Internet addiction is a growing phenomenon. It is a multi-faceted behavioural addiction – science speak for a complicated addiction that does not involve substance use. Researchers recognise that internet addiction is not a single addiction, that a person addicted to online gambling is not necessarily also addicted to social networks[1,2].
Using the internet to escape from negative moods.
Most internet addictions can be placed into one of two categories. Specific pathological internet use refers to an addiction to specific types of content, such as gambling, shopping, or cybersex. Addictions of this kind often continue even in the absence of internet access. The second category, generalised pathological internet use, involve addictions to the social uses of the internet, such as email, chat, and (yes, regular readers, you guessed it…) Facebook.
Poor self-regulation takes over at this stage.
For Facebook addiction to occur, only a few ingredients are necessary. The first is a preference for conducting social interactions online. Those of us who prefer to keep our social interactions online use the internet to escape from negative moods, such as loneliness and anxiety. By interacting online, we take the edge of our negative moods. Before long this reinforces our preference for online interactions, a classic case of classical conditioning. The second ingredient, poor self-regulation, takes over at this stage, and whoops, we’re stuck with a Facebook addiction.
It’s important to realise that there are two mechanisms at work here. The first, referred to as the model of compensatory internet use, describes how the move towards using online social networks for interactions is driven by a desire to steer clear of unwanted moods, such as social anxiety. Facebook allows socially anxious people to communicate without the pitfalls of normal face-to-face interactions. Social anxiety can therefore be considered a risk factor for Facebook addiction.
High social anxiety may in fact reduce the risk.
The second mechanism, described by outcome expectancy theory, explains how some people may become reliant on social networks such as Facebook, as these networks relieve a number of negative moods. The above-mentioned classical conditioning kicks in, and before long users, especially those with poor self control, find themselves addicted to the way in which these networks make them feel.
But hold your pants! Science is a beautiful thing, and all is not what it seems. A study conducted by Nejra Van Zalk at Örebro University, Sweden, found that high social anxiety may in fact reduce the risk of developing internet addictions. Van Zalk found that teenagers who were low in social anxiety were far more likely to develop internet addictions than their peers who had high social anxiety. The reason, Van Zalk hypothesises, is that for highly socially anxious people, excessive online chatting actually improves social skills.
Brush up on some social skills.
It might just be, it seems, that the best way out of an internet addiction is into a whole new set of social skills. So, to all my friends on Facebook, if you’re stuck behind that device more than you should be, it might be time to brush up on some social skills and to grab a beer at the local.