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Are social networking sites addictive?

Internet Addiction

Today's kids spend a lot of time in front of digital screens. A 2007 study from the University of Southern California's Annenberg School Center for the Digital Future showed that almost half of all parents surveyed believed their kids spent too much time watching television, and 20.7 percent felt their kids spent too much time online [source: USC].

A 20 percent concern about online engagement is relatively low. But that doesn't mean there aren't problems. For example, in 2005, a young South Korean man actually collapsed and died after playing online for 50 hours with few breaks. Concerned authorities even founded "Internet Rescue Schools" to get children away from their computers and into fresh air, physical activity and socializing with other kids [source: Fackler].

Children aren't the only ones who can get hooked on the Internet. In 2008, the American Journal of Psychiatry published an editorial in support of naming "Internet addiction" as a bona fide mental condition. The majority of the medical community disagreed, though, and currently Internet addiction is not a formal disorder. However, excessive use of the Internet can certainly cause problems.

Even though it's not formally classified, many treatment and rehab centers worldwide now offer services for Internet addiction. This includes treatment for cyberporn, online gambling, online affairs and eBay addiction. Of course, these are all behaviors with serious consequences. The hallmark of an addiction is determining whether your actions are affecting yourself or others in a negative way.

So, is hanging out on Facebook any different from talking on the phone for hours, or gabbing with your friends over coffee? Not if you're spending normal amounts of time there. The average American Internet user spends about 15 hours online per month [source: USC]. If you're reading this article, then more than likely, you're one of those people. Congratulations! You're average!

However, if you're spending abnormally large amounts of time online, you could be damaging your relationships and even your health. Experts claim that a lack of face-to-face contact can affect you both socially and physically. Depending upon a computer screen for human interaction might undermine the ability to follow social cues or understand body language. In addition, some researchers believe that we're genetically predisposed to physically benefit from being face-to-face with another human [source: BBC]. There's even an online test you can take to see if the time you spend online might be a problem (unless you're addicted to online tests, of course).

If you're one of the many who belong to a social network, you've had a taste of how addicting these Web sites can be. What is it that compels us to keep logging on?