Our brains are hardwired to want things that make us happy. Seeing something (or someone) we like makes us feel good, and we want to see it again and again.
The same happens with social media. We spend so much time on sites like Facebook and Instagram and Twitter (a study by Mediakix found the average person will spend more than five years of their life on social media) in part because we associate them with the positive feelings they give us.
But it’s not just our friends’ posts that make us come back for more. Merely glancing at Facebook’s logo or a screenshot of the interface is enough to perk us up and give us a social media craving.
The cravings and the hit of happiness are a recipe for a habit that’s very difficult to break. Since the rise and explosion of social media, we’ve learned to be dependent on it for pleasant feelings, said Allison Eden, researcher and assistant professor in the communication department at Michigan State University. These “learned responses” —similar to a conditioned, Pavlovian response—are very hard to unlearn, which is what makes quitting social media so difficult.
Eden and her team studied Facebook users and the way the website makes them feel. One experiment showed that heavy Facebook users who were exposed to a neutral image after being shown a Facebook logo or screenshot found the neutral image more pleasant after the Facebook exposure than the less-heavy users did. Another experiment measured users’ cravings for the site.
“People are learning this reward feeling when they get to Facebook,” she said to the university. “What we show with this study is that even with something as simple as the Facebook logo, seeing the Facebook wall of a friend, or seeing anything associated with Facebook is enough to bring that positive association back.”
Lots of people want to kick the social media habit, or at least scale back. According to the American Psychological Association, 48 percent of Millennials worry about the negative mental and physical effects of social media use. After all, other research has suggested that social media is a big stressor for our generation, that quitting Facebook might make you happier and that limiting your Facebook creeping on your partner can improve your relationship. (This study suggests a connection between negative experiences on Facebook and depression in young people.)
But maybe even more mentally detrimental than an actual social media habit is the guilt associated with it, Eden said.
When Facebook users try to regulate their usage, they often fail (again, learned responses are the hardest to unlearn). When they fail, they feel guilty and bad. When they feel bad, they turn to Facebook for a hit of pleasurable feelings. Then they realize they messed up again.
This cycle can be stressful.
“Media, including social media, is one of the most commonly failed goals to regulate,” Eden says. “People try to regulate themselves and they really have difficulty with it.”
There are simple things you can try to break the cycle and cut back on your usage. Eden recommended deleting social media apps from your phone, so you’re not confronted with the logos every time you unlock your screen. Eliminating the social media imagery from your surroundings will help diminish your cravings.
Find another, healthier source of an endorphin hit when you need a boost. I find myself pulling up Instagram when I’m stressed and can’t sleep, which is the opposite of what you should be doing when you can’t sleep. I’ve been trying lately to replace Instagram with something healthier I enjoy to get myself in a more relaxed state of mind, like reading a book (just make sure it’s not a real page-turner).
BreakFree is an app available to iPhone and Android users that tracks how much you’re using apps on your phone and provides you with an “addiction score.” If you’re mindful about your usage, you can get your addiction score down. (If you’re not into BreakFree, here are a few similar apps you can try out.)
If you have an involuntary habit of opening a new browser tab and going straight to Facebook when you’re working on your computer, you can literally lock yourself out of distracting social media sites. Free web apps like StayFocusd and Cold Turkey will force you to stay on task and in the real world. Definitely used one of these babies (and the old have-a-friend-change-your-Facebook-password-and-not-tell-you-what-it-is trick) during my final round of exams in college, when the desire to focus was literally zippo.
What tricks do you use to help you ease up on social media? Let us know in the comments.
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.