10 min.
What impact does social media have on consumers?
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What impact does social media have on consumers?

Social Media

According to a  CEFRIO study  conducted in 2018, 83% of Quebec adults used at least one social network as part of their personal Internet use and 45% connected to it more than once a day. Everything suggests that these statistics have only increased. Social media are ubiquitous, almost inseparable from our daily lives. Have we developed a social media addiction? Is there a correlation between gambling addiction mechanisms, mass culture and behaviors of Internet users on social platforms? The thoughts generated by these questions were of great interest to our research and development team. Let's start with a brief look back.


In 1973, a  protest message  from Richard Serra was sent to viewers to make them understand the role of mass media and pop culture as a tactic of control and social construction. It showed the imposition of mass media authority on mass culture through so-called “entertainment” for the benefit of big corporations. "You are the product of television," he said. You are delivered to the advertiser, who is the client. It consumes you. »

Today, in the age of the internet, his message remains just as true. Like the viewer, the Internet user is the product that social networks, sites and online video games sell to advertisers. In itself, this reality is not necessarily bad. This very effective old model allows Internet users to obtain content or services for free. This means that people accept that their data be used as bargaining chips. So what then is the problem?

The attention of Internet users is a limited resource that the various platforms are trying to monopolize. Two main strategies are generally implemented by the media  (social and traditional)  to capture the attention of Internet users: produce quality content to retain their audience by delivering an enriching experience or rely on sensationalism, headlines and consumption. massive.

However, unlike traditional media, such as television, radio or newspapers, whose interaction with consumers is limited, the Internet is a channel where consumers are active, which allows multiple interactions. The Internet has therefore opened up a world of possibilities and experiences to users, as well as to advertisers and the media.


About 6% of people suffer from some form of internet addiction, according to  Cheng & Li . This figure, estimated at 168,000,000 worldwide, is four times the population of Canada. In 2018, in the latest version of the  International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) , the World Health Organization added  video game disorder . China and South Korea already recognized this problem as a disease and had  programs in place to treat it . Although it is not yet recognized as a disease in the United States, in 2013 the very influential American Psychiatric Association added. of "  internet gaming disorder " to the Topics on the Research Agenda (DSM-5), an important step in establishing diagnoses and treatments.

The prevalence of the phenomenon has given rise to research in order to understand and treat it. As far as diagnosis is concerned, there are now tests like the “  Internet Addiction Test  ” or the “  Computer Game Addiction Scale  ”. Some tests even target social media, such as the one to measure the degree of addiction to Facebook (the "  Facebook Addiction Scale  ") or the brand new "  Social Media Disorder Scale  " test, which is more general in scope.


The mechanisms leading to addiction have been studied for decades. Researcher Natasha Schüll, in her book “  Addiction by Design  ”, explains that the frequency of rewards and reinforcements is crucial in establishing addiction.

The industry of casinos and electronic gambling machines also studies the behavior of players. Thus, while some players like to take big risks in order to get big wins, others bet instead on frequent small wins, a strategy called "dribble-pay" which generally turns out to be unprofitable. Gambling addiction develops through one of these mechanisms, the effect of which is further amplified if the gambler is "unlucky" to be lucky during his first gambling experiences.

This technique is also applied to many online games. For example, in  Farmville , the player constantly receives "gifts" that have no value outside of the game and, quite often, in the game itself. These are purely cosmetic items, such as a pond, a nicer house, or Christmas trees. These random rewards become a trigger of great temptation for the player that they encourage to play more and more to accumulate more.


Another mechanism exploited by the famous game is the need to reserve an important place for him in his schedule and among his entourage: in his schedule, because the player must invest time to prepare his fields and his activities which he does not will reap the rewards only after a specified time, so if he does not return to the game at the prescribed time, he loses his investment; and among his entourage, because the player is encouraged to have as many neighbors as possible, whom he must help and who, in return, must help him to obtain bonuses, often essential to progress quickly in the game. on a principle of reciprocity commit users to a group. These investments of time and social capital lead to an  escalation of engagement, forcing the player to return again and again to the game. The game thus interferes in the player's daily life, and this presence is accentuated by the growing use of mobile phones.


It is industry practice to provide rewards only in response to player action, but always on a random basis. Animal behavior experts have long observed  the effect of this combination of factors on rats.. The experiment consists of forcing them to press a lever to obtain food. If this lever only gives food from time to time and purely randomly, the rats press the lever obsessively, like slot machine players. Uncertainty about desire satisfaction, that is, the brain's inability to discern a predictable pattern other than by constantly repeating the action, leads to the development of compulsive behavior. So if the player has to constantly click on icons or activate a scroll bar to perform a task that could have been fully automated, it's not for nothing and it's not for their good either.


"In games of chance, players tend to become more addictive when sensory feedback accompanies winning," says Luke Clark, Ph.D., in  an article for WealthSimple . Think of the bells and alarms you hear when someone wins at a slot machine. Sounds and lights have nothing to do with the ultimate monetary reward: a player has been shown to be willing to take greater risks if visual and auditory stimuli accompany the win. This predisposition has even been observed in laboratory rats. The reward obtained from a positive interaction could be food, but by adding sensory feedback, the rats took more risks to achieve their payoff. »

Let's replace sensory feedback with personal gratification, like social media does. What behavior would trigger a gain accompanied by an ego boost?


There are a variety of ways to treat Internet addiction, but the most beneficial, total abstinence, is unrealistic given the ubiquity of the Internet in many jobs today, according  to a 1999 study . Indeed,  92% of the North American population  uses a mobile phone to access the internet and 53% of people sometimes use the internet from home for their work. As for video game addiction, the results are mixed, since only  a third (33.5%) of patients  who have completed their treatment say they are completely recovered.

When it comes to social media addiction, the research is just beginning, and while  treatments for internet addiction  can no doubt be adapted to it, it's still early to be certain. The problem, however, is taken seriously and is now part  of psychology textbooks .


In the face of growing public concern, major industry players have taken steps to prevent the overuse of devices and apps. These measures take the form of warmer screen colors and a grayscale mode to limit blue light emission from screens at night; notification pauses to prevent interruptions that reduce productivity; or even data on the personal use of technologies in order to make the user aware of his level of consumption of a service or an application. But are these solutions sufficient?

According  to the study by the University of Seoul , these measures would be deficient

  1. Google, Facebook and others are in conflict of interest. As long as the business model of these companies is based on the greatest possible use of their products in order to sell the greatest possible quantity of advertisements, their solutions, considered simplistic and superficial, will only attack the image of the problem and not to the underlying problem.
  2. People suffering from addiction do not control their impulses. Putting measures in place to help them limit their use of a product or service is pointless if they are unwilling or unable to respect those limits.


Despite these caveats, it's important to keep in mind that not all is bad.

All the dependence mechanisms described are originally necessary for human survival. The fact that they can be used against him does not imply that they must necessarily be banished. A slot machine that entices a person to play over and over again taps into the brain's reward system, which is essential for learning. And even repetitive play can be beneficial in bringing the person into "  the zone  " to reduce daily stress or to stimulate learning, as  Douglas Heaven , editor of New Scientist magazine, explains. If we play so much, it's mainly because we also need to do ourselves good.

If a social network or a game can infiltrate our surroundings and force us to always come back, it can also recruit this same entourage in order to encourage positive behaviors such as the adoption of healthier eating habits, the maintenance of a mode of more active life or increased mobilization within a team to promote cooperation and the pooling of ideas, as described by researcher Alex Pentland in his book "  Social Physics  ".


No one wants to claim responsibility for a problem. Nobody tries to enchant gamers or internet users with optimized mathematical models to encourage the use of products and services. Brands and media are not directly responsible for addiction, but they cannot deny their complicity on two fronts:

  1. The media fuel this lust with the money they give to advertisers to place their ads.
  2. They naturally prefer the most effective advertisers, those whose audiences are likely to be the most captive and who have the most personal data.

Yet in the long run, this cabal can only backfire on brands. None of them wants to be associated with a product considered harmful to health. These same brands will therefore not want to be advertised on a platform whose ethics could be questioned. This is why the Googles, Apples, Facebooks and Amazons (GAFAs) of this world redouble their efforts to protect their reputation and their image following each scandal. The same thing happens with advertisers, who have a duty to protect the reputation of their clients.

So, despite the apparent power of GAFA, a responsible advertising agency has both an incentive to react and a lever to do so: defending the interests of its clients. These customers and these brands make ethical and sustainable choices. They are therefore sensitive to other choices which favor their long-term image and which do not simply seek short-term performance. By presenting a stronger social conscience, an advertising platform has a significant power of attraction, provided that we are willing to recommend it to advertisers.

In short, agencies, brands, and web giants, all without exception, will have to question their processes, their promises and — why not? — their values. In an era where  transparency is slowly beginning to intrude into conversations , we hope, as specialists, but also as citizens, to see a common consciousness emerge in the industry. And, fortunately, we are on the right track.