Any quick internet search will bring up a variety of studies suggesting that using Twitter, and other social media, can become addictive. Indeed, one study earlier this year argued it is more difficult to resist than tobacco or alcohol. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/news/9054243/Facebook-and-Twitter-more-addictive-than-tobacco-and-alcohol.html) So can it really be addictive, and if so, how?
Addiction itself is a complex thing and there are many models used to describe it which include neurological, psychological, social and even philosophical approaches. One thing is arguably central to addiction though, and that is reward. The feelings that we associate with pleasure and even euphoria are associated with the stimulation of the reward pathway in the brain (for the technically minded this is the mesoaccumbens dopamine (DA) pathway of the midbrain, extending from the ventral tegumental area (VTA) to the nucleus accumbens). Drugs stimulate this pathway, particularly the use of cocaine which is why it is so highly addictive (Jung, 2001).
This pathway is, though, also stimulated by other activities such as eating and, perhaps even more interestingly, by receiving praise. That’s why we find praise pleasurable – it releases the neurotransmitters that are associated with these feelings. The fact that the brain responds to praise in this way signifies just how central this is for us. Essentially the brain is reinforcing this importance and therefore driving us, at some level, to seek more. Lots of different arguments have been put forward as to why this is the case. Some researchers, for example, argue that it reinforces co-operation which is vital to the survival of society. I tend to think of it in more direct terms: praise is good for self-esteem and positive self-esteem is good for our health and well-being.
So what’s this all got to do with Twitter? I believe that one of the things that social media like Twitter does is expose us to a far higher ‘praise potential’ than normal. If someone follows us it could, psychologically, be interpreted as a form of praise. That person likes the information we are sharing and wants to hear more of it. Similarly if people re-tweet us they telling us our information is worthy of sharing – is that not a form of praise? Finally they may comment directly on our tweets, telling us more overtly of their worth.
Essentially I think that, on a psychological level (and to varying levels of conscious awareness), we receive positive feedback through Twitter. This will stimulate the brain’s reward pathways and reinforce or improve our self-esteem. Even more importantly, and considering our limited brain capacity, this can occur with relatively little effort on our part (see my post on the reasons our brain love Twitter for more on this). This route to reward may, for some people, even become addictive.
I am not saying, for one minute, that everyone who uses Twitter becomes addicted to it. Nor am I saying that people who Tweet all have low self-esteem and need this improving through praise! But if we want to find an explanation for why some themselves report an addiction to Twitter (or other social media) then this is my stab at providing one.
Jung, J.(2001) Psychology of Alcohol and Other Drugs: A Research Perspective. Thousand Lakes, CA: Sage Publications