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“Desires for media may be comparatively harder to resist because of their high availability and also because it feels like it does not cost much to engage in these activities, even though one wants to resist.”

Wilhelm Hofmann, Quoted In “‘Sex? No Thanks, Baby, I’m Hitting Facebook Instead'”

We’ve all felt the impulse triggered when we receive a digital alert.

A ping, a vibration, a red circle, or even just the small, subtle glowing light, we all now live in a world beholden to the tyranny of the digital alert, and the space between the alert and it’s resulting action is getting smaller and smaller as our own impulses become stronger and more conditioned. Our own reaction time between the alert and the response can often be exaggerated and perceived in a manner which forces all correspondence to have equal, critical importance. For some, it can cause complete and total panic, with acute physical symptoms. It’s an especially interesting space to observe in others, particularly around meal times. The vapid disappointment of a meaningless message that’s instantly deleted, or no updates happening in your social stream since you last checked, is for many of us, very real.

No comments, no likes, no shares. Perhaps if we check just one more time someone will have validated our own existence in the world.

New research concerning the emerging physical and psychological nature of that increasing technological conditioning is beginning to reveal that the digital, and especially social impulse, is now stronger than more primal desires, such as hunger, alcohol, nicotine, and even sex.

In a recent study performed by researchers led by Wilhelm Hofmann, Assistant Professor of Behavioral Science at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business, the temptation to check-in, or share a social status update was found to be stronger in their sample subjects than the desire for sexual activity for those immersed in a digital lifestyle.

Indeed, the yearning for social network activity, validation and sustenance ranked as one of the hardest to resist, compared to other perhaps traditional vices and forms of reward and gratification such as food, alcohol and cigarettes. Notably, especially for those consumed by their own digital lifestyles, work was also found to be a notable addictive force, proving incredibly difficult to resist for those measured.

For those building their businesses using social media as a primary form of outreach in their network management, this begins to pose some serious questions around long-term health issues.

“The researchers interviewed 843 people about their internet habits and found that 132 of them had “problematic behavior in how they handle the online medium”, so much so that “all their thoughts evolve around the Internet during the day, and they feel their well-being is severely impacted of they have to go without it.”

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore: “Internet Addiction, Fueled By Gene Mutation, Scientists Say

Sound familiar? Writing in the Los Angeles Times, David Lazarus explains that the use of social media is now ranked as one of the highest forms of human temptation, and notes that in Hofmann’s study, over 200 people, ranging from 18 to 85 were asked every 30 minutes if they felt a need to check their Facebook or Twitter accounts. The longer the study continued, the stronger those urges became, to the point where the ability to resist such an urge became incredibly difficult, and very pronounced, with physical symptoms. It’s as if those being tested became consumed by the desire to check their accounts.

It’s easy to understand where this behavior originates from, of course. The barrier to entry for simply and quickly checking-in appears at such low personal cost to us, and is so readily available through our mobile devices, that in many ways we often assume that it has no cost at all, and easily of no lasting consequence. We asses the benefits and potential rewards of sharing to easily outweigh the price.

It is not until you take that ability away, that you see that such conditioning is more powerful that perhaps previously thought. We experience this when we think we’ve lost our iPhone – a quickening pulse, sweating, and often erratic, consuming thoughts. The reward of using social media, especially on mobile, is very clear; whereas the risks, especially pertaining to our health, are only perhaps emerging through recent research.

Relaxing Waterfall (8 Hour Version)

As a powerful example of this, the site, focused on the notion of using digital media to slow down and take mental breaks, however small, beautifully illustrates just how long five minutes can actually feel online. Simply put, it often feels like an unbearable eternity. Similarly on the issue of time management, a recent posting on LinkedIn by Flickr Founder Caterina Fake neatly counters the notion of the value of digital time in a way that many in the real estate industry will be familiar with:

“We are way too efficient, making use of every hour, every minute. When you were a kid, didn’t you just spend hours poking sticks in the mud, climbing trees and sitting in them, looking at shells and seaweed that washed up on the shoreline? Time was not precious then, we weren’t trying to stuff an accomplishment into every minute every day, we had time for thoughts and feelings. That was good! Any day spent that way was a day of joy and order. There was so much time. ”

Caterina Fake: “How To Create Time

In an era where time is perceived as something truly precious, it seems ironic that we’d hemorrhage so much of it purely on the act of checking itself.

Second screen behavior is already on the rise (especially in relation to sports, reality shows and politics) with an estimated 10% of viewers now using tablets and mobile devices simultaneously while watching television. Many advocate the notion of switching off and stepping away as a means of disconnecting and re-engaging with the real world. Taking digital sabbaticals each week. However, there’s still the danger of what that process can also do over the same period to your ability to sustain that very resistance, which only weakens, rather than resolves over time. In short, you’re still thinking about it, even if you’re not doing it.

For example, many of us feel the pull of the email inbox after having our out-of-office message on for too long. Sunday evenings can perhaps more often turn into online preparations for Monday mornings. Giving in to our desire to consume social media is seen as less consequential than other activities, even less consequential than email, and especially if we’re on our own, but it steals time and attention, two incredible valuable commodities in modern digital life. Indeed, many advocate that attention is more important than time.

To counter Caterina Fake’s beautifully articulated argument, it’s not more time we need to create, it’s actually more attention. The casual, open nature of the often banal content frees us of the guilt of having checked at all. It lulls our brains into the sense that what we’re doing is pleasurable.

“As we continue to resist our daily temptations, our strength to avoid these temptations becomes increasingly weaker, meaning if you had all day not to tweet while at work, by the time evening came, your ability to use that same amount of self-control will be shot.”

Daryl Nelson: “Study: Checking Your Social Media Pages Is as Addictive as Sex and Nicotine

A complementary study conducted by The University of Bonn in Germany, recently published in The Journal Of Addiction Medicine sought to discover if those very same causes of addiction might be caused by the specific genetic make-up of the person themselves. Would people with these genetic make-ups be more susceptible to forms of compulsive online behavior? Is such behavior beyond our rational control? In short, they concluded that internet addiction was due to the CHRNA4 gene, exactly the same gene which causes nicotine addiction. Concluding that digital addiction is very real, and can be explained at the molecular level, the researchers’ findings explained that a simple variation on the CHRNA4 gene results in a significantly higher prevalence of internet addiction, particularly in women.

The notion of widespread internet addiction is one I’ve explored at length elsewhere, with particular reference to treatment facilities in Korea and China. However, as Western lifestyles begin to embrace digital media at massive scale predicated upon broadband adoption and mobile access, with particular focus upon teenagers, we also see the beginnings of a shift towards more serious measures being instituted in order to combat increasingly social problems.

Addiction to online forms of entertainment and diversion such as gaming, gambling and pornography are already widespread, and at scale resulting in need of more professional forms of treatment. Indeed, social media use is now ranked second only to search as the most popular activity on the web, far surpassing adult content. What we’re beginning to see in the research are similar symptoms occurring as a result of relentless social media use too.

Internet Addiction Camps in China

The notion of digital conditioning, to the point where those impulses to repeatedly check our social streams, fueled by genetic research concluding that those emotional triggers are becoming stronger than more visceral ones, prompts some interesting questions:

Does the disproportionate urge to check social media mandate professional treatment?

If removing ourselves from digital access simply weakens our resistance to it over time, is it truly possible to step away?

Especially if you pride yourself on a ‘no interaction left behind’ business premise of getting back to those reaching out, as fast as possible?

What is the cost of such efficiency?

Is such behavior reconcilable, or just a consequence of modern digital business?

To what extent do we resist, or embrace this behavior?

By way of an answer, and as the initial research quoted here begins to suggest, the casualties go well beyond just that of attention span and time, as we might have traditionally assumed in the past. It’s much deeper, visceral and serious than just not listening anymore.

Over time, it impacts our lifestyles in ways that have the potential to truly damage our health (both physical and mental), our relationships, and perhaps most importantly, our own ability to learn, explore and have fun.

Starting by observing what happens when an alert arrives is the first step. Think about that specific space of time between the alert and your reaction. For those of us perpetually connected to the web, examining and understanding the level of digital addiction we’re perhaps unwittingly collectively undergoing, or at the very least acknowledging it, appears to be the first step on a potentially long road of recovery.


[toggle hide=”yes” title_open=”Further Reading:” title_closed=”Further Reading:”]

Associated Foreign Press (Unattributed): ‘Facebook And Twitter More Tempting Than Sex:’ (

Elizabeth Armstrong-Moore: ‘Internet Addiction Fueled By Gene Mutation, Scientists Say’ (

Elizabeth Bernstein: ‘Why We Are So Rude Online’ (

Nicholas Carr: ‘The Neuroscience Of Internet Addiction’ (

Nicholas Carr: ‘The Shallows: ‘What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains’ (

Center For Internet & Technology Addiction: ‘Are You Addicted?’ (

Gahlord Dewald: ‘Pattern Recognition: Dreadful Efficiency’ (

Caterina Fake: ‘How To Create Time’ (

Howie Fenton: ‘Social Media Surpassed Porn But Will it Overtake Search as the #1 Internet Activity?’ (

Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai: ‘10% of Presidential Debate Watchers Used a ‘Second Screen’’ (

Sherry Gaba: ‘Facebook And Twitter: Lack Of Self-Control Or Addiction?’ (

Belinda Goldsmith: ‘Porn Passed Over As Web Users Become Social’ (

Genetics Home Reference (Unattributed): ‘CHRNA4’ (

James Johnson: ‘ Does Almost Nothing, Which Is What It Was Designed For’ (

Steve Lambert: ‘Self Control (Review)’ (

David Lazarus: ‘Sex? No Thanks, Baby, I’m Hitting Facebook Instead’ (

Kirsch, Markett, Montag, Reuter & Sauer: ‘The Role of the CHRNA4 Gene in Internet Addiction: A Case-Control Study’ (

Medaholic (Unattributed): ‘Your Attention Is More Important Than Your Time’ (

Christian Montag: ‘Internet Addiction – Causes at the Molecular Level’ (

Christian Montag: ‘The Role of the CHRNA4 Gene in Internet Addiction: A Case-Control Study’ (

Daryl Nelson: ‘Study: Checking Your Social Media Pages Is as Addictive as Sex and Nicotine’ (

John Palfrey: ‘Born Digital’ (

Adam Pash: ‘SelfControl Blocks Internet Distractions with Brute Force’ (

Kevin Roberts: ‘Cyber Junkie: Escape the Gaming and Internet Trap’ (

Clay Shirky: ‘Facebook Rehab: The Danger of Internet Addiction’ (

Susan Sontag: ‘Regarding The Pain Of Others’ (

Bill Tancer: ‘Click: What Millions of People Are Doing Online and Why it Matters’ (

Sherry Turkle: ‘Alone Together (TEDX)’ (

Sherry Turkle: ‘Alone Together (Authors At Google)’ (

Sherry Turkle: ‘Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet’ (

Patricia Wallace: ‘The Psychology Of The Internet’ (

Wikipedia (Authors Unattributed): ‘Internet Addiction Disorder’ (

Jenna Wortham: ‘Does Technology Replace Memory or Augment It?’ (