Be more productive: Block distracting websites and apps on all your devices with Freedom - try Freedom today

How Social Media Keeps You Hooked – An expose on how the apps we use every day are designed to grab and hold your attention. 

Apps keep you hooked

Social media has become a part of daily life, whether you like to check in on your family on Facebook, share informative posts on Instagram, find new recipes on TikTok, or watch the newest vlog from your favorite YouTuber. Somehow the algorithms always know what to show you next to keep you hooked online and away from the present moment of pressing work tasks, personal creative projects, or meaningful family time.

But what are the psychological mechanisms that lead us into compulsive app use? And how can we make more conscious decisions about our digital engagement and form healthy habits with persuasive technology for the future?

What is The Hooked Model? 

We are within a new chapter in the internet age, in which the attention economy literally means that your extended time on apps translates into money for the companies that make them. Therefore, it’s the goal of these companies to encourage you into compulsive app use. But how do they ensure you stay online? 

According to Psychologist Nir Eyal, social media companies use the Hooked Model, a theory that explains four stages of user interaction with a habit-forming product. As you surf the web, you receive a Trigger to persuade you to use the product, conduct an Action to satisfy the trigger, enjoy a Variable Reward for that action, and create an Investment that increases the value of the product to you. As you pass through these phases, you begin to build digital habits. 

  1. Trigger

The trigger is the spark that encourages you into the application. You may receive external triggers such as a phone notification, intriguing photo, website link, or email, and when you pass through the hooked cycle more often, you begin to form an association to an emotion or behavior, known as an internal trigger. 

Social media companies that create strong digital habits in you are ultimately the most successful, because with time, you’ll enter their applications based on internal triggers. A simple feeling of boredom may be all you need to trigger you into opening up YouTube without any external prompt. 

  1. Action

When the trigger has redirected your attention towards the application, the company then works to motivate you to click on the link. Now, you have completed the action that takes you into the application. For example, while reading an article, you may click on an embedded video to watch it. Suddenly you’re taken to TikTok where the video was originally posted. 

  1. Variable Reward

As you scroll through TikTok, you find some videos are entirely irrelevant to you, but the occasional video of an adorable animal or interesting recipe piques your interest, generating desire. This feeling of expecting a reward keeps our dopamine levels high, so now you’ll subconsciously scroll through the mix of content waiting to find the next cute video of a baby sheep. This variable reward is akin to the sensation of a fruit machine in a gambling arcade – it’s the uncertainty of reward that keeps us coming back for more.  

  1. Investment

In order to really ensure you keep returning to the app, they are encouraged  to make a small investment. Many of these apps push you to share posts, invite friends, test a beta feature, leave feedback, and create groups to invest in the model and ensure that the next time you’re triggered, you’ll want to pass back through the same application. 

By spending more time on these applications, you offer companies data on your likes and dislikes. The TikTok algorithm soon knows to show you plenty of sleepy kittens and baking recipes mixed in with new content to increase your chance of being triggered to desire and expect an exciting reward each time you pass through the hook. 

The Hooked Model encourages you to begin forming habits surrounding your social media use through internal or external cues, whether you receive a notification or feel a certain emotion that prompts you to begin scrolling compulsively to receive those constant dopamine hits of a variable reward. As a result, people of all ages are suffering from social media addiction. 

However, understanding how these applications work to keep you online, can be a powerful way to help you avoid manipulation, create healthy habits with persuasive technology, and consciously engage in its benefits, such as social connection and access to information. But moderation is key; social media companies also exploit these benefits to keep you chronically online. 

Social Media As a Hub of Human Social Connection

Everyone has an innate human need for social interaction. We want to feel connected to friends and family, and social media apps have successfully bridged the communication gap even for people living on opposite sides of the planet. 

Anyone with an internet connection can share a post, send a message, or answer a call within seconds, so your favorite chef may answer your question, or the dog owner listens to requests for a video of his pet in a costume. This possibility of 24/7 engagement may keep users online as they send memes to friends or wait to comment on the newest video. 

Studies show that people who feel more connected to others have decreased anxiety and depression, and higher self-esteem and empathy for others. Anyone who feels isolated in their physical community may have an easier time finding their niche of people who share similar passions and goals via Facebook groups or Instagram profiles. People who feel more connected also trust and cooperate with others more easily – it’s no wonder then that so many of us are easily manipulated into spending more time online.  

When Craving Social Validation Becomes Dangerous

Part of social connection comes with the desire for external validation from the world of our accomplishments. A 2016 study found emotional validation from mothers builds emotional awareness in the child. Children who grow up feeling unvalued may struggle to regulate their emotions; alternatively, children who receive over adulation may grow up with narcissistic traits. Both these groups are more likely to seek social validation to feel acceptance. 

Do you measure the number of views and likes you receive on your posts as a means of social status? A study found users with higher levels of narcissism, the need to belong, fear of missing out (FOMO), and social media reputation are more likely to have a higher need for online social feedback. Social media apps capitalize on this need through engagement metrics, such as making the number of likes and dislikes, followers, and comments visible to all.

Narcissists who post selfies engage in the attention economy and boost self-esteem through the external validation of likes. Users with the need to belong may find themselves commenting on plenty of posts. People with high FOMO may be active in sharing posts while compulsively absorbing the experiences of others, internally comparing their life to another person’s highlight reel. 

If you find yourself succeeding in social media with millions of views and thousands of followers, you may feel incentivized to continue their high social media reputation with frequent engagement. Unfortunately, social media engagement doesn’t help you regulate emotions, and these reinforcing effects of external validation can result in anxiety, people-pleasing behaviors, and burnout.

Grappling with the Information Overload

However, there are many users who don’t utilize social media networks for validation, and prefer to gather and share information on news, education, and events. The digital age has amplified the human tendency to seek information; now we can learn how to change a tire on YouTube, create new hairstyles via Pinterest, or discover a history lesson through a Twitter thread. 

Social media platforms take note of your data and offer curated content and personalized recommendations to show information you may be particularly interested in, from city politics to organic gardening, to keep you chronically online. The news cycle also spins faster than ever, and continuous updates and real-time feeds create a sense of urgency so you want to constantly refresh for new updates. 

The ability for users to “go live” on a platform also may encourage followers to drop everything and hop on the livestream to see live news, a Q&A, or other content. But even if you don’t make it to the livestream, there’s still an infinite scroll of content awaiting you.

The Power of the Infinite Scroll

The infinite scroll is a powerful feature encouraging compulsive app use. Designed in 2006, the infinite scroll pattern creates a seamless loop of endless content consumption without having to click through pages, and social media sites such as Pinterest, Reddit, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Tumblr, and LinkedIn all utilize it to boost user engagement

Following the logic of the hook theory, it’s difficult to disengage from the persuasive infinite scroll due to the human desire to seek predictable patterns, especially when we know the next great content will result in a dopamine hit to the brain. Without natural stopping cues, it is very hard to tear ourselves away.  

Furthermore, we allow our lives to pass by without engaging in physical reality. Suddenly, your working hours are less productive, your creative projects are left behind, and your relationships are weakened, which can result in lowered mental and emotional health. But although you’ve created compulsive habits around social media, you can also work to rewire those pathways for healthy digital habits.

Forming Healthy Habits Around Social Media

Although around one-third of adults in the U.S. report being “almost constantly online,” it’s still possible for you to build a healthy relationship with your social media apps. 

Be Mindful

Consider what you currently consume on your apps. How many minutes or hours do you spend a day on social media? Do you often find yourself mindlessly scrolling? Understanding the root “why” of your behaviors can help you break the addiction. Engaging in other practices that encourage mindfulness, from meditation to cooking to exercise, can help us flex the muscle of redirecting our attention. 

Set Boundaries

Create strict limits on your social media usage by sticking to a schedule that allows 30 minutes to an hour of social media scrolling per day. If you need to access certain information on a social media site outside of your scheduled time, stay focused on getting where you need to go without clicking on something distracting. Remove notifications or delete apps if you find yourself struggling with staying away from social media. 

Utilize Tools

Sometimes the human will just isn’t strong enough to break our addiction. But luckily there are a series of digital tools that can help you stay away from your apps. The Pause extension will force you to be mindful before entering a distracting website. The Limit extension allows you to set timed limits on certain websites and apps for the day. 

If you’re seeking more flexibility in the sites they want to access at different times of day, Freedom is a useful tool that allows you to block websites and apps for as much time as you’d like. You can sync your sessions across your devices and create customized Blocklists that keep certain sites open and others closed depending if you’re at work, doing a project, or engaging in a situation unique to your life. 

Unveiling the Tricks of Popular Apps

We dove into the specific mechanisms used by the most popular social media apps to keep their users hooked.  Find the inside stories on the following apps, and how the behavioral design and technology keeps you hooked: 

All these social media apps operate on the human psychological needs of connection, validation, and information gathering to keep their users hooked on the promise of variable rewards. We’ll dedicate one post to each application as we expose their user engagement strategies and offer suggestions for making informed digital engagement choices, like using tools such as Freedom. Stay tuned to learn how Instagram’s quilt of squares on its Explore Page keeps you eager to scroll forever.

Written by author Lorena Bally