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Screenagers in love: Adolescent screen time, content, and context

In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advocated the ‘2×2’ screen time guidelines to parents that their children should be restricted to no more than 2 hours of screen time a day and that children under 2 years of age should not be exposed to any screen time at all. Not only is this unworkable in today’s multi-media world but the guidelines are not based on scientific evidence. Thankfully, the AAP have revised their guidelines in the light of how today’s children actually engage with screen-based interactive technologies. For me, the issue is not about the amount of screen time but is about the content and the context of screen use. I have three ‘screenagers’ (i.e., children often referred to as ‘digital natives’ who have never known a world without the internet, mobile phones and interactive television) who all – like me – spend a disproportionate amount of their everyday lives on front of a screen for both work/educational and leisure purposes. Engaging in a lot of screen-based activities is not inherently negative – it’s simply a case of doing things differently than we did 20 years ago.

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One online activity that has received a lot of criticism in the media is the playing of online videogames. However there is now a wealth of research which shows that video games can be put to educational and therapeutic uses, as well as many studies which reveal how playing video games can improve reaction times and hand-eye co-ordination. Their interactivity can stimulate learning, allowing individuals to experience novelty, curiosity and challenge that stimulates learning. Although I have published many studies concerning online gaming addiction, there is little empirical evidence that moderate gaming has any negative effects whatsoever. In fact, many excessive players experience detrimental effects.

Over the past 15 years I have spent time researching the excessive playing of online videogames like Everquest and World of Warcraft (WoW). Online gaming involves multiple reinforcements in that different features might be differently rewarding to different people. In video games more generally, the rewards might be intrinsic (e.g. improving your highest score, beating your friend’s high score, getting your name on the “hall of fame”, mastering the game) or extrinsic (e.g. peer admiration).

In online gaming, there is no end to the game and there is the potential for gamers to play endlessly. This can be immensely rewarding and psychologically engrossing. For a small minority of people, this may lead to addiction where online gaming compromises everything else in their lives. However, playing excessively doesn’t necessarily make someone an addict. A few years ago in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, I published two case study accounts of two males who claimed that they were gaming for up to 80 hours a week. They were behaviourally identical in terms of their game playing, but very different in terms of their psychological motivation to play.

The first case was an unemployed single 21-year old male. His favourite online game was World of Warcraft and that since leaving university he had spent an average of 10 to 14 hours a day playing WoW. He claimed that WoW had a positive influence in his life and that most of his social life was online and that it increased his self-esteem. He also argued that he had no other commitments and that he had the time and the flexibility to play WoW for long stretches. Gaming provided a daily routine when there was little else going on. There were no negative detrimental effects in his life. When he got a job and a girlfriend, his playing all but stopped.

The second case was 38-year old male, a financial accountant, married and had two children. He told me that over the previous 18 months, his online playing of Everquest had gone from about 3-4 hours of playing every evening to playing up to 14 hours a day. He claimed that his relationship was breaking down, that he was spending little time with his children, and that he constantly rang in sick to work so that he could spend the day playing online games. He had tried to quit playing on a number of occasions but could not go more than a few days before he experienced “an irresistible urge” to play again – even when his wife threatened to leave him.

Giving up online gaming was worse than giving up smoking and that he was “extremely moody, anxious, depressed and irritable” if he was unable to play online. Things got even worse. He was fired from his job for being unreliable and unproductive (although his employers were totally unaware of his gaming behaviour). As a result of losing his job, his wife also left him. This led to him “playing all day, every day”. It was a vicious circle in that his excessive online gaming was causing all his problems yet the only way he felt he could alleviate his mood state and forget about all of life’s stresses was to play online games even more.

I argued that only the second man appeared to be genuinely addicted to online gaming but that the first man wasn’t. I based this on the context and consequences of his excessive play. Online gaming addiction should be characterized by the extent to which excessive gaming impacts negatively on other areas of the gamers’ lives rather than the amount of time spent playing. For me, an activity cannot be described as an addiction if there are few (or no) negative consequences in the player’s life even if the gamer is playing up to 14 hours a day. The difference between a healthy enthusiasm and an addiction is that healthy enthusiasms add to life, addictions take away from it.

Every week I receive emails from parents claiming that their sons are addicted to playing online games and that their daughters are addicted to social media. When I ask them why they think this is the case, they almost all reply “because they spend most of their leisure time in front of a screen”. This is simply a case of parents pathologising their children’s behaviour because they think what they are doing is “a waste of time”. I always ask parents the same three things in relation to their child’s screen use. Does it affect their schoolwork? Does it affect their physical education? Does it affect their peer development and interaction? Usually parents say that none of these things are affected so if that is the case, there is little to worry about when it comes to screen time. Parents also have to bear in mind that this is how today’s children live their lives. Parents need to realise that excessive screen time doesn’t always have negative consequences and that the content and context of their child’s screen use is more important than the amount of screen time.

(Please note: This article is an extended version of an article that was originally published by the London School of Economics’ Media Policy Project)

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Online video gaming: What should educational psychologists know? Educational Psychology in Practice, 26(1), 35-40.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The role of context in online gaming excess and addiction: Some case study evidence. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 119-125.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Adolescent gambling via social networking sites: A brief overview. Education and Health, 31, 84-87.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013) Social networking addiction: Emerging themes and issues. Journal of Addiction Research and Therapy, 4: e118. doi: 10.4172/2155-6105.1000e118.

Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Child and adolescent social gaming: What are the issues of concern? Education and Health, 32, 9-12.

Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Gaming addiction in adolescence (revisited). Education and Health, 32, 125-129.

Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J. & King, D.L. (2012). Video game addiction: Past, present and future. Current Psychiatry Reviews, 8, 308-318.

Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J. & Demetrovics, Z. (2014). Social networking addiction: An overview of preliminary findings. In K. Rosenberg & L. Feder (Eds.), Behavioral Addictions: Criteria, Evidence and Treatment (pp.119-141). New York: Elsevier.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Online social networking and addiction: A literature review of empirical research. International Journal of Environmental and Public Health, 8, 3528-3552.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Online gaming addiction in adolescence: A literature review of empirical research. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 1, 3-22.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Internet gaming addiction: A systematic review. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 278-296.

Lopez-Fernandez, O., Honrubia-Serrano, M.L., Baguley, T. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Pathological video game playing in Spanish and British adolescents: Towards the Internet Gaming Disorder symptomatology. Computers in Human Behavior, 41, 304–312.

Pápay, O., Urbán, R., Griffiths, M.D., Nagygyörgy, K., Farkas, J. Kökönyei, G., Felvinczi, K., Oláh, A., Elekes, Z., Demetrovics, Z. (2013). Psychometric properties of the Problematic Online Gaming Questionnaire Short-Form (POGQ-SF) and prevalence of problematic online gaming in a national sample of adolescents. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 16, 340-348.

Tor-mental problems: Protecting children from online bullying

I have never claimed to be an expert in cyberbullying but I often get asked to do media interviews on the topic (often in connection to high profile cases involving trolling). Any of us that have spent time online can think of incidents where things have escalated on Facebook and other social media. Cyberbullying typically refers to a child being tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed or otherwise targeted by another child using digital technology such as the internet or mobile phones. The methods used are limited only by the child’s imagination and access to technology. More worryingly, cyber-bullying has been on the increase over the last few years.

The media often ask me for insight in to why that tends to happen in these situations and the psychology behind people interacting online as opposed to face-to-face. For example do people tend to feel more protected online? Do they tend to take on a different identity? One of the main reasons why behaviour online is very different from it offline is because it provides a ‘disinhibiting’ experience. This is where people lower their emotional guard and become much less inhibited in their actions. The main reason for this well known phenomenon is because when people are interacting with others online it is non-face-to-face, it is perceived as a very anonymous environment, and it is non-threatening. On the positive side, this disinhibition process can lead people to develop deep and complex emotional attachments and can even fall in love online. On the negative side, people may carry out behaviours online that they would never dream of doing offline including, in some instances, criminal behaviour such as cyber-bullying in online social networking sites.

The other things I tend to get asked are how common cyberbullying is and what sort of people tend to get involved in online bullying. Research here in the UK and US has shown that about 10% of children and teenagers have been cyber-bullied in the previous month (across all technological media including social media) with about one in six children being cyber-bullied at least once in their lifetime. As children get older the incidence of cyberbullying increases as a greater proportion of older children have access to mobile phones and the internet. Some studies have shown as many as 95% of teenagers on social networking sites have witnessed cruel behaviour and 55% witness this type of behaviour frequently. Amongst teenagers, some research appears to suggest that online cyberbullies are slightly more likely to be girls than boys although findings are a little inconsistent. There is also some research showing that up to one in five teenagers will also join in and cyberbully after an initial abusive post by someone else. Other research studies have found that of all the types of cyberbullying, most of it (approximately 85%) is now done on social networking sites rather than emails and texts. Cyberbullying is not usually a one-off communication, unless it involves a death threat or a threat of serious bodily harm. Children often know it when they see it, while parents may be more worried about the crude language used by children (rather than the hurtful effect of rude and embarrassing posts or texts has on their children).

In preventing cyberbullying via social media, schools can work with the parents to stop and remedy cyberbullying situations. All schools need to amend policies against bullying to include social media (as well as the internet more generally and text messaging abuse), with training for teachers and pupils on handling it. Unfortunately there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution as there are many different forms of cyberbullying. However, there are a number of basic things that parents can do. As with other types of bullying it is important for parents to listen to their child and react with sympathy even when it is online in sites like Facebook. If you are a parent like me, you can try the following tips to help keep your child safe as you can from cyberbullying:

  • Get your son or daughter to show you any offensive or abusive post they’ve received and keep a record of them as evidence.
  • Tell your child never to respond to any abusive post as this is often what the bully wants the victim to do.
  • Tell your son or daughter to avoid giving their name, email address or mobile phone number on social networking sites to people outside their trusted circle of family and friends.
  • Try to identify the individual doing the cyberbullying.
  • Consider contacting the cyberbully’s parents. Their parents may be very concerned to learn that their child has been cyberbullying others in social networking sites, and may be able put a stop to it.
  • Change email address or mobile number if the cyberbullying continues.
  • Where possible, use blocking software to prevent the cyberbully getting abusive material through in the first place.
  • Even if the cyberbully is anonymous – using a fake name or someone else’s identity for example – there may be a way to track them through your service provider.
  • Report any cyberbullying to your child’s school, the service provider and/or the site moderator.
  • If all else fails, contact the police – especially if it involves threats of violence, extortion, obscene or harassing messages or pornography.

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

Further reading

Adrian, A. (2010). Beyond griefing: Virtual crime. Computer Law and Security Review, 26, 640-648.

Griffiths, M.D. (2009). Cyberbullying – what to do if your child is targeted and tormented. Nottingham Evening Post, March 31, pp.14-15.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Why do people turn nasty [in social media]?. Nottingham Post, June 28, p.8.

Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Adolescent trolling in online environments: A brief overview. Education and Health, 32, 85-87.

Herring, S., Job-Sluder, K., Scheckler, R. & Barab, S. (2002). Searching for safety online: Managing “Trolling” in a feminist forum. The Information Society, 18, 371-384.

Millman, C., Whitty, M., Winder, B. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Perceived criminality of cyber-harassing behaviours among undergraduate students in the United Kingdom. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 2(4), 49-59.

Rice, L. (2013). It’s time for more Lolz NOT trolls. vinspired, January 13. Located at: https://vinspired.com/its-time-for-more-lolz-not-trolls

Shachaf, P. & Hara, N. (2010). Beyond vandalism: Wikipedia trolls. Journal of Information Science, 36(3), 357-370.

Thacker, S. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). An exploratory study of trolling in online video gaming. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, in press.

Widyanto, L., & Griffiths, M. D. (2011). An empirical study of problematic internet use and self-esteem. International Journal of Cyber Behaviour, Psychology and Learning, 1(1), 13-24.

Willard, N. (2006). Cyberbullying and cyberthreats: responding to the challenge of online social cruelty, threats, and distress. Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use.

The junkie generation? Teenage “addiction” to social media

Earlier today I appeared live on my local radio station (BBC Radio Nottingham) commenting on a study released by the Allen Carr Addiction Clinics (ACAC) concerning teenage addiction (and more specifically addiction to social media). The study was a survey of 1,000 British teenagers aged 12 to 18 years old and the press release went with the heading “INFO UK BREEDING A GENERATION OF TEENAGE ADDICTS SAYS NEW STUDY” (their capital letters, not mine) with the sub-headline that “83% of UK teenagers would struggle to go ‘cold turkey’ from social media and their other vices for a month”.

As someone that has spent almost 30 years studying ‘technological addictions’ I was interested in the survey’s findings. I tried to get hold of the actual report by contacting the ACAC Press Office. They were very helpful and sent me a copy of the Excel file containing the raw data (entitled ‘Addicted Britain’). They also informed me that the data were collected for ACAC by the market research company OnePoll, and that the teenagers filled out the survey online (with parents’ permission). However, there is no actual published report with the findings (and more importantly, no methodological details). I asked ACAC if they knew the response rate (for instance, was the online survey sent to 10,000 teenagers to get their 1,000 responses that would give a response rate of 10%), and how were the teenagers recruited in the first place. Also, as the survey was carried out online, those teenagers who are the most tech-savvy and feel confident online, would be more likely to participate than those who don’t like (or rarely use) online applications. Before I comment on the survey itself, I would just like to provide some excerpts from the press release that was sent out:

“The explosion of social media, selfies and mobile devices is priming a generation of UK teenagers for a lifelong struggle with addiction…83% of UK teenagers admit they would struggle to give up their vices for a whole month. [The study] unveiled a worrying trend of growing numbers of young people constantly striving to find the next thrill, mostly via technology and social media. When asked which behaviours they could abstain from, UK teens said they would most struggle living without texting (66%), followed by social networking (58%), junk food (28%) and alcohol (6%). The report found that the average teen checks social media 11 times a days, sends 17 text messages and takes a ‘selfie’ picture every four days. This constant pursuit of stimulation, peer approval, instant gratification, and elements of narcissism are all potential indicators of addictive behaviour. The study highlights that parents across the UK are inadvertently becoming ‘co-dependents’ enabling their child’s addictions by providing them with cash albeit with the best of intentions”.

The first thing that struck me reading this text was the use of the word “vice”. Most dictionary definitions of a vice is “immoral or wicked behaviour” or criminal activities involving prostitution, pornography, or drugs”. As far as I am concerned, social networking, junk food, and alcohol are not vices (especially social networking). The whole wording of the press release is written in a way to pathologise normal behaviours such as engaging in social media use. Also, asking teenagers about which behaviours they could not abstain from for a month tells us almost nothing about addiction. All it tells us is that the activities that teenagers most engage in are the ones they would find hardest not to do. This is just common sense. My main hobbies are listening to music on my i-Pod and reading. I would really have difficulty in not listening to my favourite music or reading for a whole month but I’m not addicted to music or reading.

The ACAC kindly sent me all the questions that were asked in the survey and there was no kind of addiction scale embedded in any of the questions asked. Basically, the survey does not investigate teenagers’ potential addictions, as no screening instrument for any behaviour asked about was included in the survey. There were some attitude questions asking whether activities like social networking could be addictive, but as I have argued in previous blogs, almost any activity that is constantly rewarding can be potentially addictive.

That’s not so say we shouldn’t be concerned about teenagers’ excessive use of technology as my own research has shown that a small minority of teenagers do appear to have problems and/or be addicted to various online activities. However, as my research has shown, doing something excessively doesn’t mean that it is addictive. As I have noted in a number of my academic papers, the difference between a healthy enthusiasm and an addiction is that healthy enthusiasm add to life and addictions take away from it. The perceived overuse of technology by the vast majority of teenagers is quite clearly something that is life-enhancing and positive with no detrimental effects whatsover.

Given that the vast majority of teenagers use the social media to communicate and interact with friends, I was surprised that ACAC’s findings were not closer to 100% saying that they couldn’t abstain for one month. Which teenagers would find it easy not to use social media for a month given how important it is in their day-to-day social lives? The findings in the press release also quote John Dicey (Global Managing Director and Senior Therapist of ACAC) who said:

“The findings of this report are cause for concern and highlight a generation of young people exhibiting many of the hallmarks of addictive behaviour. The explosion of technology we have seen since the late 90’s offers incredible opportunities to our youth – the constant stimulation provided by access to the internet for example can be a good or a bad thing. There’s a price to pay. This study indicates that huge numbers of young people are developing compulsions and behaviours that they’re not entirely in control of and cannot financially support. Unless we educate our young people as to the dangers of constant stimulation and consumption, we are sleepwalking towards an epidemic of adulthood addiction in the future”.

While my own research shows that a small minority of teenagers experience problems concerning various online activities, there was almost nothing in the ACAC report “huge numbers of young people are developing compulsions and behaviours that they’re not entirely in control of”. The use of the word “huge” is what we psychologists call a ‘fuzzy quantifier’ (as what is ‘huge’ to one person may not be ‘huge’ to another). Mr. Dicey’s conclusions simply cannot be made from the data collected. He says that the report shows that many teenagers are displaying the “hallmarks of addictive behaviour” but given no addiction screening instruments were used, the data do not show this. The press release uses the following findings to make the claim that “the abundance of technology that UK teens can access seems to be creating a generation of ‘tech addicts’!”

“One-third of UK teens (32%) admit they check social media more than 10 times a day. The report also found that the average teen checks social media 11 times day, which equals once every 1.5 hours they are awake. UK teens are also avid takers of ‘selfies’, with over a quarter taking more than 10 a month. The average teen takes 7.4 selfies a month, equalling one every four days on average…The plethora of technology available to teens is also having a worrying impact on their attention spans. 1 in 4 teens have over 20 apps on their smartphones, with the average teen having 13 apps on their device. The constant search for the ‘next thing’ is evidenced in how they use apps – 46% admitted that they stop using or delete an app less than a week after using it, freeing up storage space for a new app”.

Anyone that has teenagers (I have three screenagers myself) will tell you that the above statistics indicate adolescent normality not addiction. Checking social media 10 times a day does not indicate addiction in the slightest. Although I have never taken a selfie, I check my social media far more than 10 times a day. Deleting apps to make way for other apps is no different from me removing songs on my i-Pod every week to make way for other songs I want to listen to. Again, there is absolutely nothing in these statistics that provides evidence of adolescent addiction.

Anyone that is aware of my work will know that I take the issue of teenage technology use seriously and that I firmly believe that a small minority of adolescents experience addiction to various online applications. However, studies like the one done for ACAC do little for the area as the rhetoric of the claims are unsupported by their data.

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

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The role of context in online gaming excess and addiction: Some case study evidence. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 119-125.

Griffiths, M.D., King, D.L. & Delfabbro, P.H. (2014). The technological convergence of gambling and gaming practices. In Richard, D.C.S., Blaszczynski, A. & Nower, L. (Eds.). The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Disordered Gambling (pp. 327-346). Chichester: Wiley.

Griffiths, M.D., King, D.L. & Demetrovics, Z. (2014). DSM-5 Internet Gaming Disorder needs a unified approach to assessment. Neuropsychiatry, 4(1), 1-4.

Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J. & Demetrovics, Z. (2014). Social networking addiction: An overview of preliminary findings. In K. Rosenberg & L. Feder (Eds.), Behavioral Addictions: Criteria, Evidence and Treatment (pp.119-141). New York: Elsevier.

Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J. & King, D.L. (2012). Video game addiction: Past, present and future. Current Psychiatry Reviews, 8, 308-318.

Griffiths, M.D. & Pontes, H.M. (2014). Internet addiction disorder and internet gaming disorder are not the same. Journal of Addiction Research and Therapy, 5: e124. doi:10.4172/2155-6105.1000e124.

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. & Binder, J. (2013). Internet addiction in students: Prevalence and risk factors. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 959-966.

Kuss, D.J., Griffiths, M.D., Karila, L. & Billieux, J. (2014).  Internet addiction: A systematic review of epidemiological research for the last decade. Current Pharmaceutical Design, 20, 4026-4052.

Kuss, D.J., van Rooij, A.J., Shorter, G.W., Griffiths, M.D. & van de Mheen, D. (2013). Internet addiction in adolescents: Prevalence and risk factors. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 1987-1996.

Pet projects: A brief look at domestic animals with social media accounts

Earlier today, I was interviewed by BBC radio about people that have set up social media accounts for their pets. In all honesty I am not a pet person but I am also well aware of the many psychological studies showing that pets hold a special place in the lives of many families and that many people treat pets as if they are one of the family. Professor John Archer has written many papers on the psychology of pet ownership and in a 1997 review paper (‘Why do people love their pets?”) in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior noted:

“People form strong attachments with their pets…[The owning of pets] enable pets to elicit caregiving from humans…in some circumstances…pet owners derive more satisfaction from their pet relationship than those with humans, because they supply a type of unconditional relationship that is usually absent from those with other human beings”.

In August 2014, the Daily Telegraph published the results of a survey they had done and reported that almost one in four dogs and cats now has their own social feed or webpage. In fact, their survey of 2,000 pet owners claimed that 9% of dogs had their own Twitter account and 13% of cats had their own Facebook page. It was also reported that 2% of dogs even had their own blog. The article then went on to list pets that had high numbers of followers and admirers. This included ‘Boo the Dog’ (the ‘world’s cutest dog’ according to pop star Ke$ha with 15 million Facebook ‘Likes’), ‘Grumpy Cat’ (‘famous for his unimpressed face’ with 6 million Facebook ‘Likes’), Graham The Kitten (singer Ed Sheeran’s cat with 99,500 followers), ‘Maggie May’ (tennis player Andy Murray’s dog with 27,000 followers), and ‘Meredith Swift’ (singer Taylor Swift’s cat with 10,000 followers).

As there is no academic research on pets with social media account I went looking online for information and came across an article on the Social Times website entitled ‘Your dog may be more popular than you – 20% have over 50 Facebook friends’. The article began:

“How many pets are online?  How many pet owners are tweeting and Facebooking for their cats and dogs? How many pets have a YouTube page? A new infographic from eBay Classifieds reveals that Fido and Fluffy are hitting the social web a lot more often than you may think! The ‘Social Savvy Critters’ infographic reveals that 14% of dog owners maintain a Facebook page for their pet, 6% tweet for their dogs on Twitter, and a whopping 27% have their own YouTube page! In addition to providing stats about how many pets are online, the infographic also offers up some advice for pet owners looking to get their furry friends online. They provide 8 Twitter tips for dogs, tips on creating a blog from your pet’s perspective, and a list of pet-related social networks”.

The data were collected for a survey carried out by DoggyLoot.com. I have no details on how the data were collected or how many dog owners participated in the survey but in the absence of empirical research it’s the best I could find. The same survey also reported that among the 14% that had set up Facebook accounts for their dogs, 42% of the dogs (I’m not making this up, honestly) had 1-25 Facebook friends, and 20% had 50-100 Facebook friends. The article also made reference to a number of online communities where pets online can get together including petzume.com and petizens.com.

During my research for the radio interview I was surprised to find that Facebook founder had set up a Facebook account for his Hungarian sheepdog (‘Beast’) posting messages such as “I just took a dump and made Mark Zuckerberg pick it up. It was glorious”. The Guardian newspaper did a profile piece on Zuckerberg and his dog after the online social media account had been set up that turned into an article about pets being online. The (2012) article noted that: 

“Pets on social networking sites are huge – high-profile Beast is liked by more than 42,000 people so far – and more and more of us are creating online lives for our companion animals, despite Facebook rules that state you must be over 13 to use the site (at just two months, even in dog years, Beast is only 16 months old) and, more importantly, you cannot create a profile for anyone other than yourself”.

The Guardian reporter (Bim Adewumni) asked the obvious question of who befriends a dog on Facebook or follows a cat on Twitter? And (more importantly) why? To answer the questions, Adewumni interviewed people that had set up online accounts. She wrote:

“Yasmin Eshref set up a page for her cat Georgie Coalie, as a joke to cheer up a friend. ‘But then lots of friends started adding her and sending messages to her’ says Eshref. Georgie passed away last year, but lives on in Facebook. ‘I suppose I kept it up for sentimental reasons, like not wanting to throw away the possessions of a dead person. I know it sounds a bit naff, but it’s just hard to let go’ she says. One friend tells me she has befriended a dog belonging to a friend on Facebook. ‘He even posts updates. I love him’. But another follows a puppy she is less than enamoured with: ‘Truly, I think it is slightly ridiculous. I did it to avoid offending my friends. The dog is cute, but I’m not that into him’. Animals on social networking sites have enormous numbers of fans. Sockamillion, a grey-and-white cat belonging to computer administrator and historian Jason Scott, tweets under the alias Sockington and has more than 1.4 million followers on Twitter. His list of followers reveals hundreds of tweeting cats and dogs. There are also spoof accounts for Bo, the family dog of the Obamas, and, of course, Larry, the newly acquired Downing Street cat. Fictional animals are doing just as well. Scooby Doo, Gromit and even Aleksandr Orlov, the meerkat from the car insurance advertisements, have Facebook pages”.

As there is no research on why people set up social media accounts for their pets (or why people follow them on Twitter or ‘Like’ them on Facebook) we can only speculate about possible motivations for such actions. If pets are considered an equal member of some families or act as surrogate children for childless couples, it’s perhaps unsurprising if some set up online social media accounts in their name. As noted in the Guardian article, some may set the accounts up as a joke or for sentimental reasons. Others may find it harmless fun or do it simply because they can. As I have noted in much of my cyber-psychological research, many activities carried out online are usually done for similar reasons including amusement, boredom, and revenge.

Others may do things online to explore facets of their personality that they can’t do offline or as a way of feeling better about themselves. Is someone that writes online from the perspective of their pet psychologically any different from gamers who swap their gender or species within an online video game? Unlike some online activities connected with social media (online trolling, social media addiction, etc.), there appears to be little harm in posing as your pet. Given the unlikelihood of any problematic behaviour, I can’t see how such behaviour will ever become an area for serious scientific study.

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

Further reading

Adewunmi, B. (2011). Why has Mark Zuckerberg set up a Facebook page for his dog? The Guardian, March 9. http://www.theguardian.com/global/2011/mar/09/mark-zuckerberg-dog-facebook-page

Archer, J. (1997). Why do people love their pets? Evolution and Human Behavior, 18(4), 237-259.

Bryant, C. (2012). 7 ways to make your dog a social media superstar. Dogster, December 18. Located at: http://www.dogster.com/lifestyle/make-your-dog-social-media-superstar-7-tips

eBay Classifieds Blogs (2012). Social savvy critters. January 16. Located at: http://blog.ebayclassifieds.com/2012/01/16/social-savvy-critters/

Fuster, H., Oberst, U., Griffiths, M.D., Carbonell, X., Chamarro, A. & Talarn, A. (2012). Psychological motivation in online role-playing games: A study of Spanish World of Warcraft players. Anales de Psicologia, 28, 274-280.

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