How social media operantly conditions us & what we can do about it

Adam Novak
10 min readJun 24, 2022

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Social media feels indispensable in today’s day and age. A large majority of the population now relies on it to communicate, find jobs, stay in touch, meet new people, and more. If you aren’t on it, you seriously suffer by missing out on opportunities, friendships, and latest TikTok trends.

Its growing role in society is accompanied by a growing presence in our lives. Today, Americans spend on average over four hours per day using social media. Apps such as TikTok and YouTube lead the charts with 45 minutes of average daily usage, with Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, and Reddit all close behind at around 30 minutes per day. Given that Instagram was just created in 2010, Snapchat in 2011, and TikTok in 2016, these numbers represent an unprecedented increase in usage in a relatively short period of time.

This increased reliance on social media over the last decade can be attributed to several factors. As social creatures, we greatly value communicating and staying in touch with others, so we appreciate apps which help us do more of that. On top of that, the convenience of the apps being on a device in our pocket means we can use them whenever, wherever—whether just waking up from bed or waiting in line at Starbucks. But there’s something more to the trend — something which doesn’t receive serious enough consideration or criticism. The economics of the social media industry.

With social media companies making upwards of 98% of their revenue from advertising, they are naturally incentivized to maximize the time a user spends on the app to show them more ads and make more money. In order to maximize this screen time, euphemistically dubbed “session time” within the industry, social media companies now intentionally shape their products to be as enticing as possible. And in order to stay afloat amidst dozens of other options, they each compete to keep users staying on and coming back to their app. Unlike any other company, social media platforms make design decisions and technical improvements with the goal of boosting their revenue. The difference is that for social media companies, stronger revenue is directly related to a stronger presence in our personal lives.

This is largely the reason behind the industry’s ongoing convergence towards the most engaging form of media: short-form video. With the huge success of TikTok’s less-than-a-minute long videos, traditionally photo-focused apps like Instagram have pivoted towards a focus on “Reels” while YouTube is pushing content creators away from longer videos and towards “Shorts.” For someone who has just a few minutes to spare, watching a series of short videos is simply more palatable than is committing to a single longer piece of content, and watching videos is usually more engaging than looking at pictures (and pictures are more engaging than words: hence why you see some here). More engaging content is, unsurprisingly, more engaging, and thus is more likely to be consumed.

This blogpost explores a few ways that social media conditions us to keep using the apps. It also considers a few counter methods in practice and in consideration to help people to reduce their time on those platforms. This phenomenon will be looked at specifically through the framework of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is a term within psychology that describes a way of inducing behavioral change through rewards and punishments associated with the behavior. Rewards are offered in order to “reinforce” the behavior, or encourage it, and punishments are offered in order to “punish” the behavior, or disincentivize it. Let’s get into it.

How we’re conditioned: reinforcement of social media usage

Positive reinforcement: Snapchat streaks

Positive reinforcement is a process where something preferential is added alongside a behavior in order to increase it even further. One classic example of this within social media is Snapchat’s “streaks” feature. Streaks are a simple count that arises between you and a friend and indicates the number of consecutive days you have remained in communication. Under the lens of operant conditioning, they would be considered a fixed-interval reward: the subject knows that after every 24 hours of continued usage that their score will grow by one. Each additional day a user consecutively communicates with a friend, they are rewarded with an increase in their streak score. As time goes on, users feel accomplished for building a high streak score with someone through the app and are conditioned to continue using it daily.

Streaks can create an especially strong pressure to use Snapchat, especially among youth. In high schools, some students pass off their account passwords to friends while on vacation somewhere without cell service so that they can continue building their streak score while away. Others might set a daily alarm so that they don’t miss a day of using Snapchat. Streaks have even become a form of social currency — they provide a way for children to verifiably quantify the strength of their relationship with someone. And as the streak grows longer, the incentivize to maintain it grows larger. Losing a streak of five days is not a big deal because it can be restored quite easily; losing a streak of five hundred days, on the other hand, can even be psychologically devastating for some children.

Importantly, Streaks do not indicate the consecutive days of communication with a friend — they indicate the consecutive days of communication with a friend through Snapchat. A high school student cannot build their streak by using any other texting app, and they cannot build their streak by meeting with that friend face-to-face at the park. As a form of fixed-interval positive reinforcement, Snapchat streaks incentivize sending selfies from home more than they incentivize in-person meet ups.

Negative reinforcement: social media over socialization

Just like positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement is also a form of conditioning where a particular behavior is being encouraged. However, rather than being encouraged by adding something favorable, the behavior is strengthened by removing something undesirable.

One undesirable thing that usage of social media can remove is the initial feeling of discomfort in an unfamiliar social environment. When meeting new people at a birthday party or waiting in line for the bus to arrive, it can be uncomfortable to talk with strangers, form new connections, and get over those feelings of shyness. It is something that anyone everyone experiences to some degree and is a natural part of life. However, because social media apps are now available on our phones, and phones are only a few taps away from us at any time of day, they serve as a handy way to get rid of this social discomfort. Going onto a social media app, one can more easily receive microvalidation through likes, swipes, and messages than through the effort of a real-life conversation. And as people begin to use social media as an escape from the awkwardness, they can slowly become conditioned to prefer social media over socialization.

Numerous academic studies have corroborated this trend by finding a significant association between increased usage of social media and feelings of loneliness and shyness: particularly, the “the higher one scored in loneliness and shyness, the higher the likelihood one would be addicted to smartphone.” These findings could indicate that smartphone usage contributes to loneliness and shyness, but the relationship also seems to at least partially be the reverse. Feeling shy in a social setting might actually increase the likelihood of using social media as an avoidance mechanism — a form of negative reinforcement.

Social media companies do not deliberately employ tactics to nudge users towards avoiding social discomfort in this way. Rather, this conditioning phenomenon arises naturally because of the extreme convenience that smartphones offer. It is more comfortable to communicate with someone we already know well than it is to form a new relationship, and it is easier to swipe on the iPhone in one’s hand than it is to speak with the person in one’s presence. The combination of these two qualities conditions those who use social media — especially adolescents, who experience social discomfort more sharply than adults — to use apps not in spite of, but because of, social situations.

What we can do about it: “punishing” social media usage

Positive punishment: screen time limits

Positive punishment refers to the process of reducing a behavior by adding something undesirable alongside it. One of the most successful interventions into excessive usage of social media so far has been screen time limits. As of several years ago, the two producers of personal devices which a majority of the western world uses, Apple and Google, ship out all devices with a “screen time” feature. With this feature, people can see a variety of data on their daily phone usage and can even set limit for how long they can use certain apps.

Screen time settings is a form of positive punishment by adding two things into a person’s personal experience with their device: knowledge and interruption. First, users gain knowledge on exactly how they have been using their device. Most people underestimate the amount of time they spend on social media because of its addictive nature, but seeing the actual statistics can empower people to take action to reduce undesirable usage. Furthermore, by setting a particular time cap for each app, users can be prompted with a friendly, interrupting screen when they have reached their usage limit. Here, the conditioning’s addition is the interruption: “You have used up all your Instagram time for today. Why not unplug and go outside?” Gaining insight into one’s habits and being directly told when to stop have combined to help people decondition their usage of apps with addictive qualities, such as social media.

These solutions, while indeed being effective, are far from perfect. One could simply never use the screen time feature, set excessively high limits of social media usage allowance so as to render them meaningless, or simply press the “Ignore and keep using” button on the interruption screen. Part of the problem with excessive usage of social media which is not captured by existing screen time solutions is that users often do not realize why they are entering the app when they do. For many, the act of pulling out one’s phone, clicking on TikTok and beginning to scroll has become so natural that it is no longer a conscious decision, but a conditioned habit.

In order to address this part of the problem, one idea that I hope to build out soon is an app which not just interrupts someone once they have reached their limit, but interrupts them immediately upon opening the app and prompts for their intention. With the recent update of Apple’s screen time API for developers, custom applications can now apply the built-in Screen Time functionality towards not just parent-child device relationships, but even for one’s own device. Developers can display custom interruption screens after some specified time with individualized action options. A custom interruption, then, could be displayed right upon entering the app which prompts the user with custom questions such as “How long would you like to use this app for?” or “What is your intent in going on YouTube right now?” Prompting for the user’s intention immediately upon opening an app could reduce more unintentional, habitual usage.

This form of positive punishment would be most useful if it was on a variable ratio schedule, occurring after a random number of app launches. If the user was required to input their intention upon every opening of the app, they might just as easily “go through the motions” of setting that intent in order to bypass the consistent annoyance. On the other hand, if just once in every five app launches you were prompted with the intention screen, you might feel less annoyed and more inclined to answer genuinely.

Furthermore, the existing “keep using” button on the interruption screen, something which Apple offers for users to ignore their preset time limit, could be entirely removed to make it even harder to ignore one’s preset intention of more limited usage. These features are not available until iOS 16 releases in fall 2022, but they do show promise for positive punishment of unwanted social media usage.

Negative punishment: slowed content consumption

Negative punishment, the fourth variant of operant conditioning, means reducing a behavior by taking away something that is desirable. From one standpoint, the screen time limits described above could also be classified as negative punishment because they reduce the amount of time one can use the app. That being said, there are fewer examples of how negative punishment could be applied to de-conditioning social media usage, primarily because the social media companies who have the ability to reduce our usage of their apps do not have the incentive to do so.

Still, there are ideas. One was recently proposed by my computer science professor at USC, Professor Barath Raghavan. While one uses their phone close to bedtime, a third-party app could slowly reduce one’s internet speeds the more they consume content. This conditioning would follow a fixed ratio, where each post loaded to their phone would result in internet speed being reduced by some percentage. The slower and slower speed of the app would result in the person consuming less content — hence the “negative” conditioning — thereby increasing the likelihood they put down their phone and go to sleep. Technically, this would actually not be terribly difficult to carry out — VPNs already exist which monitor and moderate user internet traffic. Whether people would willingly want their internet traffic slowed at night, though, is another question.

Where to next?

A great increase in social media usage has occurred alongside factors that push us both towards and away from it. The ability to quantify relationship quality with Snapchat streaks and the ability to ignore feelings of social awkwardness condition us to use social apps more, while screen time settings and internet routing hacks can condition us to use them less. As activists continue to fight for human-protective legislation and lobbyists continue to defend Big Tech’s profits, the future of digital well-being remains unclear.

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Adam Novak

Monastic Living | Language Learning | Responsible Technology