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Social media is more problematic than cigarettes or alcohol

Social media more tempting than alcoholCan you resist the urge to check your emails, to look at your Facebook Wall or to have a peek at Twitter? It’s tough isn’t it? Once you start using such online media it seems the urge to resist it is difficult. There has been plenty written about the addiction to social media, but little has been said about the simple desires to keep in touch with friends, or to check the latest news online, for instance. A new study conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago shows that the urge to engage with media of all kinds is more significant than the desire created by cigarettes or alcohol.

The study used Blackberry mobile phones which were only capable of receiving “Blackberry Messages” (BBM) – importantly the devices were stripped of any other functionality. Then, every couple of hours the participants in the research received a BBM message asking them about their current desires. Interestingly, the study was conducted across a wide age range – 18 to 85 – and it involved a large number of people – 200. So the results make fascinating reading.

What the researchers found was a consistent “giving in” to the desire to Tweet or to post on Facebook, but that the desire to smoke or drink was resisted more easily. In other words, we find we are much more tempted to use social media than other potentially addictive behaviours such as using cigarettes or drinking alcohol. With much research now suggesting that social media addiction is a real threat, why is it we are so easily taken in by it?

The researchers from Chicago suggest that it is the apparent “low cost” element of social media. Cigarettes and alcohol cost us real money, whereas social media does not. Similarly, smoking and drinking has a health cost, which social media does not appear to have. In addition there is the widespread availability of social media. If you want to use Twitter or Facebook you can pretty much do it anywhere, any time. But if you have a desire for a drink or a cigarette it might not be so easy; you may not have those items to hand when the desire strikes, so you put the urge to the back of your mind. Because Facebook and Twitter are largely omnipresent we do not reject the desires it seems, but give in to them quickly.

For employers this is a real issue that needs grappling with. Companies go to great efforts to restrict the availability of alcohol and cigarettes in the workplace, thereby helping to reduce temptation. But the widespread availability of social media in the office means employees can easily be distracted by the temptation. The problem is that for most businesses those distractions have a real benefit in terms of promoting the company, enabling greater customer service and so on. Getting the balance right is going to be the real challenge for companies in the coming year or two.

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