Social media is a tough habit to break.
The reason is that it makes people feel good, says a group of researchers from Michigan State University, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Radboud University Nijmegen in The Netherlands.
The group conducted two studies of frequent and less-frequent Facebook users and found that even brief exposure to the Facebook logo or a screenshot from the service caused pleasurable response among frequent users. Furthermore, these feelings become a craving to turn to social media and use it even more frequently, researchers say.
Even at brief exposures, Facebook gives users a learned response—similar to children learning that misbehavior earns them attention, or dogs learning that good behavior gets them a treat. That learned response is hard to break.
“People are learning this reward feeling when they get to Facebook," says Allison Eden, assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Michigan State University, who conducted the study. "What we show with this study is that even with something as simple as the Facebook logo, seeing the Facebook wall of a friend or seeing anything associated with Facebook, is enough to bring that positive association back."
The first study involved a Facebook-related cue or a control picture followed by a Chinese symbol. Then they were asked if the symbol was pleasant or unpleasant. After being exposed to a Facebook-inspired image, heavy Facebook users rated the Chinese image as pleasant with greater consistency than less frequent users.
In the second study, users were given a survey to measure their cravings to use Facebook. Giving in to temptation, people often struggle with feelings of guilt. If they try to regulate Facebook usage and fail, they feel bad and turn to Facebook and feel bad again. It is a cycle of self-regulatory failure, Eden says.
The solution could be to remove some cues from a person's environment, such as removing the Facebook logo from a cell phone home screen.
"Media, including social media, is one of the most commonly failed goals to regulate," Eden says. "People try to regulate themselves and they really have difficulty with it."