When people refer to being “addicted” to social network sites like Facebook and Twitter, they may be more accurate than they think. Two recent studies have found that online social networks can induce chemical responses in the brain that make them just as addictive as alcohol or cigarettes.
Tests completed by researchers from MIT and the University of Milan have found that the pleasurable chemical responses that are triggered during social network interaction are similar to those that occur when playing a musical instrument, creating a piece of art or engaging in other creative pursuits. Scientists have a name for the state of mind that social networking can induce – the “Core Flow State.” In this state, the subject feels high arousal and positive emotions. Time seems to stand still as the subject becomes energized and focused on the task at hand. Besides keeping up with family and friends, people may keep returning to check their social network status in order to satisfy a craving for this pleasurable response.
For the test, 30 healthy volunteer aged 19 to 25 were given three-minute exposure to different stimuli, including looking at relaxing photographs, interacting on Facebook and solving math problems. The test subjects’ physical and psychological responses were measured and recorded, including brainwave patterns, muscle activity, breathing and pupil dilation. The test subjects consistently showed a more positive response to Facebook than to either the photographs (which triggered a relaxed state) or the math problems (which triggered a stressful state).
The findings supported the researchers’ hypothesis that the successful spread of social networks like Facebook and Twitter is associated with a positive chemical state experienced by users of these networks.
In another study conducted at the University of Chicago, 205 volunteers aged 18 to 25 were each given a Blackberry mobile device and asked to respond to questions about their desire to use Facebook and Twitter at different times over a 14-hour period. The volunteers responded that they had a strong urge to use the social networking sites more than 70% of the time. The study concluded that people are willing to forgo many cravings in order to satisfy their need to check their status on Facebook or Twitter.
Lead researcher Wilhelm Hofmann points out that unlike addictions like cigarettes and alcohol that have some cost associated with their use, the free access to social networking may make it harder to resist. Hofmann admits that social networking is less consequential than cigarettes and alcohol, but points out that it frequently steals time that could be spent on other things.
The addiction risk posed by social networks may seem harmless when compared to other substances. Although social networks don’t pose the same health threats as these substances, any type of addictive behavior can disrupt relationships and cause a host of other personal problems.