Have you ever heard your phone vibrate and reached down gleefully only to see - with crushing disappointment - that the screen is in fact blank? ‘Phantom phone vibration’ is one of a growing number of behaviours that can signal a problematic relationship with social media.


“Phantom calls and notifications are linked to our psychological craving for such signals,” says Professor Daniel Kruger, an expert in human behaviour, from the University of Michigan. “These social media messages can activate the same brain mechanisms as cocaine [does] and this is just one of the ways to identify those mechanisms because our minds are a physiological product of our brain.”


In a sensory deprivation tank, our brain starts to ‘hear’ noises in the absence of sensory input. In the attention economy, going too long without a ping or avibrate triggers the same effect.


Millennials now check their phones an average of 150 times a day, with this number surely higher among young teens. The soaring value of attention as a commodity means that social networks are battling for our eyeballs harder than ever, with the aim of keeping us within their ecosystems for as much time as possible.


And how do they achieve this? Growing evidence indicates that social media and gambling exploit the same psychological mechanisms to keep us coming back. It turns out what drives us to refresh our feeds and to pull the lever of a slot machine are surprisingly similar.


Anticipation and reward   


How social media taps into the same psychological mechanisms as gambling comes down to anticipation and reward. Namely, anticipation and the uncertainty of reward. This is the crux of what makes both gambling and social media addictive. We eagerly anticipate a reward - either a triple score on the slot machine or likes and comments on our most recent post - and there either is or isn’t a payoff.


“You scroll down on your mobile phone, to see whether there is something new - some new news or a new tweet,” says Raian Ali, who leads digital addiction research at Bournemouth University. “And that is similar to roulette - it's the same surprise element used to keep people gambling. The same elements are used to a lighter extent in social media - the uncertainty and scarcity of reward.”


Ali notes that the ‘pull to refresh’ mechanism and the following seconds of anticipation on social media are eerily similar to pulling the lever of a slot machine and tentatively waiting to see if you won big.


It’s the variable aspect of the reward that gets us hooked. Take another scenario where this plays out with rats in labs. Studies have examined a setup where rats push a lever to administer a reward - depending on the study it might be either a dose of cocaine or a sugary treat.


In some cases, rats will press the lever and receive the reward whenever they want, in which case the rats will regularly go back to trigger the reward. But introduce a new scenario - the rat presses the lever and doesn’t get a reward, tries a couple more times, and suddenly it's triggered. Now, the reward in response to the behavioural action is variable. In these scenarios, the rat loses it. It compulsively triggers the lever over and over again in an effort to receive the reward - something it never did when the reward was guaranteed.


And like rats hooked up to tubes intravenously spiking their blood with cocaine, ‘likes’ on social media inject a little bump of dopamine into our love-hungry minds. For a moment, warmth washes through our brains - someone out there cares about us. And the intermittent element of the reward turns us into the rat pawing senselessly at the lever to re-trigger that same buzz of pleasure.


The like epidemic


But where did all of this start? Many would say the introduction of the ‘Like’ button paved the way to where we find ourselves today. "The Like button, simple as it was, tapped into a bottomless font of social feedback," says Adam Alter, author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.


Far from indicating vanity, searching for social validation is behaviour that has a powerful evolutionary basis. In early societies, being a social outcast meant losing membership to the social group and being left to survive on your own, meaning in the most likely scenarios, imminent death. Therefore, remaining a fully paid up member of the social group was a biological imperative.


Unsurprising then, that recent social psychological studies indicate that social exclusion can create a feeling akin to physical pain in humans, even in the lowest stakes situations. In one study, a participant played a computer game where they initially passed a ball between two other on-screen ‘players’ (actually just the computer) before being 'left out' when the other players began only throwing it between them. When doing this task linked up to brain monitors, the pain processing part of the brain showed stimulation when the participant experienced this 'rejection'. 


The flipside of this is that humans have been evolutionarily hardwired to crave social acceptance. And in the internet age, social acceptance is nowhere more purely distilled than in the form of the ‘Like’ button. Facebook was the first to introduce this tool of both approval and torture in 2009, and soon enough all other social networks followed suit.


"The main intention I had was to make positivity the path of least resistance," says Justin Rosenstein, one of the Facebook designers behind the button. "And I think it succeeded in its goals, but it also created large unintended negative side effects. In a way, it was too successful."


Sure, social networks are a place to keep up with friends, share pictures with families and read news, but they’re also undoubtedly arenas of meticulous social tracking. And if you’re in any doubt of that, ask a tween to explain their social media usage.


Gamifying social interaction


But as Ali points out, social media has not invented anything new - most of these elements do exist in normal, face-to-face social interaction as well. “Of course, we cannot imagine a social media without those surprise and uncertainty elements," he says. "It’s part of the way we socialise in real life anyway. So they are trying to imitate what we do in social life, and they add a bit of buoyancy, variety and diversity. But in essence, all of these phenomenons exist in social life in the real world anyway.”


What social media does is to gamify aspects of social interaction to increase the appeal of their platforms. What are some of the most egregious examples of this? Snapchat and Instagram stories are particularly guilty due to their temporal nature meaning that by design users must check their phones regularly or they'll miss their friends’ recent updates. They are also formats which encourage more frequent posting of moment-to-moment instances of daily life. Most people limit themselves to a certain number of Facebook or Instagram posts, but stories encourage constant updating of the day’s events that keep reeling us back in - both as users and observers.


Also a product of Snapchat, are ‘streaks’, which reward the maintaining of day-to-day interaction with other users. A day missed results in a ‘broken streak’ and the counter beside your friend's avatar reverting back to zero. Maintaining a streak has become a signaller of the depth of bonds between friends, and resulted in behaviour such as teens employing people to maintain their streak while they’re in a tech-free zone like summer camp. "It's clear here that the goal - keeping the streak alive - is more important than enjoying the platform as a social experience," said Adam Alter, author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. "This is a clear sign that engagement mechanisms are driving usage more than enjoyment." Another example is the overtly gamified version of dating on Tinder, which asks users if they want to stop swiping to message a new match or ‘keep playing?’


But are social media companies explicitly aiming to get us addicted, or is this simply an unfortunate byproduct of trying to create as exciting and immersive an experience as possible online? “The notification features on Facebook and the tailored news to match your interests, all of that increases immersion, increases interest and increases the attachment of people to their social media,” says Ali. “In time people build an identity on social media and they get attached to that identity.”


Depression and anxiety


The language of addiction has permeated our understanding of technology, with phrases like ‘withdrawal’, ‘detox’ and full blown tech rehab centres cropping up.


“What we’re saying is that users of social media can exhibit symptoms very much comparable to gambling addiction - including mood modification, contact withdrawal symptoms, and relapse,” says Ali. “And that these symptoms can be increased or exacerbated by the way that social media is currently designed.”


Phone addiction does not currently appear as a formally defined mental disorder listed in the DSM (the definitive handbook for psychologists and other mental health professionals that is updated every year), other than in the appendix.  


But social media has of course been linked to psychological conditions including depression and anxiety. However, it’s hard to know which particular aspects contribute to these conditions - is it merely the social comparison element that comes into play whenever you see someone looking or living better than you? Or is the mere behavioural addiction element enough to contribute to disrupted mental states?


More studies examining the effect of social media on brain chemistry are on the horizon, and with them the promise of understanding more deeply the effects of this tech on our psychology.


Gamified solutions?


But for now, is it time social media companies grew a conscience? And how would they go about helping problem users anyway? “What we are saying is that there is a space for duty of care,” says Ali. “If some users are not very good at self control or impulse control, especially those who are young and those with some personal problems. So if social media would like to be more social responsible, they need to offer to them some facility in order to have more control over their usage. It doesn't mean they will sacrifice or compromise their attractive or immersive features; all we are saying is they need to balance - to provide that facility to their users, in case they would like to have a period of time to detach from social media, or reshape their relations towards it.”


With their poorer regulation of self control, and the increased importance of social media metrics in defining their social standing, teenagers are the most vulnerable to these effects. “We have teenagers who cannot sleep. Their sleep patterns are affected by thinking about social media: whether they got a like, whether their tweet was retweeted, whether people liked or shared their post,” says Ali.


Surprisingly, Ali suggests gamification could be part of the solution for problem users of social media. “So ironically, some of the same techniques they are using to motivate people to stay online can be used in another modality - to encourage a new, healthy behaviour,” says Ali. “So for example reminders like, ‘You have spent a long time here, do you want to take a break?’ Or ‘In your calendar it says you should be in a lecture now, are you sure you want to check?'" This could be an effective strategy, which is already in effect in the likes of Hold, an application that rewards students for not using their phones with real life perks. The only issue is that the most problematic users may be the most willing to pass on the self-help.