Are social networking sites addictive?

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In April 2009, Oprah Winfrey logged on to Twitter and sent her first "tweet," taking online social networking out of the hands of the computer-savvy and into the living rooms of every American. These days it seems like everyone and their grandma has a Facebook page, Twitter account or LinkedIn profile. People are logging on every day, obsessively updating their profiles and checking the status updates of their online friends. It's a fun way to pass the time and stay in touch, but can these sites be dangerous? Can you become addicted to social networking?

Social networking is not a new concept. In fact, it's been around as long as we have. A social network is simply the structure of relationships among individuals. Everyone on the planet is part of one big social network, but we also belong to smaller, more distinct subnetworks. We define these subnetworks by criteria like our families, friends, jobs, schools, hobbies and more. You have a social network at work. You have a social network at the dog park by your house. You have a social network with your college friends. You have a social network with your Tuesday night book club. The list goes on and on, and many people in your network may overlap. Additionally, your contacts multiply all the time, as you meet new people through the people in your existing networks.

Social networking Web sites evolved from these face-to-face networks. The online sites, though, are powerful because they harness the strength of the Internet to manage and map out your relationships. You can physically see your network -- your friends, your friends' friends, and so on -- and how you connect with all of them.

Social networking sites allow people to manage their relationships as well as find new ones. Some communities, such as LinkedIn, target professionals. Some, such as the crochet/knitting community Ravelry, target people with specific hobbies. And some, such as Facebook or MySpace, are general interest community sites that allow users to form smaller communities within.

Once you join a social networking site, you may find yourself spending a lot of time there. Is it all in good fun, or can online social networks be 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? 

Addictive by Design

Web sites are a product, and any product pusher wants return customers. When more visitors keep returning to a site, it means more ad revenue. And more ad revenue means more money for the company that owns the site. Programmers design every element on a social networking site to suck you in and keep you coming back [source: Caruso].

How do they do this? Sites like Twitter and Facebook offer "status updates" where users can enter a few short phrases about what they're doing at that very moment. Users may find themselves constantly checking their friends' updates, or changing their own updates on a regular basis. If you comment on someone else's photo or update, sites will generate an email to let you know. You can reach out and "poke" a friend, take a quiz or survey and compare the results with your friends or upload a photo of your new puppy doing something cute so everyone can ooh and ahh over him. You reach out to the site and it reaches out to you -- keeping you coming back from a few to a few dozen times a day.

With the increasing popularity of wireless devices like the BlackBerry or iPhone -- devices that can move lots of data very quickly -- users have access to their social networks 24 hours a day. Most social networking sites have developed applications for your mobile phone, so logging on is always convenient. Social networks also tap into our human desire to stay connected with others [source: Kirschner]. The rush of nostalgia as you connect with your former grade-school classmate on Facebook can be quite heady and exciting.

But what's the main reason we find these sites so addictive? Plain old narcissism. We broadcast our personalities online whenever we publish a thought, photo, YouTube video or answer one of those "25 Things About Me" memes. We put that information out there so people will respond and connect to us. Being part of a social network is sort of like having your own entourage that follows you everywhere, commenting on and applauding everything you do. It's very seductive.

In 2008, researchers at the University of Georgia studied the correlation between narcissism and Facebook users. Unsurprisingly, they found that the more "friends" and wall posts a user had, the more narcissistic he or she was [source: Live Science]. They noted that narcissistic people use Facebook in a self-promoting way, rather than in a connective way. It may be an obvious theory, but it also suggests that social networks bring out the narcissist in all of us.

Social networks are also a voyeuristic experience for many users. Following exchanges on Twitter or posts on Facebook and MySpace are akin to eavesdropping on someone else's conversation. It's entertaining and allows you to feel like a "fly on the wall" in someone else's life [source: Solis].

Social networking sites also publicly list your "friends" or "followers" -- giving you instant status. How many people do you know online who spend all their time trying to get more friends, more followers, more testimonials? We work hard in real life to elevate our statuses, make friends and search out boosters for our self-esteem [source: Ellison]. Online social networking provides this to us, and we don't even have to change out of our sweatpants to get it.

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