Why is social media such a hard habit to break?

The answer some international researchers came up with is a lot simpler than you might expect: Because it makes us feel good.

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Why Facebook is a habit we just don’t want to quit

“People are learning this reward feeling when they get to Facebook,” says Michigan State University’s Allison Eden, assistant professor in the Department of Communication.

Eden, along with researchers from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands, conducted two studies of frequent and less frequent Facebook users.

They found even brief exposure to a Facebook-related image (logo, screenshot) can cause a pleasurable response in frequent social media users, which in turn might trigger social media cravings. The combination of pleasant feelings and cravings makes social media too difficult to resist.

Most likely, that’s because Facebook exposure is a learned response — such as when children learn misbehavior earns them attention, or when dogs learn going to the bathroom outside earns them a treat — and learned responses are hard to break, Eden says.

Pavlovian profile perusals

“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.”

In the first study, participants were exposed to a Facebook-related cue or a control picture, followed by a Chinese symbol. They were then asked to judge whether the symbol was pleasant or unpleasant. After being exposed to a Facebook-inspired image, heavy Facebook users rated the Chinese image as pleasant with greater consistency than less frequent users.

>> Le sigh: Facebook really can make you depressed

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Then, in the second study, participants were given a survey to measure their cravings to use Facebook.

Because of giving in to temptation, people often struggle with feelings of guilt, Eden says. If they try to regulate Facebook usage and fail, they feel badly, so they turn to Facebook and feel badly again. It’s a cycle of self-regulatory failure, she says. But, Eden says, the guilt is more damaging to the psyche than failing to control the media.

The solution could be to remove some of the cues from people’s environment, like, for example, removing the Facebook logo from a cell phone home screen.

“Media, including social media, is one of the most commonly failed goals to regulate,” says Eden. “People try to regulate themselves and they really have difficulty with it.”


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About: The study was published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking. Co-researchers on the studies are Guido van Koningsbruggen and Tilo Hartmann, both from Vrije Universiteit, and Harm Veling from Radboud University Nijmegen.

Original publication date: August 3, 2017

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