Instagram is Built on a Single Chemical

Phone addiction by Farhad Sadykov (CC BY 2.0) 

I was about to go to bed a few months ago when I received a notification: my screen time was up by 23%, with an average of 6 hours per day!

That’s a quarter of a day spent on scrolling through Instagram and God knows what else.

It was a slap in the face for me and I immediately promised myself to stop playing my phone.

But it got me thinking: Why is it so hard to let go of our phones? Why is social media so addicting?

Turns out, it all comes down to a single chemical: dopamine.

The Dopamine Effect

Dopamine is a pleasure-inducing chemical produced in the brain. Its release is triggered through ‘feel good’ sensations found in sex, exercise, food and even social interactions. We seek to repeat these activities because of these pleasurable sensations.

According to cognitive neuroscientists, dopamine release is also triggered by rewarding social stimuli like receiving likes on social media posts and messages from loved ones. The association between the good-feeling and the preceding behavior is learnt by the brain to prepare future productions of dopamine in response to a similar stimuli.

Notifications by Jaysin Trevino (CC BY 2.0)

With more frequent stimuli-pleasure associations, the brain will learn to release dopamine solely on the cue alone.

This is why excitement is built as soon as a new notification pops up. Our brain is pre-conditioned to secrete dopamine because it expects a social reward even before opening the notification.

This anticipation causes us to frequently check our phones whether we do receive new notifications or not. Our brain is accustomed to a certain dopamine level and is wired to crave constant feelings of pleasure, thus, prompting us to mindlessly scroll through Instagram.

Social Media is Built on Dopamine

As addressed in this interview, large social media companies like Instagram utilize this psychological weakness and develop notification algorithms where a bunch of likes are restrained before it is released.

You will initially feel down upon posting and only getting little “likes”. But when notifications stream in, the brain will instinctively produce a surge of dopamine, creating a rapid flow of positive recognition, leaving us with pleasurable sensations. This explains why social media is so addicting.

Instagram by Stock Catalog (CC BY 2.0)

Overcoming Phone Addiction

After understanding the psychological effect social media has on me, I knew that I have to do something to overcome this addiction.

Here are some tips that work for me.

Find a Hobby

Remember that thing that you keep saying you want to do or learn but never got a chance to? This is your chance to finally tick it off your bucket list.

Go learn a new musical instrument, pick up that brush and start painting, or go hiking with your friends.

Doing something productive will definitely get your mind off your phones.

Guitar by Yngve Bakken Nilsen (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Limit your Screen Time

Whenever you have an upcoming assignment due and need a serious study session, use apps like Freedom or DinnerMode to temporarily block phone apps and websites that are distracting.


Now that you know how addicting social media can be, it’s time to resist opening your phone and start using your time wisely.

6 Responses to “Instagram is Built on a Single Chemical”

  1. Devia Rachmat Kurniawan says:

    Hi Flora, same here!! I have to hide my phone in the closet when I’m doing assignments. Have you tried downloading the app called “Forest”? It’s a cute little app where you plant a tree and it will grow as long as you don’t leave the app. It’s worth giving it a go to help you stay focused 🙂

  2. Flora says:

    Very interesting read Devia! I am definitely guilty of spending too much time on Instagram… It’s hard to accept the fact that social media has so much control over me. Sometimes I even have to leave my phone in another room to stop me from getting distracted while studying!!

  3. Devia Rachmat Kurniawan says:

    Hi Weiernt, yes it’s sad to see how social media has really sucked us in and changed our culture. But now that we’re aware of the biological and psychological aspects behind it, hopefully it can act as little reminders in our heads whenever we’re scrolling through social media.

  4. Devia Rachmat Kurniawan says:

    Hi Ashley, thanks for your comments! Yes, I’ve definitely been spending way too many hours on social media too. Keeping myself active by running in the park have helped me forget about my phone for a while, hopefully you’ll find little tricks that will help you decrease screen time too.

  5. weiernt says:

    Interesting article on dopamine!

    I didn’t know that part on Instagram, I feel if social media sites are doing things “behind the scenes” (which they really shouldn’t) they should be required to disclose that information to users.

    It’s really grim to think our attention span is going to deteriorate due to so many distractions in this modern age.

  6. ashleylianne says:

    Great post Devia! It’s fascinating learning about the dopamine effect and social media. It made me realise why so many people I know (including myself) have been obsessed with social media especially during this pandemic.

    I love the use of all the pictures and your post is all-round a great read!