Be honest: How often have you posted a photo on Instagram, and sat back with glee as the likes and comments started racking up on your post? Or tweeted something hilarious and checked your notifications every few minutes to see who liked it? Or even texted your best friend and asked them to like your post because it didn't have enough likes yet?
It's not your fault if you have a Pavlovian response to seeing a like pop up on your notifications. Larry Rosen, PhD, a research psychologist who explores our relationship with technology, says that over the years, as social media became more ubiquitous, we've been conditioned to respond to these notifications like, well, salivating dogs.
"From a behavioural standpoint, [getting a like is] like constantly being reinforced for something, and when we get reinforced, it feels good," he says. "It makes you want to do something again, to repeat the behaviour you get those consequences from."
Dr. Rosen says that the compulsion to check in and see how people respond to your posts runs deep because it's fuelled by brain chemicals. Dopamine, for example, a "reward molecule" released when you do things like exercise or achieve a goal, has been shown to release when we post and interact with people on social media. When it's released, you get a rush of feel-good emotions and an overall pleasurable experience. In turn, that rush of dopamine triggers a behavioural loop, where, as Dr. Rosen says, if we post something we get likes on and feel good, we keep checking for more. And if we don’t get more likes, it almost feels like a negative consequence.
Plus, the public nature of social media makes that effect even more pronounced.
"It is validating you in front of a large audience, so any squirt of dopamine you’re getting or any person validating you is magnified by knowing that everyone else can see it," Dr. Rosen says. "That need is reasonable. We all crave attention and crave positive reinforcement, and without any notifications, you have no idea when that positive reinforcement is going to come."
So, it's hard not to get hooked on that sense of personal validation. But if you're looking to break the habit of constantly checking who's liked your latest tweet, it's not impossible — it just might take more time than you think.
That need is reasonable, we all crave attention and crave positive reinforcement.
Larry Rosen, PhD
Dr. Rosen says that he's seen people try to quit checking their social media notifications cold-turkey. However, if checking to see who liked your last Instagram post is a habit for you, you're going to have to break it down more gradually than that, instead of making such a big radical change.
"If you’re one of those people who’s on [your phone] all the time, start by checking every 15 minutes for a minute," he suggests. "Set a very brief time limit to check in, and when you get good at that, check in every half hour for a minute. Spread it out to a comfortable amount until you’re not feeling that drive as much."
Setting a schedule helps, he says, because it puts you in control of how you're looking at what's going on with your posts, instead of just mindlessly opening your phone and scrolling.
He also recommends turning off your notifications for social media apps, moving them off your home screen, and putting them into a folder — and if necessary, putting that folder into another folder and so forth. The idea is that if you have to put more effort in to see if anyone's replied to your post, it'll change your behaviour over time.
Timing is key here: You basically have to retrain your brain to check out slowly.
"If you think about it, we didn’t get to this point [of constantly checking social media] quickly," Dr. Rosen says. "It took us eight to ten years to get to this point, and it’s going to take some time to get out of this."