James Wilson
James is a Research Analyst covering several sectors for Mintel Ireland. His specialist areas include all things digital, social media and consumer shopping habits.

Mintel’s latest Irish research on social networking finds that the majority of Irish consumers think it is important to take time away from social networking sites every day (89% in Northern Ireland and 85% in Republic of Ireland). Indeed, social networking is one of the most popular online activities and consumers in the UK spent almost three hours a day using these platforms in 2017, according to the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (September 2017).

That’s 21 hours per week, 84 hours per month and 1,008 hours a year. To put this into context use of social networking sites accounted for an eighth of UK consumers’ time in 2017. It’s little wonder that social networks are considered to be a distraction from real life.

So, what makes consumers spend so much time on social networking sites?

Connecting with friends and family? Meeting new people? Discovering new content? Sense of belonging to a community? It’s likely a combination of all of the above as consumers will have many different reasons. There is also an argument that these platforms are becoming more addictive as they use techniques to keep users engaged. An example of this is Snapchat’s Snapstreaks feature. This shows users how many days in a row they have sent a picture to their friends. A streak comes to an end when users have not sent a picture message to their friends after 24 hours.

Maintaining a Snapstreak is rewarded by the platform and users therefore do not want to break their streak. Indeed, there is a psychological aspect behind this as recognition of their achievements can trigger the release of happy hormones within users’ brains, encouraging further use. Meanwhile, research by US psychologist Dr Eva Ritvo found that getting ‘likes’ for Facebook posts actually results in a release of dopamine. It is this ‘high’ that led to calls for social media to be considered an addiction.

While addiction is most commonly associated with alcohol, drugs, gambling and nicotine, the NHS notes that it is possible to be addicted to using the internet and its related technologies such as social media. Indeed, a quarter of Irish consumers feel social media has negatively impacted their lives.

What can be done to encourage healthy use of social media?

Social networking sites could look to take steps to encourage users to take breaks in usage by following the humorous approach of the football management game Championship Manager, which used an ‘addictiveness rating’ that tells users how many hours they have been playing and to ‘take a shower’ and ‘remember to feed the cat’. Gentle reminders and rewards for taking a break can help to encourage healthy use of social media and position these platforms as playing a positive role in consumers’ lives.