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Why Social Media Makes People Unhappy – And Simple Ways to Fix It

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Why Social Media Makes People Unhappy – And Simple Ways to Fix It

Research suggests platform designs make us lose track of time spent on them and can heighten conflicts, and then we feel upset with ourselves

Scientific American,

5 min read
5 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

People resent wasting time on social media, but studies reveal ways to redirect app “addiction.”

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Scientific American columnist Daisy Yuhas interviewed University of Washington graduate student Amanda Baughan, who specializes in human-computer interaction, about people’s growing resentment toward endlessly scrolling through social media posts. Her project explored how apps trigger the “dissociation” she describes as “reduced self-reflection and narrowed attention” rather than addiction. Baughan thinks smarter apps could help users organize content and waste less time on platforms.


Changes to social media app design could improve users’ well-being and their interactions with each other.

Research links diminished self-esteem, disrupted sleep and poor life satisfaction to social media use. Apps that propose to connect people often contribute to feelings of loneliness and intellectual isolation inherent in their design.

Design factors influence personal interactions and feelings during an individual’s online experiences. Graduate student Amanda Baughan found that if “nudged” in a certain way, people seem more kind and supportive of one another. One study incorporated an online intervention in which contentious people were encouraged to switch from comments to direct messaging. Discussing conflicts in private improved conflict resolution.

Baughan’s University of Washington adviser coined the phrase “30-Minute Ick Factor” to describe a situation in which people quickly lose themselves during obsessive scrolling. The process triggers a “neurocognitive reward system” similar to what occurs when a person wins a lottery or receives tasty food. This represents one way that social media apps maintain user engagement. But when a ...

About the Author

Daisy Yuhas edits the Scientific American column “Mind Matters.” She is a freelance science journalist and editor based in Austin, Texas.

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