Studies show Facebook,Twitter more addictive than anything but sleep and sex, but do less good

Compulsion for social networking fed by 'low cost' of updates that collectively steal huge swathes of time

Researchers are still split on whether it's possible to become addicted to an activity like using the Internet rather than a chemical like nicotine, alcohol or heroin.

A new study shows it is very possible to develop compulsions that look a lot like Internet addiction and that, under the right conditions, the combination of Facebook and Internet-connected smartphones are like smoking crack in a cigarette and drinking Irish Coffee while standing in line at the methadone clinic.

Another showed that, while sharing personal information with friends in social environments is usually beneficial, sharing online with Facebook friends often has exactly the opposite effect.

In the first study, 205 volunteers were told they'd be asked to provide real-time information on any type of appetite or desire, the strength of the desire and their ability to resist it.

Then they were sent out into "the wild" (their normal lives) with a BlackBerry researchers used to ping them seven times per day. Volunteers were asked to text back with information on what desires they'd felt during the past 30 minutes, how strong or appropriate the desire was and whether it conflicted with other desires (go outside for a smoke vs. making a meeting on time, for example).

Hang on, this'll just take a second!

The result was that, except for sleep and sex, the urge to log into social networking sites was stronger than almost any other urge – including the urge for a cigarette, coffee, food or alcohol.

There are so many activities and information sources competing for our attention that no adult can function without being able to resist some of them, according to the study's lead author, Wilhelm Hofmann, a behavioral psychologist at Chicago University's Booth Business School, who specializes in impulse control, consumer behavior and moral decision-making.

Living in the real world with people who expect as much attention to social interaction as social networking means that people often have to deny urges that, like updating a Facebook status, take little time and carry few of the immediate problems of addiction to alcohol, cigarettes, or even having poor time-management skills, according to the study, which is due to be published in the journal Psychological Science.

As the day wears on and people get more tired, their willpower – the ability to deny a desire of any kind – deteriorates, especially for activities like updating their social-network pages that seem to have little impact on their schedules or reputations.

As a result, "even though giving in to media desires is certainly less consequential (than smoking or drinking), the frequent use may still 'steal' a lot of people's time," Hofmann wrote.

Giving to Facebook but not getting anything back

Unfortunately, all that compulsive social networking doesn’t necessarily carry the same positive impact as social activity in the real world according to a study by Joanne Wood and graduate student Amanda Forest of the University of Waterloo in Ontario.

Forest and Wood studied the social networking activity and success of people "who struggle to make social connections" due to low self esteem, fear of intimacy or fear of disclosing information about themselves.

Because there are no face-to-face encounters, the researchers found self-disclosure is easier for many people on Facebook than it is in real life.

Self-revelation in social environments brings a tremendous psychological benefit by boosting confidence, self esteem, expanding the number of social contexts and other "social rewards," the two wrote.

Revealing themselves on Facebook, however, did almost no good for people with low self esteem and hesitance to reveal personal information in the first place, even though people in the study said Facebook was an appealing site for exactly that.

The Internet's troll factor seems to be the culprit.

Study subjects got so little positive feedback from their revelations and so many negative responses that the negatives cancelled out almost all the potential benefit from virtual social interaction.

Neither study bridges the gap between the medical definition of chemical addiction and what psychiatrists often refer to as "soft" definitions of psychological disorders that may be real maladies, or may just be habits so deeply ingrained or so satisfying it's almost as difficult for "addicts" to give up as chemical addictions.

Neither really has to. What they document is a phenomenon the heavily wired noticed before Facebook existed, anyone had heard the term "CrackBerry" and the web was just a bunch of pretty colors on a BBS login page.

Feeling a sense of connection to other people, a sense that you're able to say what you want to say and have strangers pay attention, even if only to jeer has drawn geeks to bulletin-boards, lunatics to speech-making streetcorners and the relatively well adjusted to town meetings and managing committees of a million charities, clubs and non-profit groups.

No easy answer for Facebook addiction

It doesn't really matter if it's a physical addiction that drives people online or if the compulsion is only a deep need to be heard, be connected, be plugged in to the flow of life that might otherwise pass you by.

The result is the same: constant posting of updates, checking of mail, scanning of headlines.

Taken to extremes it can steal time from real-life activities and relationships, according to Hofmann.

In that all online activity is like any form of escapist behavior.

Unfortunately for those to whom the Internet is ruinous to relationships, jobs and families, the Internet as a temptation is not like alcohol, caffeine or nicotine, the cure for which is to avoid the temptation completely.

The Internet – and, to a lesser extent, social networking – is more like food for someone with an eating disorder: a source of torment and temptation, but not one it's possible to give up completely.

The Internet has replaced, enhanced or connected so many other media and information sources it would be difficult to function in American society without using it.

If some aspects of it are also addictive, we're going to have to do something more specific and more supportive than just telling addicts the only thing they can do is turn off, tune out and drop off.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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