Facebook – Coming to a 12-Step Program near You?

Hi. My name is John Q Public and I’m addicted to social media. All together now: Hi, John.

Seem far-fetched? Maybe not, according to new research that claims social media is more addictive than cigarettes or alcohol.

A team of researchers, led by a professor at Chicago University’s Booth Business School, evaluated the cravings and desires of more than 200 adults in and around the city of Wurtzburg, Germany. The study participants carried Blackberrys that were called seven times during a 14-hour period each day for a week. At each call, participants responded back with a message stating what (if any) desire or craving they had experienced in the last 30 minutes, what type it was, the strength of the desire (from mild to irresistible), whether it conflicted with other desires, and whether they gave in to the desire. Replying to the study questions was not included as a desire, and the Blackberrys could not be used for anything other than study-related messaging. In total, the researchers recorded 10,558 responses and 7827 cravings.

Desires for sleep and leisure time were the most problematic urges, suggesting a natural inclination to rest and relax during a full day of work and other responsibilities. Self-control was highest early in the day, but, as the day progressed, participants were less able to resist their desires; the highest failure rate of self-control was related to social media. Resisting the desire to work also exhibited a high failure rate, likely due to the fact that resisting work conflicts with other goals and has penalties and consequences if work-related duties are not fulfilled.

The participants were most likely to resist urges to play sports, engage in sexual activities, and spend money. Surprisingly, the strength of desires for tobacco, alcohol, and coffee (typically known as addictive substances) were relatively low among the participants.

One hypothesis is that people who use social media view it as an activity that does not cost very much, in terms of time or money, which contrasts other activities, including alcohol and tobacco use. Further, the high availability of social media tends to make it harder to resist. The study will be published in the journal Psychological Science.

A related study may provide more insight into the “why” of social media desires and addictions. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and universities in Milan, Italy discovered psychophysiological patterns associated with social networking sites that are indicative of a positive affective state. Social networking users experienced emotional responses similar to those experienced when an individual plays a musical instrument or engages in another creative activity. The authors claim that the findings support a “broaden-and-build” theory of positive emotions, in which positive emotions promote new and creative activities, which, in turn, build an individual’s intellectual, physical and social resources; the resources then aid the individual in coping and survival skills.

Technology should improve quality of life, and the quality of the experience should guide the design, development, and evaluation of new technology. Ostensibly, with nearly one billion users worldwide and a $5 billion IPO for Facebook, social media meets its mark. But, at what cost?


Meikle J. Twitter is harder to resist than cigarettes and alcohol, study finds. TheGuardian.com. 3 February 2012.

Mauri M, Cipresso P, Balgera A, Villamira M, & Riva G (2011). Why is Facebook so successful? Psychophysiological measures describe a core flow state while using Facebook. Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networking, 14 (12), 723-31 PMID: 21879884

Riva G, Baños RM, Botella C, Wiederhold BK, & Gaggioli A (2012). Positive technology: using interactive technologies to promote positive functioning. Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networking, 15 (2), 69-77 PMID: 22149077

Image via 1000 Words / Shutterstock.

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
See All Posts By The Author