There’s no doubt that social media and content can be addicting. We’re constantly checking our phones, refreshing our feeds, and seeking out new content to consume. What is it about these digital experiences that keep us coming back for more?
Emerging research suggests social technologies tap into our brains’ “happy hormones” – neurochemicals like oxytocin, dopamine, and endorphins that give us feelings of pleasure, satisfaction, and bonding. But what is it about social media and content that keeps us coming back for more?
How “Happy Hormones” Make Social Media Addictive
One possibility is that social media and content activate our “happy hormones.” Neuro-economist Paul J. Zak discovered, and scientifically proved, that social networking triggers the release of the feel-good hormone, oxytocin. Dopamine, endorphin, and oxytocin are all neurotransmitters that are associated with pleasure and happiness.
“E-connection is processed in the brain like an in-person connection,” Zak said. “Your brain interpreted tweeting as if you were directly interacting with people you cared about or had empathy for.”
Dopamine: The Neurochemical of Reward and Motivation
This neurotransmitter also spikes when we experience social rewards online:
- Getting likes, comments, and shares on social media posts
- Discovering entertaining or cute content
- Reading exciting news headlines
When we see likes, comments, or shares on our posts, our brains release dopamine, which gives us a sense of satisfaction.
These rewarding social feedbacks trigger dopamine releases, giving us a little “high”. Over time, we start craving these social media dopamine hits.
This helps explains why dopamine is tied to motivation. The promise of more likes and comments motivates us to keep posting content. The anticipation of funny videos motivates us to keep scrolling feeds. Dopamine makes us want more.
Endorphins: The Pain and Pleasure Molecule
Physical exercise releases endorphins – natural opioids that relieve pain and produce euphoria. Laughter also releases endorphins.
Online content that makes audiences laugh or cry releases surges of mood-boosting endorphins. More intense physical social media challenges like planking contests or dance videos can also activate endorphins.
The mix of emotional engagement and physical intensity likely explains the rise of more physically-demanding social video challenges on sites like TikTok or Youtube.
Oxytocin: The Cuddle Hormone
Similarly, when we view content that makes us laugh or feel good, our brains release endorphins, which lead to feelings of pleasure. And when we interact with others online, our brains release oxytocin, which is known as the “cuddle hormone” because it promotes feelings of bonding and closeness.
Emerging research shows oxytocin also releases during positive social interactions online. Commenting on a friend’s social media posts or sharing words of support online releases this hormone.
So it’s possible that we’re addicted to social media and content because it makes us feel good. But it’s also possible that we’re addicted because we’re constantly seeking out new ways to trigger these happy hormones. We’re always on the lookout for the next great piece of content that will make us laugh, feel good, or bond with others.
Creating Shareable, Addictive Social Media Content
Understanding these neurochemical drivers helps explain why we find social media so addictive – it hijacks our brains’ reward circuitry.
It also suggests strategies for creators seeking to make addictively shareable content:
Funny, Emotional Content
Content that tickles audiences’ funny bone or heartstrings is primed for social sharing – it releases endorphins and dopamine. Memes, cute animal videos, humorousobservations, and sentimental backstories all tend to perform well.
Challenging, Intense Content
Watching someone push themselves physically or take on extreme challenges like spicy food competitions releases engaging endorphins and dopamine. The latest social media challenges often go viral for this reason.
Interactive, Bonding Content
Content that helps audiences directly engage and bond tends to spread thanks to oxytocin’s pro-social effects. For example, Facebook saw intense viral spread by facilitating relationship bonds early on. Features enabling direct interaction – like livestreams or comment threads – use this chemical effect.
It’s important to note that not all social media and content is created equal. Some content is more likely to trigger our happy hormones than others. For example, content that is funny, heartwarming, or visually stimulating is more likely to trigger dopamine release than content that is dull or boring. Similarly, content that is physically demanding or challenging is more likely to trigger endorphin release than content that is easy or effortless. And content that is interactive or social is more likely to trigger oxytocin release than content that is solitary or passive.
- Social platforms hijack the brain’s reward circuitry by triggering massive releases of hormones like dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins.
- Features like notifications, scrolling feeds, and Fear-of-Missing-Out activate evolutionary drives for safety, social bonding, variable rewards.
- Funny, emotional, challenging, interactive content causes greater happy hormone secretion, making it more addictive.
The science is clear – social media has an addictive grip on us by tapping into our brain’s happy hormones. Platforms leverage various features to keep us hooked into endless scrolling.
So if you want to create social media and content that will keep people coming back for more, make sure to create content that is funny, heartwarming, visually stimulating, physically demanding, or interactive. By doing so, you’ll be more likely to trigger those happy hormones and keep people coming back for more.