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  The Science Behind Your Social Media Addiction
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The Science Behind Your Social Media Addiction

How cutting back on social media can free your mind … and your time

Liza Monroy

Is doomscrolling better than sex? For some parts of your brain, it can be. Multiple studies have demonstrated how social media has similar effects on the brain as food, money and yes, intimacy—aka, things we humans cannot (or can barely) live without. 

Case in point: Several times while working on these very words you’re reading (about the addictive properties of social media), I found myself reaching for my own drug of choice (Instagram) to see how many hearts I had garnered for my 3-year-old’s birthday party picture (not enough), to binge on (too many) surf videos, and check on a former friend’s picture-perfect life (cue envy.) 

Sure, it’s just one piece of anecdotal evidence from my own distraction wormhole, but research indicates we’re all busy gambling with our sanity. Another study published by the Center For Humane Technology, a nonprofit founded by former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris, compares the act of refreshing your social feeds to gambling addiction. Harris, whose 2014 TEDx Talk “How Better Tech Could Protect us from Distraction” you've probably seen, has devoted his entire second career to solving this problem. Imagine pulling a slot machine’s lever over and over again in hopes of winning big. Sure, you could hit the jackpot, but the chances are you’ll end up with a whole load of nothin’ a dozen times in a row.

How Low do You Scroll? 

To understand why it’s so easy to slip into the role of a drooling, doomscrolling zombie, look no further than the infinite scroll technology designed by Aza Raskin in 2006. It’s addictive by design—just like that slot machine. Raskin has since said he regrets the invention. 

Social media relies on infinite scroll. Combine that with dopamine release and our intrinsic social needs, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a product as addictive as heroin. Justin Rosenstein, who created the Facebook Like button, put it best when he said, “It is very common for humans to develop things with the best of intentions that have unintended, negative consequences.” 

But is the addictive nature of social media really unintentional? Rosenstein himself describes Likes as “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure,” bringing us right back to that slot machine again. Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How To Build Habit-Forming Products, says, “[it’s all] just as their designers intended.” In the book, Eyal breaks down the terrifying “hook” model big tech deploys to keep users scrolling. Our advice? Read it and delete—your social apps, that is.

Dopamine Fix, Geeeeet Your Dopamine Fix!

There’s more on the dopamine front. The act of scrolling itself can trigger a release of dopamine in the brain, a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in feelings of pleasure. Again by design, social media taps into our mesolimbic dopaminergic system (don’t worry, we had to Google it, too.) And that means it makes us want more of what we actually get addicted to: those endless loops of seeking, rather than any particular outcome. Sound familiar?

“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works,” Chamath Palihapitiya, former VP of user growth at Facebook said in a now-legendary 2017 talk at Stanford University. Meanwhile, Harvard research supports the hypothesis that social media sites “leverage the very same neural circuitry used by slot machines and cocaine to keep us using their products as much as possible.”

Despite knowing all this, I still spend chunks of time throughout the day consuming the content of other lives instead of focusing on my own.

Why am I Still Thumbing Through this Thing? 

We all know we’ll never get to the bottom, but there’s the possibility of one more post, then another, then another. What if we miss out on something life-altering, or life-affirming? We all know how that process actually goes:

“Who else liked my photo?” 

“Who’s my new follower and does she have more followers than me?” 

“Look at these gorgeous pictures of surfing and sourdough!” 

“Wait, is her life better than mine?”

It’s an endless cycle.

The definition of addiction involves a loss of control over a person’s behavior. If you find yourself looking up to see that hours have evaporated into clicks and scrolls, maybe it's time to change your relationship with social media. 

Recovery Mode: How to Break the Cycle

Reduce Your Use

During the height of #DeleteFacebook (remember that?), I removed the app from my phone only to get itchy thumbs within days and reinstall it. The cure for addiction to social apps ironically comes in the same form: There’s an app for that, too. Track the number of hours you’re actually whiling away in your digital life instead of your real one with Freedom, Social Fever, or any number of the many other addiction-tracking (and blocking) apps. You may be surprised by the sheer amount of time you’re spending on social media and feel inspired to cut back. Waaaaay back. Here’s a challenge: Could you get your scrolling down to 30 minutes a day?

Take 24-Hour Breaks

The early hours of a 24-hour break will likely worsen your nomophobia (that’s literally no mobile phone phobia), but as with any detox, stick with it and your thumbs will soon stop itching. Research has shown that taking a break can help manage stress and make you more productive. In a class I taught at the University of California Santa Cruz around the theme of distraction and technology, students were encouraged to write essays about 24-hour phone breaks—to help with this and reduce cheating, I selflessly took their phones and locked them in my house for the allotted time frame—and explore how they reclaimed their time: spending time IRL with friends, hiking, reading a book. On the whole they were terrified at first, but by the end of the experiment, many of the students reported feeling more relaxed and even willing to let go of their Snapchat streaks. 

So give your device to a friend or loved one and keep it out of reach for 24 hours, at least once a month. 

Get Your Phone Out of the Bedroom

Blue light itself is reason enough to establish the bedroom as a screen-free zone—it inhibits melatonin production and disrupts your circadian rhythms. In a 2015 study, subjects reported poor sleep quality when using phones before bed. 

Our recommendation? Call it quits at least two hours before lights-out. If you've tried that and are still battling those itchy thumbs, ask yourself: What am I even searching for anyway? What unmissable thing am I hoping to find down there, at the bottom of the infinite scroll? Because, there is no bottom. So it follows that there’s no real need to dive so deep.

Liza Monroy is a writer based in Santa Cruz, CA. You can find her collected books, articles, and essays on and follow her on Instagram.

Read more: Stay Outta My Head!

Read more: How Can We Protect Our Privacy on Social Media?

Read more: This is Your Brain on Gut Health (And Vice Versa)

Read more: How Does Social Media Affect Our Physical Health?

Read more: How to Get Back in Sync with Your Circadian Rhythm

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