Karly Gaffney is a Manager on the Content and Community team at Social Media Group.

Noun: The fact or condition of being addicted to a particular substance, thing, or activity.

While standing in line to order the first coffee of the day, I check in on Foursquare then peruse my Twitter feed and Facebook notifications. The order is in and as I wait for my morning fuel to arrive I go back to Foursquare, Facebook and Twitter to see what’s new. Seriously.

According to a recent study led by Wilhelm Hofmann of University of Chicago’s Booth Business School, Tweeting and checking emails is a much harder addiction to give up than cigarettes or alcohol. The study was looking to measure how well people could resist their desires and, as turns out, it’s a lot easier to pass up that second glass of red in order to keep your hands free to send a status update.

Social Media Addiction

Hofmann told 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.” Hofmann noted that alcohol and cigarettes are more costly and may not be as accessible as social media and email. “So, even though giving in to media desires is certainly less consequential, the frequent use may still ‘steal’ a lot of people’s time.”

Retrevo Stats

Sure, we’ve all checked our Facebook notifications or Twitter feeds at inopportune (or sometimes inappropriate) times, and answering a text over dinner is becoming less and less of a faux pas (debatable). Some people even have Foursquare venues set up for their beds—not surprising considering a 2010 study found 28% of respondents said they update Facebook/Twitter before they even get out of bed.

Marla Bartoi, Ph.D., is a professor who teaches clinical psychology at WSU; her research interests include cognitive behavioral treatment of anxiety disorders and depression and substance abuse treatment. She was recently asked to respond to a similar study on social media addiction and noted that MRI screenings have shown that some people are more prone to addictions depending on their brain chemistry. Other factors such as genetics can also factor into the likelihood of addiction, she said. According to Bartoi, addiction to social networking is possible, but it’s not something that she believes everybody is addicted to or will become addicted to.

So if brain chemistry and genetics play a role in this, maybe I’m safe. Then again, taking a quick look at my most recent apps: HootSuite, Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook and Foursquare are my top hits. Brings to mind a certain Simpsons episode, no Twitter and no Facebook make Karly go something something?

So is social media really an addiction? Technically social networking isn’t a new phenomena, it’s just another form of communicating.  If you think about it as communication – would we go as far as saying someone is addicted to writing post-it notes or talking on the phone? If this is about consumption rather than communication, why are we worried about people being addicted to the internet/social media and not to newspapers or books? There could certainly be similar addictive behavior patterns. Maybe it’s neither, and it’s merely about instant gratification.

Whatever the reason, let’s try not to fear new technologies. We have a long history of concern over technological advances, from the old days of fearing the printing press and the radio (yes, really) to today’s social media zombies. What do you think?  Is the worry about social media addiction really just a worry about new technologies?



  1. Jessica

    Wonderful articule Karly, lots ot think about!

  2. Thank you Jessica. The topic certainly created discussion (and debate) here at the office 🙂

  3. OldMan/NiceLawn

    The study’s implications and conclusion are dripping with hyperbole, and I don’t believe the comparison of addiction between social networking and alcohol/tobacco is necessary or helpful.

    In fact, this reads more like someone who wanted to get their name in the papers/blogs.

  4. I hear you old man. The reason I dug a little deeper to find second opinions (such as the quote from Dr. Bartoi) was because I wasn’t 100% sold on the research focus or the purpose of the study, even if the topic did intrigue me. I didn’t like that researchers were studying Blackberry users only considering iPhone and Android are the most popular mobile platforms for accessing social apps, and the comparison to alcohol/tobacco resulted in my final point around the historical trend of fearing new technologies (after a handful of conversations with friends and peers). I anticipated differing opinions and maybe a bit of debate, thank you for commenting!

  5. OldMan/NiceLawn

    You can definitely throw the platform issue into the mix, too. I mean, have Blackberry users been relevant and reliable demographic for social media studies in the last 2 years? Nope!

    Studies like this are about as informative (read: uninformative) as the ‘chocolate/beer/red wine are good for you/bad for you/good for you/bad for you/good for you’ studies that have been prevalent in the media over the last 30 years. Using terms like ‘evidence suggests’, they elevate the profile of the study in consumers’ psyches, but really do SFA to prove, accomplish, or otherwise make any useful point.

    I like turtles.

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