We all do it. No sooner do we post something on social media than we quickly count the likes we’ve racked up on our latest selfie. As much as we don’t like to admit it, those likes, especially as they increase, make us feel good.
So why is this? We spoke to some experts to find out.
Blame it on the dopamine
There’s something very satisfying about seeing a like on one of our posts, but is it actually addictive?
“In doing research for my book, I learned scientists have not yet committed to declaring that social media is absolutely addictive, but psychologists do say the dopamine neurotransmitter, which is a chemical in the brain that controls and regulates memory, mood, behavior and emotion, is released when refreshing a page, seeing a like or other response,” Jessica Abo, author of Unfiltered: How to Be as Happy as You Look on Social Media, tells SheKnows. “As a result, some people constantly check their social media apps because the social validation they get online, which gives them an emotional boost they’re craving, which makes them feel seen and heard.”
In one 2016 study published in the journal Psychological Science, according to Dr. Erin Vogel, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, teenagers underwent brain imaging while viewing Instagram posts that varied in the number of likes they received.
“Viewing photos with many likes was associated with increased brain activity in the reward circuit,” she tells SheKnows. “This finding suggests that likes are a form of social reward even though the teenagers participating in the study were viewing other people’s posts.”
Which suggests that liking somebody’s post is a way of communicating to them that we approve of the post, says Vogel, and, by extension, that we approve of their social media presence.
Is our social media obsession for likes out of control?
While we might enjoy a temporary “high” from the number of comments and likes received, have we given away our power of feeling good to social media?
Abo thinks so. “I think our need for social validation has gotten worse because many people have a heightened sense of FOMO — fear of missing out,” she says. “As it is, you may feel the need to check your phone the second you hear an alert or notification come through.”
She cites a study by Dr. Larry Rosen, professor emeritus and past chair of the psychology department at California State University, Dominguez Hills, in which he and his colleagues found that even when there is no alert or notification, our brains start to suggest something may have come in and we should check our phone to make sure we didn’t miss anything.
“That increases our anxiety — enough for us to give in and go back to our phones,” she says.
But media psychologist Dr. Pamela Rutledge disagrees.
“Not all people are obsessed with getting likes, but the ease of giving and getting has increased our awareness of it as a social cue,” she tells SheKnows. “Humans are social animals. We are hardwired to pay attention to social cues. It is our default operating system because social connection is essential to our mental and physical health.”
She adds that the prevalence of likes make us more aware of digital responses and social cues, and we tend not to associate them with similar gestures offline and face-to-face.
“Being liked reinforces our sense of self-esteem and affiliation. Our brain responds to online cues similarly to offline ones,” Rutledge says. “Therefore, when we get a like, we feel gratified. This is normal. We should not feel bad for wanting others to like us. This is a common human motivation and is how social norms are established and reinforced.
However, she does recommend people pay attention to how much power they are giving to likes.
“They are not equivalent to actual liking. If we know that our brains may be fooled, it helps to evaluate the true value,” Rutledge says. “If you find that you are overly concerned with likes, think about how many likes you give that have no meaning. Always using external sources for social validation can be problematic both online and offline. In fact, people who rely too much on likes also may give others too much power in their sense of self offline.”
Vogel, on the other hand, says that like most things in life, moderation is key when it comes to social media.
“We’re social creatures, and wanting approval from others is very natural,” she says. “But if social media is our primary means of communicating with others, sharing our lives and getting approval, it may start to feel a bit empty or less meaningful after awhile.”
Continue with offline connections
While feeling connected and valued is important, how do we find that same high we receive from the likes in real life?
The experts we spoke with agree: It comes down to cultivating relationships offline.
“Social media should be used to supplement offline relationships, not to replace them,” Vogel says. “It’s important to spend time with friends and family who know us well and who accept our whole selves — not just the selves we choose to present on social media.”
While Abo agrees that making meaningful connections in real life and investing in our real-life interests — like family, friends and health — will help alleviate our search for validation in the number of likes we receive, she also points out the most important connection we ought to make is the one we have with ourselves.
“What good is it if you have 100 people like your latest selfie if you don’t like the person you see in the photo?” she says. “It’s important to be real with yourself, and it’s time to take back your happiness. I think the best way to do that is to get to the root of your rut and start making positive changes you need to get from where you are to where you want to be. This way, your self-worth will come from within you [as] opposed to coming from the people liking your life online.”