Why Social Media Is So Addictive

Social networking sites are full of opportunities for positive reinforcement.  A ‘Like’ on Facebook, retweet or mention on Twitter,  comment on a status, endorsement on LinkedIn, a repin on Pinterest and a new follower are all forms of positive reinforcement that drive engagement on these social networking platforms.  In this post we’re taking a closer look at how our behaviour gets reinforced through social media and how it becomes psychologically addictive.

What is Reinforcement?

The concept of positive and negative reinforcement is part of what behavioural psychologist B.F. Skinner called ‘Operant Conditioning’. Operant Conditioning is a type of learning in which behaviour is modified by its consequences, resulting in changes in form, frequency, and/or strength.


Positive Reinforcement is when a behaviour is followed by a response that is rewarding, increasing the occurrence of that behaviour.

Negative Reinforcement is when a behaviour is followed by the removal of something aversive, such as a crying child soothed by giving them candy, resulting in an increase in that behaviour.

Punishment is a consequence that decreases the frequency of a behaviour.

Extinction results when there is no consequence/response at all, eventually leading to a decline in that behaviour.

Social media is an ideal environment for operant conditioning and learning.  There are more opportunities for positive social reinforcement now than at any other point in human history.

Social Learning

Here are some examples of positive social reinforcement three popular social networks.

Facebook:  This is the most powerful network for social reinforcement.  Every ‘Like’, comment, and share has the effect of reinforcing our behaviour on Facebook, making us more likely to engage in it again and again.  This has been a huge part of Facebook’s success and a prime reason we spend so much time checking our notifications daily.  Before Facebook someone who had just gotten a new job had to inform each person individually or via mass email, but now with a quick status update the excitement can begin instantly with hundreds of friends and family.

Facebook Reinforcement

Twitter:  Whenever someone follows you, retweets or favourites a tweet, replies to you or mentions you it acts as a positive form of reinforcement for that behaviour.

Positive Reinforcement on Twitter

LinkedIn: Endorsements and recommendations are not as instantaneous or constant as forms of positive reinforcement on Twitter and Facebook, but nevertheless act as a reward that increases engagement levels on the popular networking tool.

LinkedIn Positive Reinforcement

With all of this positive reinforcement of one another’s behaviour through social networks is it any wonder why it’s so easy to get addicted to them?  Not only is there more opportunity for reinforcement, there is less of a time interval between the event and reinforcement.  Studies have found that the shorter the time interval between the action and the reinforcer the more powerful the learning will be.

In terms of punishment, there are also ways we see this happening through social media.  For Example, with a brand on Twitter someone can complain about their customer service and publicize it, leading to much more accountability and modification of that brand’s behaviour.  Brands are increasingly aware of conversations happening about them through social media and are making efforts to avoid any negative publicity on these platforms.

With respect to extinction, tweets and status updates that don’t receive much attention are less likely to be continued and those behaviours decline over time.

Positive reinforcement has played an integral role in the popularity of social media, the reason some networks thrive while others fail, and keeping us coming back for more.   It is an invaluable social learning tool for brands, marketers, and individuals alike.  The true impact that social media has had on shaping our behaviour will likely only be revealed in years to come, but it sure is interesting!