Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Facebook as a social cheeseburger

I'm generally wary of the word addiction. It seems too easy to label any behaviour performed to excess as an addiction. In the old days addiction was used to refer exclusively to the misuse of pharmaceutical products (alcohol, drugs) that exert their effects by way of a direct tinkering with neurochemistry. Further, it seems that the word addiction can be used as a means to exculpate the individual from personal responsibility. We hear of sex addiction, shopping addiction and gambling addiction -- the old-style response would have been "pull yourself together and take control of your life". Nowadays such people are looked upon sympathetically and described as having 'a disease'.

But hang on. If we accept pharmaceutical addiction as real should we not accept behavioural addictions as real also? After all they affect the same reward systems and neurochemical pathways as do drugs; they just do it indirectly rather than directly. Cocaine and, say, sex have similar effects on the neurotransmitter dopamine, so it seems churlish to refer to a craving for the former as an addiction and the latter as not.

But what about Facebook addiction? Is it possible to describe excessive use of Facebook as an addiction? The fact is that many so-called "internet addictions" are misnamed. People aren't really addicted to the internet per se (the internet is just a bunch of cables, routers and protocols, after all) what they are addicted to are online services. So people with "internet addictions" have addictions to online gambling, pornography, shopping and the like.

So a Facebook addiction is probably a social addiction but the notion of a social addiction still seems odd. You might well consider someone who morbidly browses eBay for hours on end a shopping addict, but is it possible to be a social addict?

Consider a person who spends 5 hours of their day chatting to friends face to face or on the phone, is that person a social addict? What about someone who spends 10 hours doing it? We probably all know people who find it difficult to spend time on their own, who find that they always have to be engaging in social interaction with others, however trivial. Although these people can be irritating -- especially when you have work to be getting on with -- we would probably never think of them as being social addicts.

Interestingly if you look at the synonyms for "sociable"

accessible, affable, approachable, close, clubby, companionable, conversable, convivial, cordial, familiar, genial, good-natured, gregarious, intimate, neighborly, regular, social, warm.

All positive, things you want to be.

And here are the antonyms.

introverted, snobbish, unfriendly, unkind, unsociable

All negative

My point is that our language enshrines our view on sociability, it is seen as a good thing to be sociable and a bad thing to be unsociable. Is there even a word that means "excessively sociable"? Is there such a thing as an "excessive social personality". A few minutes on the internet suggested not. All I found were webpages on William's syndrome a chromosomal disorder that, among other things, leads individuals to excessive sociability. This is seldom seen as a problem apart from the fact that their generally low IQ can lead to them being overly trusting and ripe for exploitation.

So there is no such thing as social addiction (at least not yet) and there are no words to describe personalities that crave the interaction of others. But interact with other people through a computer and hey presto you have a "social media addiction" or a "Facebook addiction" (Google them).

Here is the way I think of it. Salt, fat and sugar are essential for life but were rare in our ancestral environment so we developed a strong preference for their flavour to ensure that when we got them we ate as much as we could. This strong preference is now problematical as the industrial manufacture of foods makes them plentiful. We repeatedly gorge ourselves on each cheeseburger as if it were the last with the result that we become fat. Likewise as social species we evolved an obsession with the lives of others we need to know where we are in the pecking order, who's doing what to (and with) whom, who's in, who's out, who's up and who's down. Facebook presents us with all of this stuff on one easily digestible site so we gorge ourselves. But what are the negatives?

Hard to say. Aric Sigman thinks using Facebook will lead to poor mental and physical health ("Facebook gives you cancer" the headlines screamed) and there are plenty of others out there who will reach for their apparently endless supply of non sequiturs and present poorly constructed hypotheses as fact (but enough about Susan Greenfield).

Many of these arguments rest on the premise that people are neglecting their "real" (by which they invariably mean face-to-face) friends preferring to chat with their online friends (who, if you read the Daily Express, are a collection of men pretending to be women, paedophiles, stalkers, identity thieves, spammers and psychopaths). But most online friends are offline friends so most aren't neglecting these relationships and there is no evidence that use of Facebook leads to a decrease in face to face activity.

If Facebook addiction truly an addiction with no consequence? The fag that doesn't give you cancer, the booze that doesn't bloat your liver, the cheeseburger that doesn't make you fat?


  1. Anonymous12:24 pm

    I believe Facebook can't have any truly negative fall backs. Despite almost everyone I know being on facebook it seems to attract and draw in the so called "attention seekers" or egotistical people (well in particular I've noticed these are the people who seem to update their status the most and seem to be spending more time on facebook due to their constant updating status behaviour and needing a reaction to what they've put etc). It is also true that most of our facebook friends are also our personal friends, I think I only have a handful of people on facebook that I don't know face to face and this is simply due to them actually being pen pals of mine from China. I think facebook is used as another social short cut (like texting, msn...). We're so busy as social beings today - especially compared to thousands of years ago when life was let's say a little more "simple" (with work, social lifes, uni work, travelling, seeing family and so forth in the present day dominating our lives) it seems facebook is just another way to stay updated, stay in the "loop" and stay involved in your social circle especially if you haven't seen a certain friend in a while - you just login to facebook check up what they've been doing and your updated and you can even comment to show you care, your still around and involved in their life etc. It's almost a way of not losing your place in your social circle, not going down a step or two in the hierarchy because your "out of touch" with everyone else. Facebook to me is still like a social hierarchy with the "higher status" or more popular/attention seeking people posting more so than the "lower status" people can stay involved by commenting and keeping the attention seekers/"higher status" people happy.

    I hope this makes sense :/

    Vicki Frawley (Sheffield Hallam 3rd year Psychology student).

  2. Thanks Vicky. I guess when I said that it had "no negative consequences" I mean in terms of mental or physical illness. I know for a fact that there are some Facebook users who desperately want to stop or reduce the time spent on it but feel they can't because, as you put it, they would be out of the loop. Its a bit like the group of friends who go out together and no one wants to be the first to leave because they know everyone will start talking about them. Facebook doubtless promotes social anxiety for some people. Not sure if that's an addiction though.

  3. Rory Mack, 3rd Year Psychology Student, Sheffield Hallam2:30 pm

    I've seen the effect of Facebook addiction in real life, in my ex-housemate. We lived with him in halls in first year, and in a flat in second year. In first year, he was the most sociable person I knew at university - he spent all his time knocking on the doors of other flats to see who lived there, he went to every party in every building, he used to disappear in a bar or club and come back with a girl on each arm, we had no idea how he did it. This however coincided with an increased amount of time spent on Facebook finding all these people, and adding them as friends, and reading about them. By second year, he had become almost nocturnal, sitting up all night on Facebook. He became a recluse, who only left his room to make food, and occasionally, ask us to come see a picture of some gorgeous girl he'd found that he didn't know. He seemed obsessed with increasing his total friend count, commenting on everybody's photographs and status updates, and was constantly updating his own. He was a completely different person, far less sociable, eating and sleeping less, and with a completely skewed view of what was important in life. He has now actually dropped out of university. We believe this was directly linked to the amount of time spent on Facebook. I've seen a similar pattern of behaviour in friends of mine who became addicted to drugs, who went from casual users, to regular users, to dealers. So I don't see how my ex-housemate could be described as being anything other than a Facebook addict. It's ironic really, in his efforts to amass as many 'Facebook friends' (the clue is in the title - are they really your friends?) as possible, he lost the ones closest to him.

  4. Anonymous3:17 pm

    I believe that people use facebook as a kind of social tool, which they can use to organise events and such in order to see their real life friends face-to-face. In my opinion facebook can also be likened to a tool in a process often described as “facebook stalking”. My understanding of this is when an individual will investigate what other people have been up to by reading their wall posts, and viewing their recent history ect. From an evolutionary standpoint, I believe that the investigating individual can then use this wealth of knowledge to evaluate other individual’s social prevalence, as well as assessing their own point on the “social pecking order”.

    Don’t know if that makes any sense to anyone else, just sort of typed it out.

    Jack Corbett, Sheffield Hallam 3rd year Psychology student.

  5. Rory, that's a fascinating story of obsession that could be made into a rather dark film or novel. One obvious question was whether the Facebook use prompted his reclusiveness or whether some other factor (e.g. depression or whatever) led to his inability to go out and his obsession with Facebook.

    If it is the former I wonder whether what is happening here is that he has become obsessed by perfection? There are theories which claim that depression is on the increase simply because of the number of social comparisons that we can make. There is always somewhere out their more attractive, cleverer and funnier than you are. Such social comparisons can damage self esteem and lead to mental illness (they claim).

    With your friend it seems different. He was maybe stymied into inaction by the seemingly limitless number of attractive people out there.

    Interesting stuff indeed.

  6. Jack, I think you're right about stalking. As well as the nice things about Facebook it is also a wonderful place for anyone who wants to engage in exploitative behaviour.

    Consider someone, maybe an older man, who wants to make contact with younger women (not a paedophile). This would probably be difficult in the face to face world but Facebook gives you that opportunity. There are some fascinating, but rather scary, papers on the evolution of exploitative behaviour and stalking on this website.

    Might be of interest to some.

  7. Roisin Guthrie, 3rd Yr Psych student.3:13 pm

    Wow! Taking into account everyone's views on facebook it seems to be both negative and positive!
    I agree that 'addiction' is labelled too loosely these days... You can now be addicted to chocolate, sex, shopping, tv shows, gambling etc.
    I do however agree that excessive use of Facebook can be classed as addiction.
    There's so much to do on there like talking and catching up with friends and family, posting photo's and videos. I guess commenting on someone's status, say if it was a member of your family, is easier than picking up the phone and calling them - especially as calls cost so much (but then again it depends on what package you have on your net!) But I'm getting away with myself...
    I don't think that there isn't any consequences of facebook addiction. You have games on there such as 'Mafia Wars' where you can be part of a mafia and go around having fights with people, 'icing' your opponenents, buying weapons and veichles for jobs like robbing banks etc. This gives people a kind of escapism. You can choose your character, give them a unique name and pretend to be them. But isnt that like video game addiction?? What about the journal about video games causing violence in children/people?
    - Getting away with myself again.
    What I'm trying to say is that as the society around is getting more and more involved in sites like Facebook, Twitter, Bebo etc where will it end? There are fears that if everyone does online shopping that certain shops will go out of business and there'll be no more need to go 'into' town anymore.
    Maybe I'm not making sense but when I hear the word 'social' it makes me think of going out with friends, going shopping, having lunch, talking etc...being sociable!
    The thought that "we evolved an obsession with the lives of others we need to know where we are in the pecking order, who's doing what to (and with) whom, who's in, who's out, who's up and who's down" makes me think about the evolution side of it all and how we want to know what people are doing so if they're down on their luck and in a worse state than ourselves we feel good about our own lives... survival of the fittest so to speak!!
    Facebook doesnt make us fat like a cheeseburger, but I think with excessive use it will eventually have social/mental even physical negatives about it that will have a permanent impact on our day to day lives, f/ships and r/ships!

  8. Thanks Roisin

    My point, I guess, is that for an addiction to be a problem you need to have negative consequences. Specifically what mental/physical health issues might there be? And if it does destroy SOME relationships might it not also create/strengthen others?

    (I'm not denying there could be a problem, I just want to go beyond the moral panic and find out what the problems are)

  9. I very much doubt, as others have in this thread, that addiction is truly as rife within society as is banded about in the media, academic studies etc.; perhaps this is extremely cynical of me but I feel that it is considered "cool" to have an addiction to something, or to be depressed; for instance the countless celebrities you hear of going to The Priory for some addiction or other. However I stress that addiction and such can have truly terrible affects on peoples lives, it is just that as a society I feel people are to quick to point to addiction. Maybe this is due to the sensational style of the media or to mask other, more deep rooted problems in their lives, I don't know. Anyway I am babbling and haven't really said anything about Facebook or Evolutionary Psychology...
    With regards to Facebook I would definitely consider it to have more positives, if used in the correct manner; of course, as with anything, certain people are more susceptible to negative effects and this is something I don't feel you can ever get away from.
    With regards to Evolutionary Psych I would tend to agree with Jack, it is definitely a way to judge your social standing as well as others; and after all it is just human nature to be interested in the lives of others... some people just have more of an interest in this. I suppose this could be where problems creep in. My babble appears to have a common trend, Individual Differences. Perhaps another reason for the boom in Facebook use could be the need to feel part of a group, as I imagine during the EEA the larger the group you lived in the more secure you were from the dangers posed by nature. Moreover, it is most definitely a way to gain and feel popularity; which perhaps some people can become obsessed with, to crudely bring this post back round to addiction. Anyway I hope this post has made an ounce of sense...

    Josh Mee (Sheffield Hallam 3rd year Psycholgy/Criminology student)

  10. Good points Josh. Your last point regarding the EEA and groups is one that is made by Robin Dunbar who argues that the principal driving force behind the expansion of the human brain (and those of other primates) was the need to manage larger groups. He presents data demonstrating that brain size (more correctly the ratio of the neocortext size to that of the rest of the brain) predicts primate group size very well.

    The claim is that larger groups afford individuals better protection against predators, including other humans who might want to seize land, etc. So our desire to be part of a group is really an adaptation.

    In order to be in a group we need to manage that group and be a good group member (we don't want to be ostrasised from the group). In order to do this we need to understand the nature of our group and therefore we need to attend to the members of the group. Hence we can easily become obsessed by Facebook which allows us to access this information.

    Of course some people might take this too far leading to things that look like addiction.

  11. I am a recovering alcoholic, gambler, and other addiction problems. I published a book, Gripped by Gambling, where the readers can follow the destructive path of the compulsive gambler, a prison sentence, and then on to the recovery road. I recently finished a second book, Switching Addictions, describing the challenges the addict encounters as they work toward recovery. I also publish an online newsletter, Women Helping Women, which has been on-line for more than ten years and is read by women around the world. (


    Marilyn Lancelot