How does social media hook us?

How much time would you estimate you spend on social media?

A few minutes here or there, right?

But the estimates are much higher:

Data from GWI reveals that the typical social media user actively uses or visits an average of 7.5 different social platforms each month, and spends an average of close to 2½ hours per day using social media.

Assuming that people sleep for between 7 and 8 hours per day, these latest figures suggest that people spend roughly 15 percent of their waking lives using social media.


How did you and I get so hooked?

Is 150 minutes a day on social media helping you experience God’s love? Do you feel like you are participating in God’s mission to reconcile men and women of every nation to himself?

We were targeted. Our involvement on social media is the result of an intentional, designed process.

Imagine you run a social media network. Your goal is getting more people to use your product for more time so you can serve more ads and make more money.

The participants are called “users” for a reason. Their goal is to get us hooked.

Why? The payoff is huge. As I write this, Facebook’s market cap is $611 billion! (Now known as “Meta”).

For instance, when Instagram was designed (and of course, it continues to be tweaked), they consulted with behavioral psychologists to systematically build an onboarding process that would form a new habit: regularly sharing personal photos. As more people shared more photos (or videos), Instagram had more content to show each user.

Here’s one explanation of how it works:

For millions of users like Yin, Instagram is a harbor for emotions and inspirations. It’s a virtual memoir in pretty pixels. By thoughtfully moving users from external to internal triggers, Instagram designed a persistent routine in peoples’ lives. Once the users’ internal triggers began to fire, competing services didn’t stand a chance. Each snapshot further committed users to Instagram, making it indispensable to them, and apparently to Facebook as well.

The same is true of all the largest social networks. How did they gain hundreds of millions or billions of “users”?

It wasn’t by accident. It involved the careful study and application of insights from behavioral psychology and related fields - in combination with brilliant software engineering, graphic design, and user experience design.

The goal is a frictionless, pleasing experience that creates new habits.

Think about it from your own point of view:

What do you do when you’re bored? You check your phone “just in case.” Oh, I see a notification, what’s going on? Now there’s curiosity…

So you log in and start to scroll.

Within seconds, the pain of boredom is replaced with the pleasure of a strong emotional experience. The content you see could be happy or sad, funny or outrageous. But it is related to you and your personal interests.

Time’s up, but next time you have a free moment and you need relief, where will you go?

Sometimes the relief comes from passively consuming what other people share.

But we also get rewarded by sharing about ourselves. Then the likes, retweets, and comments roll in. It feels good to be seen, applauded, and valued by others.

So how do we fix this problem?

I don’t think “willpower” is the answer. That’s already been overwhelmed by the sheer force of the habit formation process.

If “willpower” was the answer, you’d still be keeping your New Year resolutions, right?

But perhaps as one next step, we can do an audit to gain self-awareness. Vera Ludwig, a research associate at Penn, explains “Step 1” to changing behavior:

Step 1 focuses on realizing that a particular action doesn’t make sense, that perhaps it doesn’t match up with someone’s goals or doesn’t contribute to that person’s overall well-being.

“With mindfulness, we can observe our habits instead of trying to force ourselves to do things differently…"

Here are the other steps she recommends:

  1. Write it down
  2. Set reasonable goals
  3. Give it time
  4. Practice meditation
  5. Cut yourself some slack

How Uncommon Pursuit can help…

Here’s the thing. You’re reading this post in an online community.

So let me explain what makes this space so unique. It’s probably different from anything you’ve experienced elsewhere.

First, we don’t serve ads. Instead, we’re supported by donors and member subscriptions. That means our model isn’t built on maximizing engagement.

Instead, we ask our members to evaluate whether or not their time in the community is leading to personal transformation into Christlikeness.

Next, our community aligns with research-based insights on how to change our habits. For instance, consider Ludwig’s tips, above, with how we’ve designed Uncommon Pursuit:

  1. We’re giving you a prompt to become self-aware of your social media usage. When did Facebook or Instagram last do that?

  2. We focus on writing because writing requires us to think clearly. Whether you create a Topic or reply to one, the environment shapes us to develop a better understanding of the issue we’re discussing together. This process prioritizes personal growth over cheap dopamine hits.

  3. We value process and taking time away. For instance, we close the community to new comments on the weekends.

  4. Missional members receive a weekly prompt designed to encourage self-reflection and prayer (what Ludwig calls meditation).

  5. We put the focus on God’s uncommon pursuit - which helps us experience grace. As Ludwig says, “cut yourself some slack.” We have a richer resource: Jesus is the one who carries our burdens. And we can serve one another in love.

Are you happy with your social media usage?

I only know a few people who, upon reflection, feel their investment on social media is connected to their personal goals in life.

I want you to experience a transformational community. An empowering environment that prepares you to take new risks for God’s glory.

That’s why we built the Uncommon Pursuit community.

What are your next steps?

  1. What insights do you have about how social media hooks us?

  2. Step back for a minute. As you think about your life priorities, what social media habits do you want to have? How will they help you fulfill your purpose in life?

  3. As an alternative: what practices enable you to connect with others in a way that develops your experience of God’s love and deepens your spiritual maturity?

@Carson the social media platforms have most certainly designed their systems to hook us and found out how to leverage our attention to make money. They are obviously capitalizing on a vulnerability within our human nature to do it. I wonder if the below verse gives us a clue.

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
Judges 21:25

Most of the time I read the above line of scripture as a statement/critique about the morality of the people of Israel. While it certainly does include morality within the scope of what it is describing, I’m beginning to see that it also is a statement of how people can go through their life without acknowledging God as God. Instead of living one’s life before God and taking the whole of their life before the one who is King of all creation, we instead process the day-to-day moments within our own mind and internal processes. Paul even says in Romans 1:28 that because of the failure to recognize that God is God, humanity was given over “to a depraved mind to do what ought not to be done” (NIV). Following his line of reasoning, one can conclude that the moral failures come after the failure to rightly honor God’s position in our life and creation. Social media has tapped into that reality and has thoroughly capitalized on it. We in turn keep turning back to our internal “happy” trigger and process our life through the lens of emotional gratification. We almost like we have enshrined our amygdala as an idol that we regularly turn to and social media is simply to votive candle we light as part of our religious service to it.

Maybe this section is destined for another topic, but I’ve been convicted lately about this pattern of innate self-seeking tendency. It seems so innocuous to process our worries, decisions, and everyday moments in our own minds, but then I kept reading about how such behavior deserve God’s “wrath and anger” (Rom 2:8), and how it is counter to Godly wisdom (Jam 3:14), and how “confusion and every evil thing” accompanies it (Jam 3:16). Even this morning, I remembered the new cracks in our house’s foundation that I saw yesterday. My mind went to this place of worry, and I started asking myself, “Who on social media can point us in the right direction? Would insurance cover it? How much will it cost to fix?” I spiraled down this pattern of self-asking and worry until I was prompted by this small voice to seek God. So then I prayed and presented it to the Lord and I asked Him those questions instead. Isn’t that what God wants from us? To turn to Him instead of our own understanding or the wealth, strength, and wisdom of humanity.

Indeed, the LORD’s arm is not too weak to save, and his ear is not too deaf to hear. Isaiah 59:1

Back to the topic at hand, you’re right @Carson, willpower is wholly insufficient. Jesus said to simply cut it off in Matthew 5:29-30. Obviously, Jesus is not talking about literally maiming ourselves, but as it relates to social media I’ve applied his command by “cutting off” my access to social media. I’ve turned on the screen time settings on my iPhone and limited my social media time. When I run out of time, then I’m locked out. There are many times it has been an inconvenience. Sometimes I have to go to my wife and ask her to enter the screentime passcode in order to finish a video about fixing the plumbing, but it is better than the alternative of being a slave to the idolatrous, self-satisfying habits in my mind.

I think the five points you laid out @Carson form a fine strategy. Even so, I am challenged by the idea that doing the best things in our own sufficiency will fall short of truly setting us free. Jesus’ first point in His model prayer in Matthew 6:9-13 was to recognize God as God. Aren’t His ways higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9)?

I look forward to see what others have to say. I’m so grateful for this community that isn’t seeking attention for attention sake and that it has formed around God’s pursuit not our own.

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