A New Legal High? Why Everyone is Hooked on Social

Sex, drugs, smoking, gambling and social media. What do they all have in common?

Studies suggest the average person checks Facebook at least 14 times a day, every day, and we’ll bet good money you’re already very close to reaching your quota for today.

The truth is social media is a legal high; we’re all hooked, and it seems there’s precious little we can do about it – log on and drop out.

So, what’s going on inside that head of yours?

The Pleasure Principle

Scientific research has established a direct link between social media and the ‘high’ we gain from certain high-risk or pleasure-inducing activities – not just vice, but exercise and eating too.

Yum ?? BLUE CRAB GRILLED CHEESE [?: @losangeles_eats] #lovefood

A post shared by Love Food (@love_food) on

It all relates back to dopamine, a naturally occurring feel-good chemical and neurotransmitter that sends signals around the brain to enhance our mood.

When you gamble or take certain stimulant drugs, your brain responds by releasing a greater amount of dopamine, which in turn can make you feel a bit high. Feels good, right?

The dopamine and the resulting high we get from certain mood-enhancing activities – legal or otherwise – is what keeps us coming back for more, hence why some become addicted.

So, how does this translate to social media?

The Reward System and Social Media

Each and every one of us has a reward system within our brain. The reward system works by releasing greater amounts of dopamine, as a response to pleasurable stimuli.

All this takes place within the striatum and the limbic system; it’s here that you’ll find the amygdala (emotion), the hippocampus (memory) and the mesolimbic dopamine pathway.


When we have sex, our brain responds to the act by releasing dopamine through the mesolimbic dopamine pathway, making us feel a sense of ecstasy or pleasure.

Believe it or not, emotive-led social media can mimic these effects and ignite the reward system to make us feel good, or ‘high’, by providing an ample dose of dopamine.

Social Media: A New Legal High?

Our Business Director Alex Ayin has conducted extensive research into the psychology of humans and consumer behaviour from a social media marketing perspective.

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He suggests that the feeling one gets from sharing a funny meme or viral Tweet can evoke an immediate dopamine release, which explains why social media is as addictive as it is.

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But this doesn’t just apply to content creators. As avid consumers of social media, we’re always looking for engaging content to share with our friends and followers.

This allows our brain to respond to positive, feel-good stimuli – i.e. Twitter memes, food porn on Instagram, competition-based Facebook Live streams.

“Most people know that if they post a picture online and don’t get a specific amount of likes within a set time, that photo will only gain a limited level of engagement,” says Alex.

“As a result, that person won’t get that same reward, kick, or high they would if that same picture were to go viral. Social media is no different; we’re constantly chasing that high.”

And it’s this release of dopamine that keeps us interacting and engaging with social media, which backs up the IDC’s findings that the average person checks Facebook 14 times a day.

Before social, we constantly craved attention and sought out stimuli to feed our reward system. The same still applies nowadays, but we now have access to a 24/7 stream of content as well as platforms that allow us to constantly project elements of our self.

What This Means for Youth Marketers and Brands

The addictive nature of social media makes life easier for today’s marketers, providing their message is delivered in a way that triggers an emotional response.

So, what does emotive-led, pleasure-inducing, dopamine-producing social media look like?

This live activation from Social Chain plays upon several core emotions, including suspense, anticipation and anxiety, to hold attention and inspire action.

Like many of Social Chain’s live activations, our recent boohoo ‘champagne bottle’ Facebook live stream is based on a single compelling event triggered only by audience interaction.

In this instance, the main event consists of a payday money bag being levered onto a big red button to pop a Balthazar (12 litres) bottle of Moet & Chandon champagne.

But the event on its own is not enough to get hearts racing. The incentivised nature of the stream – in this instance two £250 and £100 gift vouchers – is often what leads to that rush of dopamine.

“If you can understand what emotions tie to specific behaviours you can then drive the content you produce to evoke that particular emotion to have the desired effect,” reveals Alex.

Incentives aside, much of the success of Social Chain’s live streams, including their ability to go deeper to create an emotional response, is based on mass reach.

How can you expect your audience to take part if very few people are engaging? It harks back to our inherent want for inclusion, especially when it comes to viral content.

As such, the stream managed to generate close to 300,000 comments and 3.7k engagements in one hour.

We’ve put this down to a simple formula: ‘compelling content + mass reach + a relevant incentive = a greater dopamine release + audience engagement.   

Social Media, Drug Use and Addiction

Alex says: “It’s very interesting to compare how the brain operates when people of our generation use social media in comparison to how drug addicts abuse substances.”

Rolling Stone even go as far to suggest that today’s teens have ‘replaced drugs with social media’, and that drug use has been curbed as a result.


Much debate still surrounds the effects of excessive social media use, the reality is that these are conversations that we should all take part in to ensure both sides are above board.

As always, it’s a question of ethics and how brands interpret this insight to promote the positive aspects of social media to limit more negative connotations.

Social Chain works with youth-friendly brands to promote products and services that resonate with both millennials and Gen Z.

In recent times, we’ve written about how social media can be a gateway to positive experiences and products that promote independence and well-being among young people.

While we are not condoning the above vices, it is interesting to draw parallels between the effects of dopamine through content and how you can translate this into your own social media marketing.

Want to learn more? Use the contact form at the bottom of the page to find out more about our transformative approach to social.

Alternatively, check out our recent blog post on the biggest secret in influencer marketing to find out what’s really going on in the industry.

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