In a society awash with digital media, concerns about addiction are natural. But are they unfounded?
American medical discourse is chock full of addictions these days. There's video game addiction. Porn addiction. Gambling addiction. Internet addiction.
And of course: Facebook addiction. At least, that's according to Norwegian researcher Cecilie Schou Andreassen, who says people who can't get enough of the social network show many of the same signs of withdrawal and mood swings associated with gambling junkies.
Although Facebook is not a chemical like alcohol or cocaine, she said in an email to The Atlantic, Facebook users can fit the criteria for addiction that are applied to other things.
All addictions, chemical and non-chemical, appear to comprise six core components: (1) salience (the activity dominates thinking and behaviour), (2) mood modification (the activity modifies/improves mood), (3) tolerance (increasing amounts of the activity are required to achieve initial effects), (4) withdrawal (occurrence of unpleasant feelings when the activity is discontinued or suddenly reduced), (5) conflict (the activity causes conflicts in social relationships and other activities), and (6) relapse (tendency for reversion to earlier patterns of the activity after abstinence or control).
The problem, however, is this: how do you measure addiction to a website? Her attempt, which was published earlier this year in Psychological Reports, is called the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale. Originally, participants were asked 18 questions and those answers were correlated with a variety of other psychological tests and measures of problematic media usage.
Six of the initial 18 questions have been kept by the researchers as the most predictive of Facebook addiction. To a first approximation, these questions are a way of measuring whether you have a problem with Facebook. Each of them correlates with one of the six components listed above and can be answered: very rarely, rarely, sometimes, often, or very often. Here they are (we've listed the component of addiction the question addresses in parentheses after it).
How often during the last year have you...
- spent a lot of time thinking about Facebook or planned use of Facebook? (Salience)
- used Facebook in order to forget about personal problems? (Mood modification)
- felt an urge to use Facebook more and more? (Tolerance)
- become restless or troubled if you have been prohibited from using Facebook? (Withdrawal)
- used Facebook so much that it has had a negative impact on your job/studies? (Conflict)
- tried to cut down on the use of Facebook without success? (Relapse)
Not everyone is sold on the idea, though. Mark Griffiths, a British psychologist at Nottingham Trent University, says the notion of Facebook addiction actually obscures more than it reveals.
"The real issue here concerns [...] what people are actually addicted [to]," Griffiths writes in the latest issue of Psychological Reports. "Facebook addiction as a term may already be obsolete because there are many activities that a person can engage in on the medium." In other words, to say that we're addicted to "Facebook" doesn't really accomplish very much when the service's value derives from what people do with it.
Griffiths adds that if the concept of Facebook addiction isn't quite specific enough, it could also be attacked on the grounds of being too narrow. There's no reason to think you wouldn't find the same habits and attitudes on other social networks that Andreassen discovered with respect to Facebook.
"There is a fundamental difference between addictions to the Internet and addictions on the Internet," Griffiths writes. So, by analogy, you wouldn't say that you were addicted to going to bars if you were an alcoholic. Griffiths argues that there are specific activities on the Internet that one could be addicted to, but measuring Facebook itself is not the right level of analysis. "The field needs a psychometrically validated scale that specifically assesses social networking addiction rather than Facebook use," he concluded.
In other words, Andreassen's research appears to have kicked off a debate in addiction research that won't be settled soon.
But here's one parting thought: even as we begin talking more about this thing we call "addiction" to digital media, attitudes toward the technology are still evolving. It's not unimaginable that what we consider unnatural today will eventually lose its cultural stigma down the road. After all, you don't see many people talking about being addicted to talking on the telephone. But go back to the 1970s and you see plenty of headlines like this one: "Younger Generation Has Phone Addiction" and "Telephone Addiction Problem for Parents."