Instagram and Slot Machines: What They Have in Common

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It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to realize that social media is highly addictive. While it’s awesome to be able to instantly share photos and thoughts with our friends and family across the world, screen addiction, texting while driving, and other concerns are increasing about the use of social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook.

So, what causes this spike in screen addicts? What’s behind it? And how can you manage it to use your favorite platforms in a healthy way?

How Slot Machines Work – Understanding the Basics

Before you can understand why Instagram and other platforms are so addictive, and how they have been designed to be that way, you need to understand the secrets of slot machines.

Slots are designed to keep you hooked by delivering random rewards. Have you ever heard of those experiments where a mouse presses a button for a food pellet? Well, he’ll only press it a few times if he gets a food pellet every time, but he’ll press it hundreds of times if the rewards are random and most pushes don’t deliver a treat. Psychologists deliberately designed games on gambling sites to work this way, and many of them went to work for social platforms later.

These random rewards create a habit quickly, pressing that button becomes highly addictive. You can go through hundreds of presses without a reward and then suddenly one press can lead to an avalanche of food pellets, or in our case, money. The brain lights up and a gush of dopamine and other neurochemicals floods the brain. It feels great, but it leaves you wanting more.

The trick is in the randomness of the rewards. It wouldn’t work otherwise. Which leads us to social media platforms.

How Social Media Takes Slot Secrets to Keep You Hooked

When dealing with this subject matter, it helps to remember that social media platforms have been designed to be addictive. It didn’t happen by accident. 

In the acclaimed documentary The Social Dilemma many of these secrets were revealed by insiders who worked at Facebook, Twitter, and other social media giants. They all have engagement teams who engineer the platforms to keep you on them as long as possible. And yes, they deliberately modeled casino slots in some ways to get the job done.

Think about what’s happening when you’re browsing Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. You scroll a few times, see nothing of interest, and them suddenly something pops up that makes you laugh, makes you feel a rush of attraction to someone, or provokes some other strong emotions.

That scrolling and swiping is the equivalent of pressing a button on a slot machine. The endless posts that don’t do anything for you are the non-winning lines, and the posts that give you dopamine hits are wins. Every so often, you might even hit the jackpot when someone you’re attracted to adds you or you win a giveaway for real money, etc.

Do you see the connection between social media platforms and slot machines? It’s not a perfect analogy, but there are enough elements in common to raise concern. Once you understand it, effectively managing your time on social media is of paramount importance.


Managing Social Media Addiction 101
As this becomes a bigger discussion in society, lots have come to the market to help you manage social media usage. There are also practical things you can do for yourself to keep your usage of platforms like Instagram healthy.


  • Monitor Your Screen Time – You know how it goes. You log on to Facebook to send a quick message, decide to have a quick scroll, and hours later you emerge wondering where half your day went. Perhaps you even bought something you didn’t intend to when you saw an ad. There are tools like Screen Time that can help you log how many hours per day you spend on screens. Seeing the figures in front of you can be a wake-up call.


  • Use Social Media Blockers – Don’t feel bad if you don’t have the discipline to control your social media use. This stuff is beyond most rational minds. The platforms tap into parts of our brain that are not really within our control such as the limbic system. You can use free software like Offtime to block social sites. The neat part is you can set an “allowed time” like an hour a day after which the browser extensions will block all social sites.


  • Use With a Purpose – Social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook can be fantastic for business and promotion. You could vow to only use them for these purposes. Go on, post for your business, and log off as soon as the post is done. Even better, hire a virtual assistant so you don’t go on the platforms at all


  • Social Media Fast – Want to see just how addicted you are? Try to go 30 days without using a single social platform. If you have the itch after a few days, you know it’s time to take some measures to limit your usage of these platforms. When you come back on, use some of the other tips above to keep things in check.