I wonder what Douglas Engelbart would think about our nation of teens and adults alike, who have become obsessed with, and even addicted to, social networking. Engelbart was the inventor of the computer mouse who passed away on July 2 at age 88. His visionary computer scientist’s work in the 1950’s and 60’s was so prescient and influential in so many ways; In an era when interacting with computers involved feeding punch cards into a mainframe and most of the people doing the interacting were scientists alone, Engelbart saw computers as a way for ordinary human beings to augment their intellect. Then he set about building the necessary tools to make that not JUST possible, but easy.
In 1959 at The Stanford Research Institute, he spearheaded groundbreaking work on graphical user interfaces, hypertext, video-conferencing, networking and other fundamentals of personal computing that were later to be commercialized in Silicone Valley and elsewhere.
Hmmm, so, computers augmenting our intellect hunh? Well, in April 2009, Oprah Winfrey finally logged on to Twitter, she sent her first “tweet,” taking online social networking out of the hands of the computer-savvy and into the living rooms of every American. And these days it seems like everyone and their grandma has a Facebook page, Twitter account or LinkedIn profile. However, teens and adolescents especially seem to be logging on every day, obsessively updating their profiles and checking the status updates of their online friends. Sure it’s a fun way to pass the time and stay in touch, but can these sites be dangerous for possible addiction? Can we become addicted to social networking?
Social networking is not a new concept, it’s been around as long as we have. A “social network” means simply the structure of relationships among individuals. Isn’t everyone on the planet is part of one big social network? But we also belong to smaller, more distinct “sub-networks”. We define these sub-networks by criteria like: our families, friends, jobs, schools, hobbies and more. You have a social network at school, work, even at the dog park by your house. The list goes on and on, and many people in your network may overlap. Actually, our contacts multiply all the time, as we meet new people through the people in your existing networks. Social networking Web sites really just evolved from these face-to-face networks.
Online sites are powerful because they harness the strength of the Internet to manage and map out your relationships. It’s a visual thing and we are visual creatures. You can physically see your network — your friends, your friends’ friends, and so on — and how you connect with all of them. Social networking sites allow people to manage their relationships as well as find new ones. Once you join a social networking site, you may find yourself spending a lot of time there. Is it all in good fun, or can online social networks be addictive? Today’s kids spend a lot – if not too much- of time in front of digital screens. In 2008, the American Journal of Psychiatry published an editorial in support of naming “Internet addiction” as a bona fide mental condition. Even though it’s not formally classified, many treatment and rehab centers worldwide now offer services for Internet addiction. This includes treatment for cyber porn, online gambling, online affairs and eBay addiction. Of course, these are all behaviors with serious consequences. The hallmark of an addiction is determining/ admitting whether your actions are affecting yourself or others in a negative way.
So, is hanging out on Facebook any different from talking on the phone for hours, or gabbing with your friends over coffee? Experts claim that if you’re spending abnormally large amounts of time doing social networking, you could be damaging your relationships and even your health. It seems that a lack of face-to-face contact can affect you both socially and physically. Significant eventual damage can occur…Depending upon a computer screen for human interaction might undermine the ability to follow social cues or understand body language. Besides, we’re also genetically predisposed to physically benefit from being face-to-face with another human. There’s even an online test you can take to see if the time you spend online might be a problem (which won’t be accurate if you’re addicted to online tests, of course).
Once we’ve had the social networking bite and have had a taste of how all encompassing it becomes, what is it that compels us to keep logging on?
Reason #1: Web sites are a product, and any product pusher wants return customers. When more visitors keep returning to a site, it means more ad revenue… more ad revenue means more money for the company that owns the site.
Reason #2: Programmers design every element on a social networking site to suck you in and keep you coming back. But how do they do this you ask? Sites like Twitter and Facebook offer “status updates” where users can enter a few short phrases about what they’re doing at that very moment. Users may find themselves constantly checking their friends’ updates, or changing their own updates on a regular basis. If you comment on someone else’s photo or update, sites will generate an email to let you know. You can reach out and “poke” a friend, take a quiz or survey and compare the results with your friends or upload a photo of your new puppy doing something cute so everyone can ooh and ahh over him. You reach out to the site and it reaches out to you — keeping you coming back from a few to a few dozen times a day.
Reason #3: With the increasing popularity of wireless devices like the BlackBerry and iPhone, iPad — devices that can move lots of data very quickly — users have access to their social networks 24 hours a day. Most social networking sites have developed applications for your mobile phone, so logging on is always convenient. It’s a quick fix. Social networks also tap into our human desire to stay connected with others. The rush of nostalgia as you connect with your former grade-school classmate on Facebook can be so awesome.
Reason #4: The main reason we find these sites so addictive? Plain old narcissism. Seriously. Teens especially are completely self-obsessed at their stage of development. We broadcast our personalities online whenever we publish a thought, photo, YouTube video or answer one of those “25 Things About Me” memes. We put that information out there so that people will respond and connect to us. Being part of a social network is sort of like having your own “Entourage”.
In 2008, researchers at the University of Georgia studied the correlation between narcissism and Facebook users. It is not surprising that they found the more “friends” and wall posts a user had, the more narcissistic he or she was. They noted that narcissistic people use Facebook in a self-promoting way, rather than in a connective way. It may be an obvious theory, but it also suggests that social networks bring out the narcissist in all of us.
Reason #5: Here’s another quick fix- Social networks are a voyeuristic experience for many users. Following exchanges on Twitter or posts on Facebook and MySpace are akin to eavesdropping on someone else’s conversation- or even watching from a windowed view. It’s entertaining and allows you to feel like a “fly on the wall” in someone else’s life Social networking sites also publicly list your “friends” or “followers” — giving you instant status. How many people do you know online who spend all their time trying to get more friends, more followers, more testimonials? We work hard in real life to elevate our statuses, make friends and search out boosters for our self-esteem. Ummm, Internet social networking provides this to us, and we don’t even have to change out of our sweatpants to get it.