Are Twitter and Facebook more ‘addictive’ than nicotine and alcohol?

Last week I was asked by the British media to comment on the story suggesting that using Twitter and Facebook were more addictive than activities like smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol. Once again this was a classic example of the media – for instance the Daily Telegraph – going beyond the data and not letting the facts get in the way of a good story.

Before being interviewed for a radio programme, I had read the newspaper reports about the research but these didn’t seem to tell me very much. I wanted to know the aims of the research, the method that had been used to collect the data, and I wanted to know how the researchers had reported their results and what conclusions they had reached. The research was carried out by psychologists Dr Wilhelm Hofmann (University of Chicago), Dr Kathleen Vohs (University of Minnesota), and Dr Roy Baumeister (Florida State University). I emailed Dr Hofmann and told him that I wanted to write about his study in my blog. He immediately sent me a copy of the paper and a very helpful ‘media summary’. So what was the researchers’ aim and what did they actually do?

The first thing to note was that the research was not about addiction but about desire and temptation. The researchers point out that little is known about what types of urges are felt strongly (or only weakly), which urges conflict with other important things that we should be doing, and the extent to which urges can be resisted. The primary aim of the research team was to compare the various desires and the extent to which they are resisted in people’s day-to-day lives. The researchers used an innovative methodology to assess the frequency, intensity, conflict, resistance, and enactment of peoples’ desires.

The data were collected from 205 people (although interestingly, this turned into 250 in many of the press reports I read). They were aged 18 to 55 years and all living in (and around) Würzburg (in Germany). Two-thirds of the participants were female (66%) and three-quarters of the total sample were university students (73%). All of the people taking part in the study were provided with a handheld Blackberry device and carried it around with them for a one-week period. Each day, they were sent seven messages over a 14-hour period asking them for specific data relating to desires and urges. All those taking part were given a small financial incentive at the start the study and were given additional financial incentives if they completed data entry for more than 80% of the messages sent by the research team. On average, over 90% of messages sent by the research team resulted in data being sent back (so there was an excellent response rate).

After each message was sent, those taking part in the study had to indicate whether they were currently experiencing a desire (explained as a craving, urge, or longing to do certain things) or whether (in the previous half an hour) they had just experienced a desire. If they had a desire, they then had to indicate what kind of desire from a list of 15 domains (i.e., food, non-alcoholic drinks, alcohol, coffee, tobacco, other substances, sexual, media, spending, work, social, leisure, sleep, hygiene-related, or other). Additionally, they had to indicate:

(i) The strength of the desire on a scale from ‘0’ (no desire at all) to ‘ (irresistible)

(ii) The degree to which the desire conflicted with other personal goals on a scale from 0 (no conflict at all) to 4 (very high conflict)

(iii) The nature of the conflicting goals from a list of 20 options (such as sleep conflict, social conflict, work conflict, etc.) and whether they attempted to resist the desire (yes or no), and whether they yielded to the behaviour implied by the desire at least to some extent (yes or no).

Up to three desires could be reported any given measurement occasion. In total there were 10,558 responses and a total of 7,827 desires reported during the one-week period. So what did the results show? The main finding – perhaps unsurprisingly – was that the most frequently described desires related to basic bodily needs (e.g., eating, drinking, and sleeping). More specifically, the researchers reported significantly above-average desires for sleep, sex, hygiene (e.g., needing to go to the toilet), sports participation, social contact, and non-alcoholic drinks. The lowest average desire strength were for drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes (and is where the sensationalist headlines came from).

The study also noted that the participants’ desires to work and use media (e.g., Twitter and Facebook) were especially prone to yielding to their urges. However, the authors rightly note that “resisting the desire to work when it conflicts with other goals such as socializing or leisure activities may be difficult because work can define people’s identities, dictate many aspects of daily life, and invoke penalties if important duties are shirked”. They also speculate that checking emails, surfing the web, texting, and/or watching television might be hard to resist in light of the constant availability, huge appeal, and apparent low costs of these activities. They also assert that “media consumption behaviors might, however, turn into strong habits or forms of pathological media abuse”.

I ought to add that I did ask Dr. Hofmann about the media reports and how the press had sensationalized the study. In an email to me he said:

“Our data can only speak to self-control failure rates in the different domains, not to the ‘addictiveness’ of these desires. To study the development of addiction, we would have to sample desires over longer time spans and see whether they become more frequent and pressing over time. Still, I believe our findings tell us that people have a hard time putting desires for media use of, perhaps because we did not really learn well how to control those (plus, given the constant availability of those gadgets). Whether the consequences of frequent media (over)use outweigh those of more risky things such as alcohol and nicotine consumption is a different ballgame, again”.

I was also interested to read the media summary that Dr Hofmann sent me. It said that:

Our main finding can be summarized in just two words: people want. However, the present data are among the first to paint a clearer picture of what it is people desire, how they feel about it, and how successful they are in dealing with it. Extrapolating our findings to a 16-hour waking day, people on average spend about eight hours desiring things, three hours resisting desire, and a glorious half hour yielding to temptation”

The authors’ claim that based on their findings, their results challenge the stereotype of addiction as driven by irresistibly strong desires. They also claim that the knowledge they have generated can inform understandings about self-control, behavioral change, and addiction. However, there does seem to be one major limitation of the research. I couldn’t find anywhere in the paper that the authors had reported what percentage of the people who took part in the study were either cigarette smokers or drank alcohol. In fact there were no limitations mentioned whatsoever (such as the small non-representative sample – mainly female and mainly university students – from one German locality). If most of the sample were non-smokers/non-drinkers or casual smokers/casual drinkers it wouldn’t be surprising if there were few urges or desires to drink or smoke!

Postscript: Since writing this article, I received a very informative email from Dr Hofmann informing me that 22% of the sample in this study were current smokers (and that a very small minority were ex-smokers). Dr Hofmann informed me that they are doing further analysis on the data set. I look forward to seeing more papers from this interesting research study.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Hofmann, W, Vohs, K.D. & Baumeister, R.F. (2012). What people desire, feel conflicted about, and try to resist in everyday life. Psychological Science, in press.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Gaming in social networking sites: A growing concern? World Online Gambling Law Report, 9(5), 12-13.

Griffiths, M.D. & Kuss, D. (2011). Adolescent social networking: Should parents and teachers be worried? Education and Health, 29, 23-25.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Addiction to social networks on the internet: A literature review of empirical research. International Journal of Environmental and Public Health, 8, 3528-3552.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Excessive online social networking: Can adolescents become addicted to Facebook? Education and Health, 29. 63-66.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. In 2013, he was given the Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 800 research papers, five books, over 150 book chapters, and over 1500 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 3500 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on February 6, 2012, in Addiction, Compulsion, Popular Culture, Psychology, Social Networking, Technological addiction, Technology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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