Why Social Media Makes you Sad

An insidious force has crept into our lives over the last 10 years. It is made worse by the fact that it is rarely questioned & has rapidly become a deeply entrenched institution in our everyday lives. The mere suggestion of taking it away would be met with outrage — you would not only be taking way one of our main activities, but a large part of our individual identity by doing so.

Social media, positively touted as “connecting the world” by its proponents, such as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, has created a crisis in modern society.

Don’t let the smile fool you. This man is doing more damage to our collective mental health than a crack dealer (whether he is naïve or just doesn’t give a shit is another discussion). I use the word crisis very deliberately here. Consider the facts:

  1. An average 16–64 year old American spends over 2 hours per day on social media
  2. An average American adult touches, swipes or taps their phone 2,617 times a day
  3. Eighty-seven percent of people wake up and go to sleep with their smartphones
  4. Just the presence of a smart home reduces cognitive functionality, even when it’s off
  5. Our average attention span is 8 seconds
  6. The more you use social media, the less happy you are

Actually stop & think about that for a second. Your attention span is now around 8 seconds. That is genuinely shorter than a goldfish. A GOLDFISH.


An addiction is defined as being reliant upon — and compulsively drawn to — something. Does our relationship with social media not take this form?

Taking it away would be — and I say this with no exaggeration — like taking away alcohol from an alcoholic.

Even Roger McNamee, an early investor in Google & Facebook, states with disdain that:

“Facebook and Google assert with merit that they are giving users what they want…The same can be said about tobacco companies and drug dealers.” He says he is “terrified” of where their pursuit for our attention will lead.

Simon Sinek, the renowned writer & motivational speaker, even questions whether there should be age restrictions for social media usage. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter in our body that, when released, causes you to feel happy, is the very same addictive, numbing chemical released when we smoke or drink.

If we knew all of the implications of social media before it became a cultural norm, would we have allowed the likes of Facebook & Instagram to actively manipulate the minds of our young people?

 Behavioural Design

The worst thing about it? The targeting of dopamine-release is very deliberate. Social media giants employ behavioural psychology & an army of all-too-adept designers to employ mechanisms to encourage addiction.

Nir Eyal, the modern godfather of behavioural design, outlines how to create habit-forming products in his renowned book ‘Hooked’.

The author of ‘Tom the Tractor & Friends’ has clearly grasped the concepts behind Nir Eyal’s book ‘Hooked’ In short, to form a habit (a more child-friendly word for addiction), a user must go through four steps of a loop.

  1. The Trigger: they must be triggered to use the product by visual or mental cues. Seeing the Instagram app icon on your phone, for example, may trigger you to open the app despite the fact that you opened your phone to check bus times. Push notifications are another common tool to draw your attention to a product.
  2. The Action: There must be a clear, frictionless action so that the user is easily able to reach the next step, the reward.
  3. The Reward: The purpose of steps 2 and 3 is that the user should feel a sense of happiness from using the product as quickly as possible. This derives from showing them content which releases dopamine. This could be the social validation that comes from the number of likes on a photo, or seeing that a friend has just messaged you.
  4. The Investment: to complete habit formation, they must then invest some of their time into the product to create a sense of attachment to it. This is because we irrationally continue investing time into something that we have already invest time into, regardless of the perceived value of that action (the sunk-cost bias).

Once a user has passed through this loop a few times, they will develop a strongly-entrenched habit that will continue to exponentially reinforce itself.

Eyal does not shrink back from the implications of his theory, however. He recognises that these manipulative feedback loops are ‘just as their designers intended’.

A Facebook Newsfeed designer basking in the glory of his evil creation These feedback loops are, in fairness, not inherently bad. They are just powerful tools. If you can implement habit-formation theory with something like going to the gym, for example, then you will drastically improve your chances of achieving your goal of going to the gym more often.

The issue with social media is that we use it when we are in a negative mindset, when bored, lonely or upset. The problem here is that, as Eyal suggests, these sensations ‘prompt an almost instantaneous and often mindless action to quell the negative sensation’.

Rather than dealing with the root cause of the sensation, however, social media provides an instant hit of happiness (dopamine) & allows us to distract ourselves. This is tragic, as it has bred a generation unable to address real emotional issues. If we feel lonely, we no longer confide in a trusted friend, but open Facebook up to see whether anyone has messaged us or liked a recent post.

Social media is our bottle, our opiate, our crutch. It provides us with enough short-term happiness to be able to ignore addressing solutions to finding long-term happiness.

It is telling that even Eyal protects himself & his family from the predations of online companies. He cuts off internet in his house at set times of the day to remove temptation for his family, as well as putting rules in place, such as never reading online ‘to resist the temptation’ of ‘seductive technology’.

If a thought leader in this area takes preventative action with social media, then it shows you the immense power of behavioural design on us, & the difficulty in avoiding it.

This does not mean that you should just give up. You can take back control by implementing preventative measures, as Eyal & many others do. You can see the threat, acknowledge it & work out how best to avoid it.

 Taking back control

  1. Raise awareness

To really see the issue, you have to observe society’s addiction to social media in action. The next time you are on the Metro or walking down the street, do not get your phone out for 15 minutes & just observe how people interact with their devices (try not to stare or look creepy). See how quickly they switch task, see how they just distract themselves and & for it whenever boredom strikes. (A tip: listen to music or a podcast when doing this to resist the temptation of reaching for your phone out of boredom).

  1. Browser blocker

On your work and/or home computer, download a plugin* that blocks your newsfeed from appearing or put parental control to ban Facebook, for example. This will stop you unthinkingly opening up Facebook when bored or in need of a break.

For Chrome users: News Feed Eradicator. For Safari users: Facebook Newsfeed Eradicator for Safari

  1. Delete social media apps

Delete Facebook and Instagram from your phone right now. See how you feel after 2 weeks. If you really feel it makes you happy, then you can re-download them. You should, however, feel a greater sense of calm, presence (particularly when talking to others) & better able to concentrate.

  1. Turn off all notifications

Go to your phone settings and turn off all notifications. If you think this sounds extreme, then it is not. If someone needs to reach you because of an emergency, they will call you, not send you a WhatsApp. After two weeks, gauge how much more productive & relaxed you are.

Note: I have put all four of these solutions into action, but turning off notifications has been the most powerful, as we now receive, on average, 63.5 notifications per day. If you only try one, then please try this for at least two weeks. Although research has said it takes 66 days to make a habit 95% automated (source), but two weeks will give you a sense of the emotional changes felt from changing your habits.

Real footage of a Facebook board meeting last year. Source unverified. The Current Model: The Pursuit of Advertising Dollars

It is important to accept that social media giants are using very strong, very deliberate psychological tools of manipulation on us to keep our attention on their products.

Tristan Harris, branded branded “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience”, elucidates this point very effectively in his TED talk on the subject. A 33-year-old former Google employee, he is now a fierce critic of tech industry practices:

“All of us are jacked into this system. All of our minds can be hijacked. Our choices are not as free as we think they are.”

The lack of ethics in product design is unlikely to be addressed soon, however, as social media giants are entirely depending on advertising revenue. Simply, the more time you spend on a product, the more time you spend seeing adverts & generating revenue for the company.

Although people like Mark Zuckerberg do not, I believe, have bad intentions, they have found themselves in a race to the bottom, constantly battling with other online products to grab our attention. They maximise profit at the expense of our well-being.

Interestingly, there does seem to be some remorse from many of the pioneers of behavioural design. Brighter, the designer of the pull-down newsfeed says,

“I’ve spent many hours and weeks and months and years thinking about whether anything I’ve done has made a net positive impact on society or humanity at all,”

Even Eyal, by the very fact he is writing about the subject, seems to accept that his theory of habit-forming has been put to use far too effectively by social media giants.


Social media is here to stay. We may see a gradual shift to more ethical product design, but it won’t happen soon, with social media giants hopelessly dependent on capturing our attention. Public pressure groups are non-existent & government seem to have no appetite to fight back. Maybe more worryingly, they don’t even seem to be aware that there is a problem.

As social media usage increases year-on-year, when is it time for you to take back control and say, ‘enough’?

If you are a product designer, whatever your industry, it’s time to stop & ask yourself:

Is what I’m doing ethical? Am I really contributing to helping others?

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Henry Latham

Henry Latham

Founder, Prod MBA

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