Thirst traps, humblebrags, overshares, doing it for the ‘gram—our culture has defined many ways social media users seek attention online. Specifically designed with “likes” as the main currency, social platforms provide a tangible stamp of approval for life’s moments, both banal and exceptional, through likes, retweets, and comments.
Wanting to be seen, understood, and acknowledged, and thus approved is normal, said Daria Kuss, an associate professor of psychology at Nottingham Trent University in the U.K. “It’s human need to be respected, to be recognized, to be appreciated.” Like a kid who runs to their parents to show off an art project, it’s common to want to be rewarded with a pat on the back in recognition of a job well done, at any age or life stage.
Wanting to share achievements, opinions, or funny commentary isn’t a bad thing, but needing constant pats on the back for every selfie, every witty missive, every artistic snapshot isn’t exactly healthy. “It’s one thing to know you’re being affirmed and supported through your platform but it's another thing when you become so dependent from the external validation of social media,” psychotherapist Marline Francois-Madden told VICE. If you’re feeling trapped in the social media like-obsession cycle and can’t figure out why it’s so hard for you to stop posting, here are some things that might be going on.
Your brain has been trained to love “likes.”
Receiving a bunch of hearts or a few flattering comments on a photo activates the brain’s reward centers, Kuss told VICE, eliciting a brief burst of happiness. (Getting an IRL compliment would activate these same reward centers too, she said.) Over time, the brain associates social media notifications with a pleasant experience, which explains why you actively seek out that feeling again, Kuss continued, thus creating a loop: post, wait for a reaction, reward, repeat.
Social media reactions feel like a “hyped-up, magnified version of the validation you would experience in person,” Gregory Serapio-García, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge who researches how social media predicts personality traits, told VICE. “You’re getting notifications from lots of different people, instant gratification, whereas in person that really isn’t the case.”
However, the bliss is extremely short-lived, sending social media users right back to the beginning of the reward process. “The more validation they’re seeking,” Kuss said, “the more they will engage with social media, the more time they may be spending on social media, the more time they will spend curating their own life to make sure they’ve got something to post on social media.”
Because posting is so easy, the validation is immediate.
Compared to spending months toiling over a large assignment at work and receiving praise from your boss at the end of the project, posting a selfie and racking up likes requires minimal time commitment—and you don’t have to work hard to be rewarded. “You don't see that validation immediately in a face to face conversion,” Serapio-García said. “You don't really know what someone’s thinking unless they show that validation through body language or by saying it.”
Because online compliments are so easy to come by, you may be placing more value in the quantity of affirmations over quality. If a friend offers an in-person accolade, “you may find yourself devaluing the one person that affirms you in-person, and comparing it to hundreds of thousands of people online that are affirming you and feeling like that weighs heavier,” Francois-Madden said. You may doubt the validity of that one person’s compliment, she continued, writing it off as an empty remark.
Another problem: If you’re constantly thinking about how to broadcast and curate your life online for immediate consumption, you may miss the joy in celebrating big milestones with those closest to you IRL. “There are times where something will happen in life [and] immediately [people are] sharing on social media and haven't yet shared it with their friends or family that matter to them,” Francois-Madden said. “They're sharing it there so they can get this rapid validation from so many people rather than sharing it with one or two people and embrace it and be present in the moment.”
You’re trying to define yourself and prove you have value.
A psychological concept called self-affirmation theory posits that people are highly motivated to think of themselves as good and virtuous. According to self-affirmation theory, there are six areas that allow us to define ourselves, Serapio-García said: Social roles, values, group identities, central beliefs, goals, and relationships. “I think that social media covers all six of those,” he said.
The nature of an Instagram profile, for example, allows you to broadcast the various groups you’re in, communicate your beliefs and identities, document your achievements, and chronicle your relationships. Through social media, you can learn more about who you think you are. “When you’re interacting so much with social media, it feeds you a lot of information that shapes your perception of the self and your identity,” Serapio-García said.
Often, that sense of self is shaky at best. When it comes to compulsive attention-seeking social media posting, you’re likely grappling with an unaddressed issue, like a need for approval, a fear of rejection, or a lack of self-worth and confidence, Francois-Madden said.
You’re curating a version of your life that you want to be true.
Constant bids for likes can be an indicator of people-pleasing behavior, Francois-Madden said. Once you’ve received a positive reaction from posting a certain way—a selfie, a recent achievement—you utilize that same formula to achieve validation, often at the expense of authenticity. If you change your online persona or stop posting altogether, you risk being abandoned by the very people validating you. “Sometimes when people are seeking so much external validation, it could be wrapped up in this fear of being rejected by people,” Francois-Madden said.
This can happen in romantic relationships, for example, when a couple gets in an argument and one partner posts a happy photo of the two of them in order to mask any hurt feelings, Francois-Madden explained. “Now they're receiving this affirmation, the validation that they’re looking for… they're receiving it online now. They’re not receiving it from their relationship,” she said. “If people are feeling not settled in something else, then they go on socially and post, they curate a certain life or story they want you to believe because it makes them feel good.”
To loosen social media validation’s grip, Francois-Madden suggests waiting an hour after posting to check engagements or taking a break from social media entirely. “And find other ways to get validated,” she said. “Find ways you can validate yourself internally so that way you’re not always looking for external validation.”
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