Is Twitter Really More Addictive Than Alcohol?

Twitter and Facebook are harder to resist than alcohol and cigarettes, but so is the urge to work, according to new research on people’s daily struggles with self-control and desire. The counterintuitive findings may reveal more about the complexities of defining addiction and self-discipline than anything else.

Researchers gave BlackBerrys to 205 adults and signaled them seven times a day at randomly selected daytime hours for one week. When they were contacted, participants reported whether they were experiencing desire for something, what it was that they wanted, how strong the urge was, whether they wished to resist this desire and if they did in fact yield to the temptation.

The most strongly felt desires were for sleep and sex. Unexpectedly, cravings for cigarettes and alcohol were reported as weakest. In terms of actual behavior, participants had the hardest time stopping themselves from checking social media when they preferred not to, and from working when that was not what they truly wanted to do, suggesting that these urges actually drove people’s actions more than drugs or sex did.

While people joke about “workaholism” (can I have some workahol, please?), this research suggests that many people do, indeed, find themselves working when they have a choice not to and actually want to be doing something else. It also implies that, if measured by the intensity of reported desire, sleep and sex are the most addictive of all.

But does that really that mean that work is more addictive than alcohol, or that sleep is as addictive as sex? Here is where the complexity of addiction comes in. We tend to think of addiction as being located in a substance or perhaps an activity — one that is so inherently attractive that it displaces everything else. In the classic case, an addictive drug is viewed as changing the brain to make it unable to resist.

In reality, however, addiction is a matter of imbalance — between your own personal desire to engage in the addictive behavior and your conflicting desire to avoid the negative consequences of said behavior and/or do something else. Addiction is not absolute, and these particular desires as well as your ability to resist them wax and wane over time and in relation to specific cues, stresses and situations.

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