When we think of addicts, the picture that normally comes to mind is that of a gaunt man or woman, huddled in a corner, trying desperately to get his/her next fix of heroin.
But addiction isn’t just about substance abuse. If a person engages in an activity (gambling, for instance) to the point where it becomes compulsive and interferes with ordinary life, then as per Psychology Today, that too counts as addiction.
Now look around you. If you are the parent of a teenager, chances are that your child is too busy communing with his or her smartphone to give you the time of day. If you’re a young adult, chances are that you live a large part of your life in the virtual world. We tend to take such behaviour as normal. But in an increasing number of cases, such behaviour isn’t normal. It has crossed the line over into addiction.
A number of studies have looked at not only internet addiction generally, but addiction to social networking websites, and Facebook in particular. For example, a recent study at the University of Albany found that excessive use of online social networking websites like Facebook can not only be addictive, but that such usage may be associated with problems such as substance abuse.
Similarly, an earlier study at the University of Bergen found that women, extroverts and people unable to sleep until very late at night were particularly in danger of becoming addicted to Facebook. Yet another study by researchers in California found that the compulsive use of social media websites such as Facebook resulted in the same kind of changes in people’s brains as those caused by drug addiction.
As in the case of other types of addiction, there are two types of behaviours found in internet addiction. The first is a constant or increasing desire to interact with the object of the addiction. The second is feeling bad when that interaction isn’t available.
In the case of social media websites, what hooks people is the rush they get from social recognition, the thrill of getting a ‘like’ or a re-tweet. That ‘social high’ causes addictive personalities to check their Facebook, Instagram and Twitter timelines every few minutes. But as soon as they hit one level of social recognition, they want to go one level higher. Suddenly, it’s no longer enough to have five friends laugh at your clever turn of phrase or status on Facebook; it has to be at least 50. And when you hit 50, then it has to be 100. And so it goes.
But what’s wrong with all this, you might ask? At the end of the day, nobody gets hurt if somebody spends too much time on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or Twitter.
Unfortunately, people do get hurt — just not visibly. In the obvious sense, a person who is so obsessed with their Facebook status that they have to check it every few minutes is not going to be very productive at work. We all like to think we are masters of multi-tasking. But the truth is that except for a few genetically blessed individuals, the rest of us are terrible at it. And what that means is that every time we leave a Facebook window open on our work computer, we are all but ensuring that very little work will get done, and that too of mediocre quality.
There are other losses as well. Take, for example, the selfie obsession that has taken social media by storm. Unattractive and equally unnecessary, these selfies are taken anywhere and everywhere. The most memorable and shocking would have to be the one taken by a gentleman in the bathroom with his shalwar hanging in the background. Another candidate for the most shocking selfie (at least in my knowledge) is the one I saw of a girl with a huge grin on her face sitting in front of a dead body at a funeral. It’s not just the fact that such behaviour is frightening and highly inappropriate. It’s also the fact that the self-esteem of so many people seems to hang on how many ‘likes’ their selfies get.
I don’t want to suggest that we all go back to an age before computers. Yes, Facebook can be great for catching up with your friends and family. Yes, Twitter can be fun and amusing. The only point is that you have to know what you’re dealing with. Social media is the equivalent of candy for the brain. Yes, it’s good to get a sugar rush once in a while. But if you do nothing but live on chocolate-frosted doughnuts, you’re not going to be too healthy.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 11th, 2015.