You know the feeling. You’ve posted a picture, a video, or some thoughts on social media, and now it’s out there, awaiting feedback and commentary from others. You’re vulnerably waiting for likes.
You might start to get a little anxious as the clock ticks on without a response. And then, there it is, your first like. Phew. You breathe a sigh of relief. Additional likes pour in. You register at some level: “I’m okay. I’m accepted. I’m liked.”
Why are social media likes so reinforcing? It turns out, when others like our posts online, our brains respond a bit as if they’re on drugs. They get a rush of neurochemical activity and seem to experience withdrawal without it. They look addicted. Science says it has to do with the lack of predictability in response. Just like gambling or playing video games can lead to reward or not, the unpredictability of social media likes fuels our attraction to them. And unlike other games, where we play for points or wins, here we’re playing for human attention and connection, both necessary to our survival.
It’s a brain thing, really. A 2016 study found that when teens viewed Instagram photos associated with many likes, many areas of the brain “lit up” on fMRI, including parts of the brain associated with reward.
The neurotransmitter, dopamine, plays a role, too. Dopamine motivates our action to get us what we want. It’s associated with “seeking” behavior , motivating us to meet our needs and wants. Dopamine increases with unpredictability, such as that inherent to social media likes. A Guardian article quoting Facebook founding president, Sean Parker, sheds light on the dopamine hypothesis. Parker writes that the architects of Facebook take advantage of a “’vulnerability in human psychology,'”offering a “‘dopamine hit'” to anyone receiving likes on the platform. Likes are unpredictable. Reinforcement is variable, just like with a Vegas slot machine. That makes it all the more desirable.
And what about when Facebook added other emoticons, specifically the heart/love reaction? In many cases, likes have become banal. How can we “just” like a photo of your adorable niece or beloved pet? That demands a love reaction, right? But from the science of addiction, we know that tolerance will develop over time. Could it be that are brains are adapting to likes on social media, seeking out the more significant reward associated with love? And when we acclimate to love, what will do it for us then?
Only time will tell.
If you notice yourself glued to your phone awaiting likes, comments, or other reactions, it might be a good time to take a pause. What are the pros/cons of focusing on your device this way? What are you not focusing on when your attention is centered on social media likes? Sometimes, it’s helpful to take a social media “vacation” to reset. Prove to yourself that you’re able to take this time away. Notice what shifts during the break. And it’s important to remind yourself that your value as a person is inherent and has everything to do with who you are, not what they think. You don’t need others’ approval to live a satisfying life. You don’t need someone (especially a stranger on the internet) to like your posts in order to prove your worth.