Raise your hand if you've ever pulled out your phone to check the weather and found yourself falling down a Facebook rabbit hole instead. We've all been there. Now, new research may shed some light onto why, exactly, it happens to so many of us. For frequent social-media users, visual cues like the Facebook logo are associated with “hedonic” responses that may make these apps difficult to resist.
The new study, published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Society Networking, did not actually look at people’s behavior on social media sites—and it could only show a link, not a cause-and-effect relationship, between social media cues and emotional reactions. But the findings could help explain why some people feel more drawn to sites like Facebook than others.
To investigate this question, researchers in the Netherlands and at Michigan State University asked volunteers to rate a series of images as pleasant or unpleasant after being shown either the Facebook logo or a neutral image (a picture of a stapler, for example). The researchers expected that people who frequently used social media would react more positively to images they saw after the Facebook logo than those who used social networking sites less often—and that’s exactly what happened.
They also measured the participants’ Facebook cravings, asking them how strongly they wanted to use the site and whether they planned to use it immediately after the experiment was over. Not surprisingly, frequent users had more cravings, and their levels of positive response to the Facebook logo seemed to account for some (but not all) of those feelings.
“The more you use Facebook, the more you are building up these hedonic responses to these cues,” co-author Allison Eden, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication at Michigan State, told RealSimple.com. “You log into Facebook and you get a jolt of excitement to be checking in with your friends, and that forms a positive association. And the more you do it, the stronger that association becomes.”
In other words, frequent Facebook use can be a self-perpetuating process. If you don’t check in very often, the draw isn’t nearly as strong—but once you get sucked in on a regular basis, it feels more and more like an addiction.
“A lot of people will say they hate Facebook or want to spend less time on it, but they still get some gratification out of it,” says Eden. “Even when we consciously say we don’t want to use it, we’re still clicking on it.” In a press release from the journal’s publisher, editor-in-chief Brenda K. Wiederhold, PhD, went as far as to compare these types of social media responses to cravings for chocolate or nicotine.
Eden says more research is needed to confirm the link between Facebook-related images and hedonic responses, and to determine whether those responses really do influence social-media behavior. But extrapolating from her study and other research, she does have some preliminary advice for anyone who wants to stop spending so much time consuming media—social or otherwise.
“If you are trying to reduce your Facebook use, one way you could do that is by hiding the app link on your phone,” she says. Instead of leaving it on your home screen, for example, put it in a sub folder.
It’s true that you may quickly adapt to clicking two buttons rather than just one—but simply having it out of sight may help you keep it out of mind, as well. “If you have trouble regulating certain types of food, the advice is get it out of your house and make it less available to you,” says Eden. “It’s the same with media—force yourself to go the extra step and you’ll be less likely to need it.”
That goes for other types of on-demand entertainment, too: During Netflix binges, for example, Eden suggests disabling the option to automatically start new episodes one after the other. “Anything you can do to snap yourself out of your unconsciousness can help,” she says. “It can help you realize that you’ve spent too much time there, that you need to move on.”