activities.

How to use social validation in an ethical way

  • Instead of relying on marketing from brand accounts, recruit brand advocates who can do the talking for you.

Currently, this form of marketing is being referred to as influencer marketing. There are several types of influencers or advocates that you can work with – happy customers, social media super fans, influential bloggers, employees, brand ambassadors, etc.

  • Collect testimonials, ratings and influencer endorsements as and when you can, so you can prominently display them on your website and communication.

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5. Social staging

Social media revolutionized communication by breaking barriers and shrinking the world into one massive, accessible platform.

In a way, social acts as an extension of our offline world. People can create and embody identities on social networks. In fact, they can project any identity of their choice, irrespective of how their offline existence. That’s why they can even be perceived as an escape from undesirable aspects of users’ lives.

Users get emotionally attached to the networks because they can experience emotional dynamics and interactions on them, just as they would offline.

They can make friends, build romantic relationships and connect with like-minded tribes from anywhere around the world.

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However, since social media simulates offline social dynamics on a large scale, users are also subject to downsides like anxiety, low self esteem and paranoia when their expectations aren’t fulfilled.

How to enable social dynamics in a user-considerate and ethical manner

  • Allow users to create an avatar and personalize their accounts on your app. This gives them a better user experience, and helps you keep them interested long-term.

For instance, if guest contributors are an important part of your blogging and content marketing strategy, create accounts for them with a Gravatar. The extra-visibility acts as a great motivator.

You could, in the least, add their author bio and photograph prominently on the blog post.

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  • Create a support community so your users can interact and help each other use your tool to the best effect.

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  • Enable interactions within the app, if that’s at all a possibility. That’s a great way to create engagement and make the experience more fun. Pokemon Go’s next big update promises player vs player battles.

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6. Infinite refills

Brian Wansink, an academic at Cornell University, proved that you can get people to consume more by giving them infinite, automatic refills. In his experiment, people who ate soup out of bottomless bowls ate 73% more, and estimated that they ate 140 calories less.

Social media feeds that automatically refresh expect you to keep scrolling. Autoplay videos also work on the same principle. You’re force-fed content even when you aren’t particularly interested.

A major amount of traffic and views on certain sites is driven by autoplay videos and infinite refills. YouTube’s suggestions and post-video autoplay are examples of this tactic.

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Tech companies claim that they’re reducing user effort by autoplaying videos, but the fact remains that users also end up viewing videos that they’re not interested in.

How to use automation without force-feeding users

  • Leave the final decision to users. Offer them automation, but provide them with the option to turn it on/off.

For instance, DrumUp offers automatic blog promotion via RSS auto-posting, and automatic promotion of evergreen and best posts. But, users are given the ability to turn the feature on/off and control which posts it applies to.

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  • Give users the ability to decide how much content they consume, or how much time they spend on your platform, instead of making that decision for them.

You can choose how many posts are automatically posted out of your social accounts, and which posts they are. Essentially, you’re in complete control of the automation.

7. Instant disruptions

Apps use real-time sounds and vibrations to keep you hooked. Even if a lot of people have messaged you on Messenger or Whatsapp, it’s the notification sounds and lights that get you to react.

Many messengers even convey activity by displaying three moving dots, so you know if someone’s writing back and you’re compelled to continue staring at your screen.

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Sound and vibrations also create a sense of urgency that users get affected by, ultimately resulting in anxiousness and minor withdrawal symptoms when messages are not acknowledged or responded to.

How to ethically use instant disruptions

  • Use notification signals that respect user preferences. Give users the choice to enable different levels of notifications, and choose what works for them the best.
  • Ensure that users have the option to defer notifications in some modes at least, so they can remain undisturbed if they wish to.


How to build a product that prompts healthy habit-forming and increases customer lifespan

Nir Eval, author of “Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products”, advocates a four-part strategy involved in creating the perfect hook: trigger, action, reward and investment.

Through repetitive, successful cycles of these four steps, users form habits that keep them engaged long-term.

It’s important to use good hooks, frequently and offer exciting rewards that you are certain will work on your audience.

Here are a few extra-insights from other experts:

  • Create smooth transitions that have room for necessary learning and adoption.
  • When acquiring market that belongs to opposition, the biggest question becomes why someone should switch. If your prospects can’t see that right away, you’re missing something important.


How to build a social media marketing strategy that uses these psychological principles

  • Focus on a content strategy that involves influential people and well-wishers, namely industry experts, fans, employees and advocates.
  • Create and curate content that includes expert insights and @mention them when you distribute them on social networks. There’s no better way to initiate important relationships.


  • Create contests to collect powerful User Generated Content that you can use for social proof and validation.


  • Monitor social networks to catch favorable mentions of your brand so you can turn them into powerful testimonials.
    Support your social media efforts with email marketing drip campaigns that keep your fans and prospects engaged and loyal.


There are several lessons that you can learn from social networks and other successful establishments that boast of high levels of engagement. While their strategies may not be ideal for your business, they still hold insights that can help you create yours.

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One thought on “The Psychology of Social Media Addiction: How It Works & Invaluable Lessons for Marketers”

  1. Krishna Rg June 27, 2017

    Great post Disha!

    Social selling is also gaining more traction and is making buying options more easier too! I would like to know your view on it.

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