Are we becoming dependent on social networks, and what does that mean for our mental well-being and the future of relationships? Chris Owen and Stephen Waddington logged on to find out.
An often quoted statistic from the Psychiatric Morbidity Survey from the Office of National Statistics (published in 2009, based on data from 2007) is that one-in-four of us will suffer some form of mental illness in our lifetime. In reality it is likely to be much higher – and of these only one-in-four will typically seek help. Mental health remains a taboo.
The rise of social networks means that mental illness is now being played out and amplified online, and concerns are growing about a fundamental conflict between social networks and mental well-being. On the one hand, social networking has positive mental health benefits in breaking down barriers and enabling sufferers to explore support networks. But spend too much time online and the internet itself can become a catalyst for unhealthy behaviour.
Perhaps surprisingly, relevant primary research is hard to find. Reports are anecdotal; sample sizes typically too small to be statistically viable. That does not invalidate the results, but it does mean that much of relationship between mental health and the internet, has not yet been fully explored – outside the gaming and internet addiction clinics seeking to profit from out-of-control appetites.
Addictive impulses, a frequent companion of mental unbalance, is common to all of us. Problems with self-esteem and the profound social dislocation felt by many living necessarily peripatetic lives in a globalised economy drive destructive cycles of dependency on alcohol, drugs, gambling, shopping, sex, and a variety of eating disorders. Many of these disorders are now being played out online.
Bad habits or addiction?
At what point does the reliance on checking your social networks hit the tipping point of addiction? Where does addiction to shopping, for example, meet the behavioural and neurological criteria of conventional addiction? What about addiction to Twitter? Both compulsions, it has been suggested by some addiction experts, arise out of issues of self-esteem, and both have dependent and habitual elements to them, but so far only the former has seen treatment centres addressing the underlying cause.
Traditional addiction theory holds that the key to understanding addiction is to acknowledge it as a disease, not a social malfunction – it is a disease which attacks the human brain, specifically the mid-brain which controls what is often known as the pleasure reward circuit (PRC).
This process is fuelled by the production and distribution of dopamine, itself a fairly basic, organic chemical that acts as a neurotransmitter. Dopamine underpins addictive behaviour and dependency through dysfunctional over-production.
The PRC developed as a method of rewarding positive, beneficial activities such as eating or exercising, with pleasure and reward being far more constructive a method of growth and learning, and ultimately evolution, than punishment. Dopamine is produced as a response to such stimuli.
However, some stimuli – whether chemical, or behavioural – can cause excessive production of dopamine, so constantly raising the bar on what constitutes “enough” to establish a feeling of reward in the pleasure reward circuit. Once the brain starts over-production of dopamine as a result of a specific stimulus it rapidly becomes very difficult to re-establish a norm, and the bar is constantly set higher and higher.
Normal levels of dopamine produced by simple activities such as eating simply do not produce enough to match those created by the addictive stimulus, so the cycle becomes more self-fulfilling and the disease grows. This may be why many addicts do not eat much: there’s little physical, chemical and neurological reward in it for them.
Alongside this, are the behavioural traits that the addictive brain controls. Sufferers are compulsive, obsessive and selfish in their bid to fuel the craving phenomenon the brain creates: in the mind of an addict, only one thing matters above everything else, including family, work, friends and health. Furthermore, mental health illnesses including depression and anxiety become entwined within the addictive process.
Where’s the line?
So can social media and the brain’s response to it tip some people into an addictive cycle? Is there a difference between the neurological reaction when a gambling addict wins and of someone dependent on social media who receives a surge of retweets? Can the compulsive checking of Twitter, Facebook, or a mobile phone for texts cross into addiction or dependency?
Simon Brown, a specialist in addictive behaviour and substance abuse, suggests there is indeed a link. “We can say with assurance that the cortical or conscious routes are slow and weaker in comparison to the sub-cortical automatic routes responsible for habits and impulse. People may feel they have little control over their behaviour if the salience of these is too strong,” he says.
But there is a critical caveat. “The key fact is that if there is no underpinning neurological basis to behaviour we, as ‘a being’, won’t do anything. Thinking, affect, emotions and behaviour simply cannot happen without a neurological basis.”
Behaviour must always be considered scientifically, as well as behaviourally or sociologically. “Addiction is a loaded term steeped in the medical model and stigmatisation. I would not use it, myself, to describe a generalised population,” says Brown.
“Some ‘may’ be addicted and present the traits afforded to the term: a compulsive reward either positive or negative; and be seeking behaviour that overrides cognitive processes. People may have withdrawal symptoms from not doing this behaviour, but then again, not seeing friends or family can make someone feel isolated and depressed,” he adds.
It is always a difficult judgement to make. Checking social network updates whilst otherwise occupied is increasingly the norm whether we are in a meeting, out for dinner, in the pub with friends, or even on the loo. At concerts and events people are as likely to be recording and sharing images and audio using their phones as they are to be actually watching the live event. Instead of allowing themselves to enjoy the here and now, they obsess about sharing their lives with their social networks.
Are we becoming addicted or at least obsessed with social networks? Here is a test to explore how reliant you are on your social networks. How soon after waking up do you check your smartphone and how often do you check during the day?
When we (not entirely without a sense of irony) asked our own networks on Twitter, the responses included people who checked in when they were feeding their baby in the early hours of the morning and many more people who grab the phone within minutes of waking up.
Chartered counselling psychologist Simon Proudlock, author of The Solution Focused Way, says that in the last 24 months he has seen an increasing number of individuals and couples raise behavioural and psychological issues associated with social networks. It seems the relationship people have with their social networks is yet another relationship individuals are noww struggling to navigate.
Proudlock describes the visible look of dismay that some couples show when one partner suggests they might leave their mobile phones at home when out for dinner together. Psychologists have termed this behaviour as a “fear of missing out” and believe that for some, the anxiety associated with potentially missing something is so strong that we find it impossible to disconnect.
But is this an addiction or a habit? In October 2011 the Research in Motion network that connects 70 million people worldwide failed for four days because of a service upgrade. Customers unable to access their push email, internet and online chat turned to Twitter and traditional media (via their nearest PC, presumably) to voice their frustration. The discussion was angry and noisy but there were no reports of anyone suffering from physical side effects.
Then again, a recent study of 200 people aged between 18 and 85 in Würtzburg, Germany by The University of Chicago reported that participants found it harder to resist tweeting or checking emails than alcohol or cigarettes, and that while sleep and sex are the strongest urges, people are just as likely to give in to cravings for social media.
Friends in need
According to data published by Hitwise in 2010, the average amount of time spent on Facebook by someone in the UK is 27 minutes per day, a fact Proudlock considers extremely salient. “Social interaction is a very fundamental human need. We are social beings. We need to be part of a pack to ensure our biological survival. Social media meets that need in a very accessible way.”
Social networks make it easier to manage lots of relationships but harder to manage close relationships. It becomes difficult to manage multiple friendships because whenever you are on the network your attention is diverted between everyone in your message stream or chat.
“Modern life has led to a disenfranchised society. We have moved away from our families and communities of origin in the pursuit of more fulfilling lifestyles. But this migration can lead to a greater propensity to loneliness. Social networking sites make us feel more connected; more like we are part of something,” says Proudlock.
Online communication overcomes many of the issues of social anxiety associated with meeting people in new situations. There is comfort in the familiar. Logging onto Facebook to swap messages with our family and old friends from school may make us feel at ease, but it prevents us from developing new (real life, physical) friendships.
Simon Proudlock believes that he has spotted a trend whereby individuals are increasingly developing relationships via technology platforms, such as the mobile phone and PC, and as a result are not developing the life skills to develop relationships in the real world.
The upshot of this is that when individuals are forced to meet people in social situations, interviews or personal relationships, they may exhibit high levels of social anxiety.
Should we be worried that an over-reliance on online communication is a time bomb that will impair the ability of future of generations to build anything other than superficial relationships? Are young people going to be able to make conversation in the future? Perhaps. “Typing is very different to direct human interaction: listening, watching, reading body language and the full subtly of human interaction,” says Proudlock.
But then, social networks are both a record of and a narrative about life. In the future, social anthropologists will have an incredibly rich source of data to analyse. They will undoubtedly seek to draw conclusions about the effects of the radical transparency of social media. In a more pedestrian sense, one which every reader will recognise, relationship break-ups are now shared – openly, in a public manner never previously witnessed – while “he or she has unfriended me” is a commonly-heard complaint from friends and colleagues.
Proudlock believes that social networks provide a means to benchmark our own lives against others. “People typically don’t promote negative aspects of themselves. The online dating industry is built on a veneer of flattering images and inflated profiles. Facebook and LinkedIn are no different,” he says.
“Social networking sites allow us to carry out a series of checks and balances. By seeing what our peers are doing, we can compare how normal our own lives are. We want to conform to the pack, but we also want to ensure that we have an elevated position over our peers.”
“Knowing that our peers have good and bad days, feel a similar range of emotions to us, and also lead pretty average lives, makes us feel better about our own,” he adds.
The ego of networks
The last 18 months have seen the rise of peer analytics tools such as Klout, Kred and PeerIndex, which claim to measure the relative influence of an individual within a social network. These are primarily intended as planning tools for organisations seeking to build a social presence. They identify individuals who are influential about a particular topic, using a variety of variables such as frequency of posting, sharing and engagement, to arrive at a score for influence.
The tools have inadvertently provided individuals with the ability to benchmark themselves against other users and then adapt their behaviour to improve their influence within a network.
“With any system there will always be people who try to game the system for their own benefit. With the range of influencer tools in the marketplace, PR and advertising professionals need to know how to read these networks to allow those genuine brand advocates to rise to the surface while those self-generated influencers are quickly identified,” says Andrew Grill, chief executive of Kred.
The concern is whether such analysis tools might cross over into the consumer mainstream and fuel the unhealthy, peer-comparative element of social media behaviours.
So is there such a problem as social media addiction? There has already been scientific work looking at the idea of “internet addiction”; indeed, it is now recognised as a problem and has been identified in recent research from China. Although the sample size was too small be significant, neurologists found disruption in the way participants’ brains were wired up, suggesting that further investigation will be necessary to understand the neurological effects of social media.
There could, in theory, be a simple test, using questions asked by doctors of people concerned about their behaviour and replacing “traditional” addictions with social media. For example “How often in the past year have you failed to do what was expected of you because of alcohol?”; “Have you caused upset through your drinking?”; “Has a relative or friend been concerned about your drinking or advised you to cut down?”. Paraphrase these for social media – checking phones at the table or tweeting something inappropriate – and we could find interesting results.
So, if it is something we might class as addiction, how could it be treated? Simon Brown suggests that it must be addressed in the same manner as other addictions, with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) as a solid platform to grow from.
“There are so many psycho-social interventions that can be used if deemed appropriate. The aim is to evaluate and to find the ‘payoff’ to the person and strengthen the cortical routes”, he suggests, the latter reinforcing a refreshed, “safer” neural process.
The theoretical and scientific basis for addiction suggest there could be something valid about the concept of a social media addiction. But it is difficult to say as much without sounding like a hyperbolic Mail columnist.
What would help is more research on the topic, taking some of the methods used in establishing internet addiction as a known problem – be that through magnetic resonance imaging, functional or otherwise – and electronic brain scanning. Crucially, the behavioural side of dependency needs to be researched and considered scientifically.
Acknowledging social media and social networks as a potential cause of addictive processes would also be a step forward, although, as with everything, it needs to be approached carefully. Scaremongering will do no-one any favours, and it will just get those of us who enjoy tweeting into trouble with the friend or partner that keeps nagging us to get away from the net and have a proper conversation.
Though, to be fair, they normally have a point. How many times in the course of reading this article was your attention distracted by Twitter or Facebook?