While it’s probably not nearly as bad for you, social media may be even more addictive than alcohol and tobacco, according to a new study published in the journal Psychological Science. The study, led by Wilhelm Hofmann of the University of Chicago’s Booth Business School, tracked the daily activities and attitudes of 250 people ages 18-85 from the German city of Würzburg as they attempted to abstain from social media use for one week; the study subjects were given BlackBerrys to register their responses.
Study subjects were asked at intervals whether they had experienced any urges to use social media, how strong the urge was, and whether they succumbed to it; they were also asked whether it conflicted with other life activities and desires. Overall the study collected 10,558 responses from the subjects over the course of the week, including 7,827 reports of “desire episodes”.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the will power to resist using social media became lower as the day went on, reflecting growing feelings of stress and fatigue and a concomitant need for release and relaxation. Interestingly, social media was harder to resist than a gamut of other behaviors: “In contrast, people were relatively successful at resisting sports inclinations, sexual urges, and spending impulses, which seems surprising given the salience in modern culture of disastrous failures to control sexual impulses and urges to spend money.” Likewise, the subjects’ reports for alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine marked their desires for these substances at relatively low levels compared to social media.
Hofmann was quoted in the U.K. newspaper The Guardian: “Desires for media may be comparatively harder to resist because of their high availability and also because it feels like it does not ‘cost much’ to engage in these activities, even though one wants to resist. With cigarettes and alcohol there are more costs -- long-term as well as monetary -- and the opportunity may not always be the right one. So, even though giving in to media desires is certainly less consequential, the frequent use may still ‘steal’ a lot of people's time.”
This isn’t the first study confirming what many have long suspected -- namely, that social media can wield an unhealthy psychic power over us. In April 2010 I wrote about a study from the University of Maryland’s International Center for Media & the Public Agenda, which asked 200 U of M undergraduates to forego all media for 24 hours -- including the Internet, their mobile phone, TV, radio, newspapers and magazines. The reactions -- especially to social media deprivation – were often indistinguishable from addicts deprived of a fairly powerful habit-forming drug, with subjects using language like “frantically craving, very anxious, extremely antsy, miserable, jittery, crazy.”