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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