Facebook, Instagram users fueled by ‘likes’ are similar to ‘lab rats seeking food’

NEW YORK — For some, social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are avenues for connecting more closely with relatives and friends. For others, they’re ego-boosters fueled by the showering of praise via “likes” and comments from one’s followers. According to a new international study, however, social media users who chase “likes” have thinking patterns similar to lab rats seeking food.

Data from last year shows that four billion people worldwide spent several hours each day on social media platforms prompting comparisons to addiction. In the hopes of finding out what drives social media junkies to spend so much of their waking day online, researchers analyzed more than a million posts from over 4,000 users.

Their findings suggest that the behavior of many users was consistent with “reward learning.” This is a long-established psychological concept which says actions may be driven and reinforced by rewards. Those who receive more likes seem to be driven to post even more frequently. Meanwhile, others people who don’t receive the same positive feedback post less.

To be more sure, researchers asked people to post memes and receive likes as feedback on an Instagram-style platform. Just like their analysis of posts, the experiment shows that people posted more often when they received more likes.

The researchers now say social media use appears to be driven by similar principles that lead rats to maximize their food rewards in lab tests like a “Skinner box.” For such an experiment, animals are put in a box where they are dispensed food by completing specific actions like pulling a lever.

The team behind the research now hope their findings could help come up with ways to combat excessive and dysfunctional social media use.

“These results establish that social media engagement follows basic, cross-species principles of reward learning,” says co-author David Amodio, a professor at New York University and the University of Amsterdam, in a statement. “The findings may help us understand why social media comes to dominate daily life for many people and provide clues, borrowed from research on reward learning and addiction, to how troubling online engagement may be addressed.”

Adds co-author Dr. Björn Lindström, from the University of Amsterdam: “Our findings can help lead to a better understanding of why social media dominates so many people’s daily lives and can also provide leads for ways of tackling excessive online behavior.”

The findings are published in the journal Nature Communications.

SWNS writer William Janes contributed to this report.