Scrolling for dopamine: the impact of social media on our lives

When social media swings between a force for good and bad

A happy person using their phone.
Image created by Dall-e. Prompt generated by Promptxart.

In today’s digital age, social media is an increasingly important part of our daily lives. It has revolutionized communications, to the extent that it is now our preferred medium of everyday communication.

Imagine we could bring a person from the 1950s and take them on a subway ride. Their reaction would be no less than eerie. Hordes of humans looking at tiny televisions, with faces of idleness or random smiles here and there.

We’ve gone from snail mail to a world where we can communicate with others or consume content anywhere and anytime.

After my articles relating the usage of social media to mental health problems and how design can hack our brains, today’s turn is to understand — with data — if this effect of social networks can be inferred.

To be able to do so, together with Michał Jońca from PhotoAiD we have decided to make an article based on a survey that he performed in 2022 to 1029* Americans to observe their behavior towards social media.

*Given the gender and age makeup of the sample size, the study’s findings are statistically significant for the population at large with a confidence level of 95% and a margin error of 3%.

His results were more than surprising.

Let’s discover it all together 👇🏻

New technologies — and especially social media — have flooded our everyday life. Never before has humankind possessed the ability to access and consume all knowledge and achieve virtually any goal with such speed and ease as we do now thanks to technology.

But is it all good?

The quantity of information that we are exposed to every single day is astounding — in 2021 we were taking in five times more information than we did in 1986. However, this is not the only thing that has increased over time. Depression and anxiety levels had never been this high either.

And what is the main cause behind this?

There are several studies connecting the usage of Social Media to a decline in mental health. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the suicide rate among youngsters was stable from 2000 to 2007, and then it increased by 57% between 2007 and 2017 — the very same period when social media growth exploded.

So, why do we still keep scrolling down our phones?

A person scrolling down their phone.

According to Nir Eyal, social media has a reinforcing nature. Using it activates the brain’s reward center by releasing dopamine, a feel-good chemical linked to pleasurable activities such as sex or food. This has been known for years already, so this is not a surprise for anyone anymore.

Does this mean social media is a bad thing for us?

Today social networks are still moving between a force for good and bad, and there’s an open debate about it.

According to the Pew Research Center, 69% of adults and 86% of youngsters in the US use social media. Furthermore, according to the survey described at the beginning of the article, 80% of Americans perceive social networks as something positive for their daily life while only 5% perceive it as something negative.

Graph showing the proportion of people that have a positive feeling towards social media.
Self-made chart in livegap.

Let’s break down this big number to understand how they use them and what are the main effects on their life. When asking participants what social media help them the most, the most common answers can be divided in three different groups:

  • Building up and improving relationships — With 40% of the participants stated that they allowed them to “Stay more connected with family and friends” and 36% indicated that they helped “Build relationships”.
  • Creating their own personal brand and professional career — With 37% use social networks to “Develop a platform where their messages can reach a large audience” and 30% use them to “Find an outlet for creativity and self-expression”.
  • Keeping them updated — With 39% of participants said that social networks allowed them to “Spread the news about important events” and 34% used them to “Discover new sources of valuable information and learning.”

Moreover, when we asked Americans if social media allowed them to lift their spirits, 68% of them ageed.

Let’s jump our for a while from the US and take a broader, global perspective. Social media proved their power of good in connecting people all over the planet.

People demontrating on streets.
Image by Amine M’siouri on Pexels.

Social media has had a significant impact on political and social movements. From the Arab Spring to recent protests in Iran, social media has helped protesters organize and spread their message with a bigger reach and faster speed than any other platform. Despite the fact that autocratic regimes also use these same technologies to monitor and suppress opposition, the power of social media as a tool for good cannot be denied.

What’s more, in the age of mass migration, remote work, and digital nomadism, staying connected with loved ones can be a challenge. However, social media platforms have made it easier than ever to maintain distant bonds. FaceTime calls, WhatsApp messages, and Instagram stories are just a few of the many communication tools available to keep relationships alive across physical distances.

People having a videocall using a smartphone.
Image by Ben Collins on Unsplash.

Lastly, social networks have allowed us to discover new sources of valuable information and learning. According to the Pew Research Center, even half of Americans get news from social media. With easy access to diverse sources of information such as articles, videos, podcasts, and more, we can learn about virtually anything from anywhere in the world.

Not everything that shines is gold, and social media is no exception at all. Going back to our survey, 84% of Americans find social media addictive. Have you ever wondered the reason of this increasing addiction rates?

Social media is known to copy gambling methods to create psychological cravings and keep users online, according to Natasha Schüll, the author of Addiction by Design.

Most modern social network follow the framework of the hook model defined by Nir Eyal, consisting on a four-phase process that businesses can use to create habits into their users to consume their products or services daily. The goal is to result in voluntary, high-frequency engagement.

External research proves it too. Microsoft found that since 2000, the average attention span has shrunk from 12 to eight seconds. That means we now have shorter attention spans than goldfish, which can focus on an object or task for nine seconds. This is observed in the results of the survey as well, where 70% of people affirmed that social media reduced their span attention.

A graphic picture showing 84% of americans find social media addictive and 70% of people believe socil media reduced their attention span.
Image by

Another important and astonishing insight — 68% of Americans think social media have caused them to be jealous of other’s people lives. But big number do not stop here.

According to Statista, the average american spends 2 hours and 27 minutes using social media. When being asked, the 39% of the participants thought it was just the right amount, while 34% indicated it was too much and 27% indicated it was too little.

When asked about their social media usage during work time, 39% of the participants used it from half an hour up to one hour while the 18% used it more than an hour. The study also found that 94% of American employees believe using social media at work helps recharge their batteries, making them feel more productive.

Social media is not bad per se — actually it does benefit society and it has boosted our progress in the last decades.

So… what’s the main problem?

Digital services have been intentionally designed to be addictive — which explains the levels of addiction we have reached nowadays.

This is why during these last years some changes have been carried out. Instagram made headlines some years ago for suppressing likes in an effort to curb the comparisons and hurt feelings associated with attaching popularity to sharing content. Facebook, Twitter, and other major social networks launched new features to allow users to track their usage time.

Other big changes have been happening as well like YouTube’s Take a Break feature, which reminds users to take a break from watching videos after a certain amount of time, or even TikTok’s Digital Wellbeing which allows users to set time limits and reminders for usage, monitor screen time, and control content that may be inappropriate or triggering.

YouTube’s time to take a break feature.
YouTube’s time to take a break feature.

But do these efforts combat mental health issues, or are they simply applying a band-aid to a wound?

While these efforts by social media platforms to address addiction and promote digital well-being are a step in the right direction, it remains to be seen whether they are effective in combating the mental health issues associated with excessive social media use, or if they are simply a temporary solution to a larger problem.

As social media continues to play an increasingly important role in our lives, it is of utter importance to continue exploring ways to promote responsible use and minimize the potential negative effects of these platforms creating standardized design good practices in this sense.

  1. Promote digital wellness: Designing interfaces that help users manage their time on social media more effectively. For instance, you can create designs that remind users to take a break after a certain amount of time — like YouTube’s Take a Break — or provide options to track their usage — like TikTok’s Digital Wellbeing.
  2. Educate Users: Designing interfaces that provide information on the potential negative effects of excessive social media use and how to manage these effects.
  3. Create Positive Feedback Loops: Designing features that encourage positive feedback loops, such as rewarding users for limiting their social media usage or engaging in healthy activities — just the PokemonGo game promotes walking and physical activity.
  4. Collaborate with Experts: Collaborating with experts in psychology, digital wellness, and addiction to create designs that are evidence-based and effective in promoting healthy social media habits.

Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments! ✨

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