social media dopamineoff topic 

Two more minutes – just quickly checking my IG

We all heard or probably even said that before, right? The ‘let me just quickly check my IG (FB, Twitter, Snapchat, Line, etc.).’. Either before going to bed, going out, having dinner or any other activity. Be it alone or in companion with friends, family, loved ones. The ‘just quick checking’ remark is quite likely to always be heard. No matter where we are and what we do. Why is that the case though? And what does that mean for communication, business and us?

Learning to love the red dots

There have been lots of articles on the psychology of social media (e.g. The Psychology of Social Media, Buffer, 2016) and how Dopamine is influencing our perception of it. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (chemical) inside our brain that, to keep it short and simple, can influence our feeling of pleasure and the feeling of ‘want’ (read more here: What is Dopamine? Science News For Students, 2017). So when you feel pleasure and want more of what you just got, it might be because your brain just produced more dopamine (I hope that’s what happens while you’re here on What does Dopamine now have in common with those red dots on Instagram and Facebook though? Before answering that question, have you realized that not only Instagram and Facebook (which are the same brand) use those red dots, but that basically every other social media channel uses similar icons to show notifications as well? Even your desktop email (you know, those electronic letters we used to send back then – your prof still uses that to send you feedback about your grades) client does that. Why though? There must be a reason for that.

Well one, of course, is the obvious choice: It makes the notifications stand out. It’s an easy way to highlight that you got notifications and red is easy to see and has, probably ever since humans came up with color codes, signified importance to some regard (read more: All about the color red, Sensational Color).

That’s not all though. Red does not only stand out but, over time, we got used to what those red dots are trying to tell us. By now, we do not have to think ‘oh, there’s are red dot, what does that mean?’ but we know ‘there’s a red dot, I gotta check my notifications’.

Be honest, upon posting a picture on Instagram you are expecting those red dots to pop up. Otherwise you’d be disappointed, right (What happens to your brain when you get a like on instagram, BusinessInsider, 2017)? And who doesn’t want to know how many people liked their pictures and videos? Seeing the notifications popping up releases, you know it by now, dopamine.

some IG dopamine for you
Some IG Dopamine for you

As mentioned above, we now all learned what does red dots mean as we have seen the use of them basically everywhere. Ever since social media took off, those red dots where there to highlight that people like us or want to get in touch with us. Those associations are exactly the reason why so many businesses run with those red dots and don’t reinvent the way they show notifications. Even ‘new’ players (Snapchat, Tinder, etc.) copied those red notification dots because our brains are already trained to respond to them.

Exploiting the dopamine need

It’s not only social media channels using our need to check those notifications, it’s content producers and marketers as well. One could argue it’s not necessarily bad that we like ‘likes’ since it’s nice that others show their (maybe even fake) appreciation for us. However it’s not only friends that interact with us on social media, it’s everybody (unless we’re maintaining really private profiles on all platforms). Businesses and marketing experts quickly understood that they could use the human need of feeling (virtually) validated to their advantages. An article by the American Marketing Association quotes: (Marketing Social Highs, American Marketing Association, 2015):

“The challenging part for marketers is to make that social media connection into a human connection, and not an automated or derisive connection,” Hawley says. “The connection doesn’t happen because that’s what the brand wants—because the brand wants you to say something nice about them or validate their point of view. It’s actually about validating the audience’s point of view. The goal should be for a brand to validate a person’s point of view about the brand or something related to the brand.”

So making that social connection into a human connection seems to be the goal and that is best done via validation. Whether giving it, or receiving it. Knowing that our ‘need’ for dopamine is being exploited should make us more aware of what is happening online, but is that the case? I beg to differ.

Go ahead and tell me you don't want to check those notifications
go ahead and tell me you don’t want to check those notifications

Ethics and Awareness vs. Addiction

The discussion about whether or not dopamine is addictive and hence social media can be addictive is as old as Social Media itself and sees arguments on each side of the fence. Some blame social media and highlight all its negative effects (less ‘IRL’ interactions), others say social media helps us to maintain connections and get those happiness boosts which help to keep us motivated and sane. No matter which side you belong to, I hope we can agree on a few basic points here. One being that the potential to misuse the power of social media and the ‘dopamine effect’ is possible and brands are making use of it. From an ethical point of view (and yes I understand that is nothing that businesses usually are concerned about) how far can we go? Do we have to think about those possible negative effects? Or do we stick with ‘well they don’t need to check our messages if they don’t want to?’.

Two. We need to be aware of the fact that this is happening. And we have to spread this awareness. Only if everybody knows about the potential misuse of the ‘social dopamine effect’ we can be sure that everybody will be able to use and enjoy social media the ‘right’ way. Now you might ask who decides what is the ‘right’ way? – Good question, a question that would certainly be easier to answer if we all could agree on some common set of ethics. Also, personally, I kind of dislike this ‘raise awareness’ thing. However I do believe that education in this regard is needed and should be part of digital citizenship.

Three. Tackling addiction (recommended article: Social Media And The Addiction Of Likes, New Hope Photography, 2017) . Now that’s the difficult part and the ideal solution, in my mind, would be if we would get rid of those notifications somehow. This might sound a bit strange on a website that makes use of social media (notifications) as well but wouldn’t it be better to only see those notifications after actively logging on to whatever platform we want to visit? Then again we might keep logging on and checking 24/7 anyways. So how can this possibility of an addiction be tackled?

That’s where I would love to hear from you. Shout out in the comments and share your opinions on the ‘social media dopamine addiction’. 

Sascha Funk

Founder / Editor at
Sascha is the publisher of and switched from an online marketing agency life in Europe to a teaching and education life in Thailand. He also writes about Teaching & Technology.

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  • Um Ntrch

    Let’s be honest, I use social media at all time but I never once realized that the notifications are appear in red dots. I mean, If I was just in case if I forgot about it, I never asked myself why it has to be red? It’s nice that this article helps me realized it. It’s also true that red is a color that stands out, and I’m so getting used to see the notifications that I never realized it is red even though It is what I do 24/7. It’s so strange, and now I have to think about what anything else did I missed out and forgot about it while seeing it everyday. lol

  • Non Kasipat

    Actually. I have always wondering what is the main reason of notification which is always painted in red colour but this article has answered me already. Moreover, even I use social networking everyday and more than 8 hours, I still did not even try to search for the reason until found this article. Kind of weird actually.

  • Cindy Apichaya Pattanasirimong

    After I read this article, I look at myself that it true for me that I always check notification all the time. When I saw the red dot appears on my application like line, instagram, Facebook or twitter. I feel like the red dot it really draw my attention to it. I need to tap on it every time. When it no notification, I will wait for notification. I’m not realize that I really pay attention to it until I found this article.

  • Phirachash Piyawutiposh

    Wow, new knowledge, I never wonder why it needs to be red, why not to be blue, green or something, now I know why. I like the idea of you that notification would show up after we logging in, maybe it will make us less addictive to the social network.

  • Machima Anantanasan

    I could not agree more, when the red dot alert on my phone screen, I automatically know that I have to check the notification on my application. People like it when the red dot pop up after they have posted something on social media, it means they gain attention! so do I, it is a common activity people practice.

    This blog is very useful for us, it raise our awareness that we are somehow too depend on that red dot and put our effort to gain attention on social media without knowing that they use us as a tool to gain benefit.

  • Mix Nuttapol

    Honestly, when I look back for myself, Red Dot make me feel curious every times until I have to check. To illustrate, when I uploaded something on IG story and then has Red Dot on application, I automatically check because I want to know who is comment and what is comment. Thanks for information which make me gain new knowledge and be benefits for my future. If one day I run business, I will use this tactic to adapt.

  • Panpan Auraya

    Totally agree! That was me, I think that I would spending 1-2 minutes for checking the new notification on those all social media apps. But actually, I spent at least 5-10 minutes when I hurry. More that that when I have free time, the most spending time of the day is used by those social apps. Thank you for remind me to don’t interest it too much. It might destroy your daily routine. Omg I just realize… Really Thanks. T_T

  • Dakota Yuwapun

    “Learning to love red dots”? no no no, whenever I see those damned red dots, I have to go into that app to make it go away, they are such an eyesore! I’ve disabled most of the notifications for the apps I have installed on my phone already, but the red dots are still wayyyy too annoying and I have to make them go away!

  • Thananopawan Rattanatrisri

    I totally agree! I can’t stand it when there’s red dot on any of my apps. It’s so annoying and I have to get rid of it. Sometimes, I just go on the apps and don’t even really read it. haha

  • I’ll have to try to incorporate those red dots in class more often ;-)

  • Marketers love them though ;)

  • Let’s see if you change your behavior ;)

  • Penpitcha Sathirapanya

    I agreed that now red dots on social media become a common sense for everyone, we need to click on that to check what is happening. However, for me, red dots do nothing to me if that application have preview messages. I can bear and let’s the red dots increase its number if I already know the messages. :D

  • Paytong Pharima

    I can’t stand when I see that red’s dot TT so poor me.I admit that I have to delete Instagram account during preparing the exam LOL.It is the fact that I am always full of wonder.That’s why when I saw red’s dot, I wonder what happens

  • Fin Kasi

    I’ve heard there are two types of people, those who keep their phone filled with red dots and those who have all notifications cleared. For me, in the social media regard, I definitely have to always clear all the notifications, not only because I’m curious about what and who interacted with me/various updates but because they are so annoying to look at! Social media dopamine addiction is real, and hopefully we should learn to limit ourselves before it becomes too unhealthy.

  • Jade Maciag

    Wow this article just blew my mind a little to be honest 👀 i just knew realized how marketing plays with our hormones (dopamine as mentioned) to get our attentions! Plus, it can make us addicted tomsocial media. This is starting to be scary 😮

  • Warisa Yuktanantana

    I’m also the person who really want to get rid of the red dots. When any app that I play have red dot I have to clear that dot right away.

  • If you ever end up in any of my digital strategy classes I’ll scare you even more. It’s crazy what marketers think about to manipulate us!

  • Mew Sorasesakun

    I’m the one who addicted to those social medias especially for instagram. When there is red dot appear on it, I must click to check what happens or who would like to interact me!

  • Jamie Chowpradith

    Mess with our reality and our hormones too? Now I’m thinking “Should I quit social media then?” I mean I probaly couldn’t do it. But from my knowledge, Social Media = Delusion World. If you want to know more, visit my page on FB, Awesome Stranger Power !