depression-promoting behavior loops

Depression-Promoting Behavior Loops: How Social Media is Rewarding Us in All the Wrong Ways

Originally published on May 10, 2022

What Are Depression-Promoting Behavior Loops? First, Some Background

From an anecdotal standpoint, many of us can relate to the idea that social media use either causes or exacerbates feelings of anxiety and depression. Yet, we need not rely on our hunches and observations to make such claims anymore — scientific research now helps us put forth such assertions with relative ease. Take this 2014 study, for example, which concludes that Facebook use heightens depressive symptoms.

While there are many reasons such behavior could lead to negative results in the mental health realm, this study focuses on one of them in particular: the comparisons that social media tends to facilitate. And it’s not much of a surprise, either. After all, what’s the first thing that usually pops into our minds when we see our friends and connections enjoying life, showing off their possessions, or galavanting about town? “Why doesn’t my life look like that?”

There’s a dangerous belief underlying this question: the idea that we aren’t enough or that we don’t measure up. When we feel this way, our FOMO meters hit the roof, and our self-esteem plummets. Surely, we must be the only ones who aren’t living extraordinary, cinematic lives, right? We’ve got to be the only people on the planet who lead existences that can’t be paused at any second and turned into a highlight reel — no?

I’m sure you know the answer to those questions already, but, just for fun, I’ll answer them anyway. In reality, just about all of us live relatively normal lives with the occasional, highlight-worthy moment. It’s just that some of us are a bit better at chopping our days up into shareable, enviable posts on our favorite social media sites.

Of course, I’m not claiming that no one’s leading the life of a movie star or celebrity — far from it. All I’m saying is that it’s a select few. When we lose sight of this fact, we allow FOMO to creep in and make us feel like we’re inadequate. And, as you might be able to imagine already, that feeling of insufficiency is at the root of the problem the aforementioned 2014 study seeks to highlight. In the following sections, I’ll explain what I mean by that.

An Introduction to Habit Formation

If you’ve ever taken a class in behavioral psychology or read a book like Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit,” you’ll know we form long-term behavior patterns as a result of a replicable, three-part process. That process takes on a lot of different names (such as “cue, routine, reward” or “trigger, behavior, reward”) across various psychology-based publications — all of which describe or allude to the same phenomenon.

In a nutshell, that phenomenon looks a little bit like the following:

1) A stimulus in our internal or external environment makes us feel a particular way

2) We take some action as a result of that feeling

3) Our action rewards us with a specific outcome or new feeling

For example, when we haven’t eaten in a while, we feel hungry. Propelled by such a stimulus, we head to the kitchen and grab something from the fridge or pantry. Then, once we’ve finished our meal or snack, our body rewards us by removing our food cravings.

The interesting thing about this process, however, is that we can apply it to just about any behavior in which we engage — good, bad, or neutral — not just eating. Put simply, when we encounter a particular stimulus or feel a certain way, for whatever reason, we usually act in fashions that align with said stimuli and emotions.

Then, once we’ve done so, our bodies or environments let us know whether such behaviors suffice. When they do, we experience some sort of physical or emotional reward and become more likely to repeat such actions in similar future situations. However, when they don’t, our original stimulus remains, making us less likely to act the same way, given related circumstances, moving forward.

But this all begs the question: just why do we care about behavioral theory, and what does it have to do with social media use and mental health? I’m glad you asked. In the general sense, we care about it because of how applicable it is to countless scenarios in our lives — digital device use included. Yet, in more concrete terms, we’re interested in it for two reasons:

1) It’s more than likely that certain emotions drive us to engage with social media

2) It’s also quite likely that social media rewards us in ways that lead us back to it later on — not all of which are positive

Starting with the first reason, we may jump on our social apps when we’re feeling a multitude of different ways, such as excited, bored, or depressed. For now, though, let’s ignore positive emotions like exhilaration and instead jump into the second and third ones listed here.

Specifically, when we’re bored, we might open social media in hopes of finding something that makes us laugh, excites us, or helps us forget about our troubles. Of course, we might also (or instead) see something that causes us to feel worse in these scenarios, but it’s hard to fault us for such an outcome, especially when we’re still familiarizing ourselves with this process. After all, triggers are the basis of our new behavioral framework, and, in this example, boredom is our action-inspiring catalyst.

Yet, what about when we’re sad, lonely, or depressed? Studies like the one I referenced above make us see that when we’re down in the dumps, we often jump online in half-hearted attempts to reconnect with others. There’s just one problem, however: such good intentions regularly end in the sorts of FOMO-filled spirals I alluded to earlier, which leaves us with yet another unwanted trigger to address.

Breaking Out of Depression-Promoting Behavior Loops

And then there’s one final, commonly-associated outcome with mental-health-related social media use: becoming perpetual highlight-reel posters ourselves. Now, before we dive too deep here, I need to mention that there’s nothing inherently wrong with regularly posting online; that’s certainly not the impression I want you to get from me.

However, it is very easy to use social media in disempowering ways or get ourselves into trouble with it from a behavioral psychology perspective. Thus, if it sounds like I’m being critical of social apps and platforms here, it’s only because I don’t want to see any of us succumb to such dangers.

So, how might we become highlight-reel posters ourselves, and why is such a fate typically hazardous to our mental health? It all has to do with our new framework: “trigger, behavior, reward.” In revisiting the first part of this framework, we remember that just about any emotion can push us toward social media use.

But what is it that actually drives us to carry out such behavior? The conscious or subconscious understanding that visiting or posting on said sites / platforms will help us achieve a desired emotional reward and, in turn, complete our behavioral cycle.

Of course, one of the triggers we often face in the psychological realm is the same one we’ve yet to address in detail thus far: depression. As such, let’s now use it as a starting point for our next and final example. Namely, let’s say we’re not feeling like ourselves — we’re hopeless, in despair, and disconnected from anyone or anything that might cause our malaise to retreat.

Realizing this feeling, we decide to post on social media about a recent trip or accomplishment. In doing so, we reason, we may garner some likes and, as a result, feel a bit better about ourselves. Thus, in this example, depression is our trigger, posting on social media is our behavior, and the ultimate feeling of social validation is our reward.

On the surface, this process might seem relatively harmless. Yet, when we dig deeper, it’s not hard to see how it could actually lead to some unhealthy habits. Specifically, when we learn to associate the temporary relief of our despair with an avenue that’s clinically proven to promote that same feeling, we construct a behavior loop that’s particularly hard to escape; we feel good, then bad, over and over again, all without realizing that it’s our reward that’s bringing us more of the emotion we’re desperate to circumvent.

In practice, this treacherous process might come to life as follows: We feel depressed because we’re alone, disconnected, and unmotivated. As a result, we jump on social media and post something. As people like and share our post, we feel happier, more inspired, and more likely to return to our social platforms in the future.

Then, in the coming days, we accelerate our social-app use as we isolate ourselves even further from our real-life connections. During our time on those apps, we see more highlight-reel posts from friends, which make us feel, once again, like we don’t measure up. And so, the cycle repeats: we feel depressed due to our comparisons and return to our apps to post once more — just to feel the high of social validation. As you can imagine, this is no way to live.

And while you could certainly claim that I’m playing up this hypothetical for the sake of argument, one thing’s for sure: the only way out of this insidious loop is to break the pattern altogether — to find a more empowering way to alleviate our despair when it comes calling. For example, we could hop on the treadmill instead of social media. After all, exercise is a scientifically-proven way to combat depression. Or, we could pick up the phone and have a real conversation with someone.

Of course, despair isn’t always so simple or easy to escape. But let’s not miss the forest for the trees here: All I’m trying to do is show you the bigger picture — to pull back the curtain on behavior loops and help you acknowledge and evaluate your own. For it’s only once we realize we’re stuck in habits and patterns that don’t serve us that we can finally and methodically analyze our triggers, behaviors, and rewards.

As we build habits with the right combination of those three things, we’ll likely see that we start falling into negative emotions less frequently and, more importantly, can get ourselves out of them with greater ease when they do arise.

Better still, once we’ve undertaken such a process, I think we’ll be much more inclined to avoid despair-promoting actions such as regular highlight-reel posting and instead focus on the things that matter most to our mental health: real-world connections, a sense of accomplishment and purpose, and an understanding that the only comparison that truly matters is the one to whom we strive to be.

Thanks for Reading. Here Are Some Other Things You Might Enjoy:

My Second Book, On Managing Depression

A Blog Post about How Stress Creates Havoc in our Bodies

An Article about Fighting Despair by Recognizing Recurring Thought Patterns

**Above image designed and owned by Brian Sachetta ©2022

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