The science behind our addiction to likes

Photo by Cristian Dina on

I’VE been spending a lot of time on social media lately. Yes, I’m one of those annoying millennials who seem to always have phone in hand.

Even more so since I created my own YouTube channel. Now I seem to be constantly checking for new ‘likes’, subscribers and comments.

It’s got me thinking that this whole social media thing might be just a little addictive…

And it turns out it is. In recent years, neuroscientists have spent quite a bit of time trying to understand what’s going on in our noggins while we’re posting pics of our lunch on Instagram, weighing in on political issues on Twitter, and sharing happy snaps of the family on Facebook. So what have they found?

It seems that positive interactions on social media (likes, follows, shares and the rest) trigger the same sorts of reactions in our brains as when we use recreational drugs or gamble.

This is because all of these things involves the reward and motivation pathways in our brains. When we experience something rewarding – like hitting a jackpot on the pokies, or lots of people liking that photo of our lunch on Instagram – our brain produces a hit of the neurotransmitter dopamine.

This dopamine acts on the areas of our brain that are involved in pleasure and reward seeking, and that feeling motivates us to repeat those behaviours. Social media platforms give us an almost endless supply of rewards in the form of attention from other people.

We learn from this positive reinforcement and are motivated to seek more – more likes, more retweets, more followers, more dopamine.

As anyone who’s on social media knows that not every interaction on these platforms is positive. But it doesn’t really matter.

As long as we get enough positive reinforcement, even if mixed in with negative experiences, then that’s enough of a reward to keep us hooked. Especially if we can’t quite predict when that reward is coming. Studies have shown that the best way to keep our brains constantly engaged is with variable rewards.

We don’t know when those rewards (our likes and follows) are coming, so we keep checking … which is why we find it hard to put those phones down.

So if you want to give me a hit of dopamine (and learn some more science) you can subscribe to my YouTube channel – it’s called Badly Drawn Science. My brain will thank you for it.

This article was first published in the Canberra Times, August 25, 2020

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