Operant Conditioning: So, You Think You Can Beat Social Media Addiction?

Operant Conditioning

Operant Conditioning and Social Media

If you’re like myself, you’ve probably found yourself spending hours a day on various social media platforms during this God-awful quarantine. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram; they’re all just SO f****ng addicting. The question is, why? Why do we spend our time occupying these social media platforms, when we could be using our time so much more efficiently? Why do we feel that we need to post, comment, and react to posts every day in order to feel a sense of what we have come to know as “ordinary”? Is there a purpose? I mean come on, half the time I’m on social media I’m just mindlessly scrolling through material. I couldn’t give a flying f*** about Jennie’s new bikini that she got from Marshalls for just $11.99! *Disclaimer: Jennie is a made-up name, you are not being attacked*

I want to be clear, it’s not that I don’t care for these individuals as people, it’s just that their actions don’t affect my life. Or do they? Because, for some reason, I still continue to navigate and explore social media daily like it’s a necessity in my life… even though I claim I don’t care what people post. I know, for a fact, that I can’t be the only one who feels this way, and if I am, well… sorry I’ve offended you. My point in writing all of this is to get people thinking more in depth about the principles of behavior. In particular, the basic concepts that lead to us becoming somewhat ‘addicted’ to social media. It has led me to think about what behavior analytic principles really fall into the category of social media. Upon thinking about this for the past week or so, one concept in particular that hit me like a TON of bricks was Operant Conditioning. 

So, before I go any further and delve into the nitty gritty, I want to give a brief overview of operant conditioning. I’ll try to make this a bit less jargon-heavy for those reading who may be new to the field, or those who are just sick of hearing jargon. The g-d of ABA, B.F. Skinner, defined operant conditioning as “a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behavior. Through operant conditioning an individual makes an association between a particular behavior and a consequence” (Skinner, 1938). In non-behavior analytic terms, we learn to behave based on our past history of rewards or punishments for a particular behavior. For example, my writing style is a behavior. The style of which I write my next blog post will most likely be tailored to the reactions that I get after writing this post. If a lot people react negatively to the post and punish my style of writing (i.e. by saying this piece is boring AF), I’m less likely to write in the same style that I did this time. However, if readers react positively to this post (i.e. by saying this post is BOMB), I’ll be more likely to write in the same informal and relatable writing style next time. 

So, by now you’ve probably asked yourself, “what the f*** does any of this have to do with social media?!” Well, again, you’ve probably found yourself a lot on Facebook and other social media outlets lately, especially in light of recent events, getting lost in the back and forth of friends’ and family members’ opinions. Or, if you’re like myself, you’ve been right in the middle of those arguments trying to persuade individuals to pick up a peer-reviewed research article, or even engage in a simple google search! Don’t worry I’m not mad, I’m really not mad… everything’s fine… Anyway, getting back on track, our interest in these types of conversations on social media and our “scrolling behavior”, as I like to call it, stem from basic principles of reinforcement and punishment. I’m using Facebook as an example throughout all of this, however, I urge you to look and see how much it applies to every social media platform that is out there.

 When we make a post on Facebook, we often tailor it to what we ‘believe in.’ However, operant conditioning would suggest that we tailor our posts based on a history of reinforcement and punishment, and this history is what truly shapes our “beliefs.” For example, say a friend posts an extremely controversial video on Facebook and the consequence for posting is mean comments or blocking (i.e. positive punishment), this friend may not post a video like this in the future. However, on the opposite end, if they post the video and get flooded with a ton of likes, positive comments of people agreeing with them and praising them, lots of shares, they are more likely to post more of that content again in future posts. 

The same goes for posting pictures, or the ever evolving “selfie.” We are going to present ourselves in a light, that in the past, has been flooded with positive social approval. I think if you ask any guy who’s ever had a Tinder, if they ever had a picture in their profile of them with their dog, they’ll say yes. Full disclosure, I did. Why, you ask? Well, because pictures that featured my dog typically got more likes (or swipes) so my history of reinforcement with similar pictures was strong, and I altered my behavior to suit the most reinforcing condition. Think about it, Instagram, Facebook, and other platforms are flooding us with positive reinforcement all the time. I’ll go back to dogs again. Have you ever been scrolling through social media and you see a picture of a really cute puppy from a random page, obviously, you’re going to SMASH that like button! But then what happens? The next time you sign on, you have about 10 more posts from random pages with adorable little puppies doing adorable things, which obviously, you have to like because puppies are amazing. This is social media positively reinforcing your scrolling behavior and providing you with favorable content for using their platforms. My hope is that by reading this you are starting to realize how much the principles of operant conditioning are intertwined in social media, and that you are starting to generalize the material to other aspects of your everyday life. Some quick examples off the top of my head would be video games, reality television, retail stores, the list goes on and on. Believe me, I am in no way an expert on media psychology research, but applying basic principles of behavior to social media is fun and has hopefully shined a light on how easy it is for us to become ‘addicted’ at the hands of our own behavior. Behaviorism is everywhere and it’s amazing when you can start applying these principles to your everyday life! 

Thank you for reading! See you next time!

About the Author

Aaron Saraiva is a 3rd year graduate student studying Applied Behavior Analysis at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. When he is not studying behavior analysis, Aaron enjoys watching drama/crime series on Netflix, drinking wine, playing with dogs, working out, and spending any time he can outdoors. Currently, Aaron works as an RBT for a private outpatient clinic that provides ABA services to children with Autism, however he looks forward to beginning his journey as a BCBA after sitting for the exam in the Summer of 2021! Follow Aaron on Instagram to learn more about him @_thatbehaviorguy_

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