Deconstructing digital desires

Student Internet use raises questions regarding social media’s addictive nature

In a recent study, participants found it easier to resist their desires for cigarettes and alcohol than their desires to use social media.
In a recent study, participants found it easier to resist their desires for cigarettes and alcohol than their desires to use social media.
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Excessive social media use can be isolating, according to a local counsellor.
Excessive social media use can be isolating, according to a local counsellor.
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A local counsellor is seeing social media transform into an isolating experience.

“We had a student at Queen’s who kept online gaming and was spending a lot of time in his room. He had horrible hygiene and his studies were going down the drain,” gambling counsellor Chris Myers said.

The online gamer was initially unconcerned about his habits, Myers said.

“His friends and roommates came to us first,” he said. “There was definitely denial. A major side effect is less contact with the outside world.”

Myers works with the Options for Change Addictions Team, part of Frontenac Community Mental Health Services, based in Kingston.

This student wasn’t the first online gamer Myers has treated.

“We see a lot of online gamers, with Halo, Call of Duty,” he said. “I look at when people are spending a large amount of time on the Internet. It’d be interfering with other life activities … like hygiene, studies and work.”

Myers started seeing people with online gambling problems in 2006. Since then, he has seen a steady stream of people addicted to the Internet, he said.

“It comes in waves,” he said. “It starts at an early age. [Online] is a way of interacting, you meet friends online.”

Myers said the recovery time for the people he sees varies.

“I work with people to reduce the amount of time they spend on the Internet,” he said. “I motivate them to make changes — most people try to limit their use.”

As with any other addiction, quitting the Internet has negative side effects.

“You have to be careful of agitation and the withdrawal effects,” he said, adding that often people stop using the Internet cold turkey.

“People will come back and say, ‘I just need to stop gaming, I can’t control it,’” he said.

But Myers doesn’t just help addicted online gamers – he also sees people who spend too much time social networking.

In order to prevent addiction, students should take a proactive approach, Myers said.

“You have to limit your time online and continue with other extracurriculars,” he said, adding that he recommends site-blocking programs.

A recent study from the University of Chicago shows the addictive side of social media.

Led by researcher Wilhem Hofmann, the study questioned 205 people in Wurzburg, Germany about their desires and levels of self-control. The results of the study will appear in the journal Psychological Science.

Participants were between the ages of 18 to 85. They were asked what desires they were experiencing, if they experienced these desires within the past 30 minutes, how strong these desires were and whether they succumbed to them. They rated their desires from mild to irresistible.

Subjects were questioned seven times per day and received the questions from researchers via BlackBerries for one week.

Sleep and sex were found to have above-average desire levels. But the study also found above-average self-control failure rates for media desires — activities like watching TV, using Internet, checking email and social networking.

So does a participant’s failure to resist social media desires mean it’s addictive?

Hofmann’s study found the average rate of failure for giving into all desires to be 17 per cent. This included including work, sleeping, sex, alcohol, smoking and social media.

According to Queen’s psychology professor Cynthia Fekken, it’s hard to gauge whether social media is addictive from the study alone.

“We all seem to be tied to instant messages, cell phone calls, Twitter, Facebook, email and so on … I was a bit skeptical about whether people are in fact addicted to social media,” she said. “Social media seems addictive in the limited sense that people failed to control the urge to check it 40 per cent of the time, relative to a 17 per cent failure rate when people … wanted to control a desire in general.”

But why were subjects more likely to use social media than to succumb to cravings of alcohol or cigarettes?

Like other addictive substances, Fekken said social media has certain properties that make it hard to resist.

Fekken said when people use drugs and alcohol, dopamine is released within the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and satisfaction.

“There is evidence to show as well that social behaviours like hugs and smiles are associated with dopamine release … it’s possible that social media is pleasurable and becomes addictive via the dopamine mechanism just as drugs or alcohol can,” she said. “But for something to qualify as an addiction, it needs to meet various criteria.”

Fekken said the term addiction is often overused.

Addiction refers to a dependence on a substance or a behaviour that continues despite negative consequences.

“Dependence is reflected in the number and intensity of urges; the inability to control them; the number of substance ingestions or undesirable behaviour; and the consequences of the ingested substances or behaviours,” she said.

“It seems an overstatement to call people’s day-to-day love affair with social media an addiction … there is no simple way to compare addictiveness of constantly checking your cellphone with shooting heroin every day.”

Social media usage may not present the same risks as illicit drugs, but people still ignore or underestimate the risks it can pose, Fekken said.

“You trade off an immediate small reward … for a larger long-term future reward when you maintain your attention on the task at hand,” she said, adding that one could trade the pleasure of receiving a social message for the benefits of an intense focus on studying.

Long-term productivity isn’t the only thing at risk with persistent social media use.

“The urge to check your cell phone while driving, crossing the street and so on may result in health risks because you are not paying attention to your immediate environment,” Fekken said.

People are reluctant to give up social media because there’s always the potential for benefit, Fekken said.

“There may also be a learning mechanism at play,” she said. “The behaviours that are most resilient to extinction are ones that are sometimes reinforced and sometimes not reinforced.  Checking your cell phone for updates is sometimes rewarded with a message, call, tweet and so on and sometimes it is not.”

The inescapable presence of social media in today’s digital culture also makes it hard to resist, Fekken said.

“We’re social creatures and interested in human contact. Social media is the latest tool for interacting.”

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