5 Most Addictive Social Media Features

thumbs tapping on a phone social media

When you think of addiction, do you picture drug users living on the streets, gambling addicts stuck in front of a slot machine, or alcoholics congregating at the local bar? What if our country’s most vulnerable addicts look like the well-behaved, straight-A middle-school student down the street? That’s the new picture of addiction that lawyers are painting with a recent lawsuit against the company Meta Platforms, owner of popular social media sites like Facebook and Instagram.

What if our country’s most vulnerable addicts look like the well-behaved, straight-A middle-school student down the street? That’s the new picture of addiction lawyers are painting with a recent lawsuit against Meta Platforms. Click To Tweet

In a filing on October 24, 2023, attorneys general in dozens of U.S. states charged that Meta “has contributed to a teen mental health epidemic by intentionally designing its Platforms to ensnare children’s attention.”

In the filing from the state of New Hampshire, for example, attorneys outlined specific addictive features that they believe have been intentionally designed to manipulate, engage, and monetize young people, leading to excessive and even compulsive usage.

According to the suit, Meta is aware that children are using its social media sites in a harmful manner, but the company refuses to change its systems to protect youth safety and mental health. Below are the 5 key features attorneys are calling out for their potentially damaging effects on young people. How many have you fallen prey to?


  1. Personalization Algorithms

In order to personalize content to its users’ interests, Meta utilizes algorithms that present supposedly pertinent information, both on the Main Feed page and the search-driven Explore Feed. But accusers say that the algorithms are designed to suck in young users with a “variable reward schedule.”

This is a strategy used for slot machines: People keep pulling the lever because they don’t know what’s coming next, but they have the potential to win money. This triggers a release of dopamine, the chemical associated with anticipating pleasure.

Just like gamblers, social media users keep engaging—in their case, endlessly scrolling in anticipation of more rewards (in the form of stimulating content).

Furthermore, the lawsuit says that, unlike the random workings of a slot machine, Meta’s algorithm is “tailored to ensure that the user craves more content and continues using the Platforms,” a “particularly effective…and dangerous” tactic for children.

Because children’s brains are still developing, they have “a lack of impulse control and reduced executive functions” and are “particularly susceptible to psychological manipulation.”

Furthermore, this personalized-content echo chamber can drag kids down a rabbit hole of unhealthy content. For example, one search or viewing of a fad diet can trigger more of the same type of information.

  1. Alerts

Everyone with a smartphone knows the allure of alerts: A message pops up on the screen, and you feel an instant urge to check it. These also trigger a dopamine release, and Instagram app users get alerts regularly, which drives traffic to the site.

Users are notified, for example, when they get a “like” or a comment on their post; when they’re mentioned, tagged, or sent a message by someone else; or when an account they’re following is doing a Live video.

The lawsuit states that researchers have noted the similarities between alerts and stimulating drugs, in terms of how they impact the brain.

This is fueling a compulsion for teens to check their phone (51 times daily on average for a teen, but this number can reach over 400). And they’re getting hundreds or even thousands of alerts every day.

With Meta making the “alerts on” setting as a default, it’s up to kids to turn them off—and they often don’t. Constantly engaging with mobile devices to view these alerts can have detrimental effects like interrupting sleep or school hours.

  1. Infinite Scroll/Autoplay

When young people open up Instagram or Facebook, the infinite scroll feature ensures they can scroll the page forever. The page keeps adding additional content. And with no cutoff point, they tend to keep interacting with the site.

The lawsuit notes that this triggers a “fear of missing out” (FOMO) in young people, which keeps them hooked, scrolling for the next image or information.

Similarly, autoplay is a feature on Instagram Stories, which is a section for photos and videos that stay online for only 24 hours. After one Story concludes, the next plays automatically until the user stops it.

Again, the default settings keep autoplay on unless it’s turned off. “Meta knows that these features are manipulative for users,” the filing says. It appears it all adds up to Instagram addiction.

  1. Ephemeral Content

FOMO is also at work in the Instagram Stories feature due to the content disappearing after 24 hours. This creates urgency to consume the content, which is highlighted with certain “notifications and visual design cues.”

Instagram Live, meanwhile, is streamed live only, so users must tune in at that moment. This is communicated to users through alerts and thus generates an imagined need to visit the site. 

  1. Reels

Reels on Instagram, introduced in 2020, “uses Meta algorithms to present short-form videos based on data collected from each user to gauge their level of engagement,” according to the suit. “Reels then spoonfeeds users an infinite stream of short videos perfectly suited to monopolize the shorter attention spans of children.”

These videos last only 15 to 90 seconds, remain on autoplay, and take up the entire device screen to further hook the user. 


In March 2023, the U.S. Surgeon General released a report highlighting the potential harms of social media. Social media is still a relatively new addiction and more research is needed.

However, multiple studies have pointed to a possible connection between use and overuse of social media, and how it is contributing to a mental health crisis in youth. It’s driving challenges like teen depression, anxiety, and insomnia.

Brain SPECT imaging studies on patients at Amen Clinics show that excessive social media use and gaming can also negatively impact brain function.

Here are some sobering stats and facts pointed out in the introduction of the New Hampshire public filing:

  • U.S. use of social media among children, teens, and young adults began to dramatically increase in 2012, the year that Meta acquired Instagram. From 2012 to 2015, Instagram grew from 50 million users to 600 million-plus.
  • Young people with heavy social media use have demonstrated poorer sleep patterns (staying up and waking up later on school days, interrupted nighttime sleep, and trouble falling back asleep) and poorer sleep quality. These effects can cause or worsen symptoms of depression and anxiety.
  • Those who use social media habitually are less able to regulate their behavior, which can trigger even more social media use—and thus they have more trouble regulating. It’s an addictive, self-perpetuating cycle.
  • According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the percentage of high school students experiencing “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” climbed steeply between 2013 and 2021. In 2021, 42% of all high school students and 57% of female students reported this feeling.
  • Risk of suicide is also rising. The CDC reports that in 2011, 19% of high school girls seriously considered attempting suicide. That number grew to 30% by 2021. Adolescent girls ages 12 to 17 had the biggest increases in suicidal ideation and attempts in that decade span. In 2013 alone, the suicide rate for 13-year-old girls climbed by 50%.


While it’s possible for anyone to succumb to the addictive features of social media, the still-developing brains of kids and teens are particularly vulnerable. After all, the lawsuit points out, they are likely to engage in risk-taking behavior, while a fully developed sense of self and self-esteem are still forming.

That means “a desire for…attention, peer feedback, and reinforcement” are at their highest, with teens most susceptible to the “danger, misinformation, peer pressure, and false images that abound on social media.”

Time will tell if and how major social media companies will be held accountable for their potential role in our youth’s deteriorating mental health. But, in the meantime, it’s up to all of us to educate ourselves and our young ones about these potential pitfalls.

Depression, anxiety, insomnia, and and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.


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