• Social media holds an undeniable presence in most of our lives – but why is it that we find it so addictive?

  • Teacher and trainee psychotherapist Emma Kilburn explores three different psychological theories to explain why we're hooked

Over the last few months, many of us will have spent more time than ever in front of a screen. For those working from home, a lot of this time will have been dedicated to work-related activity. However, the period of lockdown also saw a sharp increase in the amount of screen time we spent socialising and keeping in touch with friends and family. It is hard to imagine how different our experience would have been had the pandemic struck pre-Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Zoom or Houseparty. We would have experienced our physical isolation in a much more immediate way, without the technology and apps that enabled most of us to maintain contact with our support networks. 

Our recent experiences have shone a fresh light on their undeniable benefits. Even in less extraordinary times, technology and in particular social networks can be very positive aspects of our daily lives. Of course, a great deal has also been written about the negative impact of the social media – in particular in terms of the amount of time we dedicate to them, and the psychological impact they can have. I have written previously about the pernicious impact of envy and how social media can fuel this and other negative emotions. Furthermore, research has shown that all kinds of comparisons via social media – whether we feel we are better or worse off than the people whose posts we are reading – can have a negative impact and can lead to depressive symptoms. Yet despite the possible psychological drawbacks – and despite our increasing awareness of the ways in which technology is being used to influence what we see in our feeds – social media networks continue to command as much of our time as ever. It is interesting to consider our relationship with these networks in the context of the work of theorists whose ideas may help us develop a clearer understanding of the drives that influence our decisions to dedicate so much time to them.

Why are we so addicted to social media? 


The first reason social networks can be so addictive is linked to the acronym most closely associated with them: FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out. Social networks create a sense of belonging and a sense of community. We build links with people who share the same interests and values as us by following them, re-tweeting them, or even by engaging with them directly. We are able to keep in contact with friends and colleagues with whom we might otherwise have lost touch, and can follow their lives online. We can participate and share in key events, whether that be the response to a sporting fixture, jokes and anger following the controversial actions of a public figure, or expressions of solidarity after a natural disaster or a terrorist attack. We invest these connections with value and meaning. If we choose to step away from social media, these are lost and we are left wondering what connections and shared experiences people are having in our absence, while we remain on the outside of them. If we never engage with social media, these connections hold no value for us, but once we sign up, our FOMO makes it difficult for us to disengage, albeit we might manage to do so for a short period of time, encouraged by initiatives such as Scroll Free September.

Beyond shared experiences, social media networks draw us in due to the way in which they enable us to create and respond to social objects. A social object is an object that gains meaning through the way it is used. Internet entrepreneur Jyri Engestrom linked the success of key social networks to the way in which they extend the concept of sociality beyond people to social objects. People don’t just connect to each other; they connect through a shared object, around which the conversations of social networks are generated. Photos on Flickr or Instagram, or videos on YouTube are all examples of social objects whose value lies in the way in which users engage with them, particularly since they are user-generated and so have no intrinsic value of their own. These objects constitute a key driver behind the time and emotional energy we choose to invest in social networks.


I have said that the value of social objects lies in the responses they generate, and this links to another key reason why social networks can be so addictive. Social media platforms encourage us to focus on the validation and recognition they can provide. If you post a picture on Instagram, your notifications will tell you how many people have liked it. The more the better, right?! If you tweet a response to an author, politician, or comedian on Twitter and they like your tweet, you feel proud, and seen. Perhaps you have sent a more negative comment to someone you disagree with, and have felt satisfied when they have engaged with what you have written, albeit perhaps in a similarly negative way. 

The Swiss psychiatrist Eric Berne developed the concept of ‘strokes.’ He defined a stroke as the “fundamental unit of social action”. Just as children want physical contact (‘strokes’), adults need engagement, and these strokes can be symbolic, verbal or even digital, as well as physical. A physical stroke might be a hug, a verbal stroke a conversation, or even just a quick greeting. Strokes can be unconditional (“I think you are great”) or conditional (“I think you are great, though not when we disagree on politics”.) They can be positive, or negative. Such is what Berne described as our ‘recognition hunger’ that even a negative stroke is better than no recognition at all, and this extends to our life online. 

Our busy modern lives – or recently, the lockdown – often mean that we have fewer opportunities to engage with friends and family in person, and therefore fewer opportunities for physical or face-to-face contact and recognition. Social media offers us a virtual alternative through retweets, likes, shares, and even through negative interactions, since even this negative recognition goes some way towards sating our recognition hunger, despite the possible negative psychological consequences of disagreements, trolling and online hate-speak with which we may be left when we step away from our screens. Greater awareness of this psychological drive for recognition can help us understand why we are pulled to interact online, even when we may then be adversely affected by the consequences of our interactions. This might encourage us to seek a better balance between our face to face relationships and the time we spend on social media and to seek out more frequent opportunities for nurturing, real-life interactions with people we value. We may then feel less compelled to turn to social media in search of strokes, and thus avoid some of the psychological pitfalls of life online.


A third theory that can help us understand the way in which we can become dependent on social media is linked to the device itself through which we most frequently access it, i.e. our mobile phone. This theory derives from the work of child psychologist D.W. Winnicott, who was active in the latter half of the twentieth century. Winnicott introduced the concept of the transitional object. This object allows a child to move from her initial, narcissistic view of the world in which it cannot see beyond itself, to an understanding of and love for others as complete people who are separate from the self. The transitional object is the first that become a focus of a child’s attention and which enables her to develop an awareness of the self and other, while at the same time providing an ongoing source of security and comfort. Think about the soft toy you had as a child, or the blanket you had to cuddle or chew to soothe yourself to sleep - those were your transitional objects. Of course, over time, a child becomes more independent and equally becomes less emotionally invested in his or her transitional object. Nonetheless, that potential for emotional investment remains, and in later life other objects may fulfil the same role. In teenagers, we may see this emotional energy transferred to a pop star or actor for example, or to a particular cultural group or set of values. Objects in the cultural domain can be particularly effective transitional objects for young people as they offer scope for creativity, imagination and an exploration of potential self-fulfilment, since they are located in a potential space, somewhere between the inner world of the self and the external world of material reality.

Recently, various theorists have suggested that the mobile phone can play the role of transitional object. Much like a soft toy, mobile devices can provide a sense of comfort and familiarity in an unfamiliar setting. Sitting in a restaurant waiting for a friend, or attending a work conference with strangers, our mobile phone gives us a way to connect to social objects and to people that we know, so that we feel less alone or uncertain. Despite the known psychological risks associated with social media in particular, our phones can provide a means of escape from the place in which we are physically located, into a more familiar and comfortable psychic space, providing relief or release. Our phone enables us to move between the external world and our internal world. In this way it replicates the role of our Ego (in Freudian terms), whose main focus is to negotiate between the internal and external worlds, and to have its needs met in socially acceptable ways.  Furthermore,  the way we use our phone to connect with social media, to send emails or to search the internet enables us to create our own personalised experience, and in a way to reclaim the reassuring sense of narcissistic omnipotence we experienced as a very young child, before the presence of The Other made itself known.

In childhood, transitional objects enable us to manage the transition to a more structured existence, in which we have to manage our relationship with the other, and the passage of time. Similarly, our mobile phones can give our lives structure, via reminders and alarms, notifications, and a whole range of apps that remind us to keep ‘doing’ and ‘planning’ - whether those be fitness trackers, language learning apps, or simply notes containing our to-do list. The danger is when our phones become overly intrusive. Our to-do list turns our daily lives into a series of chores; our access to email enables our work life to intrude into our personal life; our constantly need to be doing or updating distracts us and impedes our ability to just be, not least since regularly reaching for our phone fragments our focus and our experiences. And while our mobile phone and the access it gives us to social media can be a tool to enhance our relationships and provide a source of comfort to ward off any sense of alienation, the danger is that we may become overly dependent on our digital existence and miss the real thing.

I would by no means advocate that we should cease to engage with and use social media. It can bring many benefits, as long as we are aware of the potential pitfalls it presents, and if we take care to protect and nurture the life and relationships that we have built offline, in the real world. We should enjoy a gig, rather than watching it through our smartphone as we film it to share online. We should pause and appreciate a sunset, rather than seeking to capture and share it on Instagram. While we engage with our social networks we should aim to remember that the identity and life that we and others create on them can never be more than a partial representation of the more important and more complete lives and experiences that we are living on a daily basis. 

Further reading

Am I addicted to my phone?

How technology affects our relationships

Is it time to quit social media?

How to avoid the compare and despair of social media