Social media proven not guilty on addiction charges, for now

August 12, 2012, Sunday/ 15:15:00/ SEVGI AKARÇEŞME

Not a single day goes by without the sight of people typing on their smartphones in traffic -- sometimes even behind the wheel.

The rise of texting while driving even led to a campaign in the United States telling people “Don’t text and drive.” In London, for instance, when you take the “tube,” for a second you might think that Apple distributed iPhones for free and asked people to become conjoined twins with their smart gadgets.

These days, scenes in İstanbul, Ankara or any other major city in Turkey do not differ much from other metropolitan centers around the world in terms of the love affair people are having with their smartphones and particularly with social media. In the incredibly fast-changing world of the Internet, Facebook and Twitter are currently the most popular social media outlets until a more popular one emerges.

Today, with over 30 million Facebook accounts, Turkey ranks number seven in the world while it is number four among the countries with the fastest-growing number of users. Twitter is growing as well, with Turkey ranking 11th among the countries with highest number of users. Turkish President Abdullah Gül has been using Twitter himself successfully to convey his messages to his more than 2 million followers. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan underestimated social media at first, but acquired an account although he shares less personal, more official messages compared to the president. Realizing the reach they can have through social media, more and more politicians employ social media in addition to conventional methods.

According to research done by Dr. Gülüm Şener, a professor of communication at Arel University, 40 percent of Facebook users check their account at least five times a day while over 60 percent of users agree that it takes too much of their time. Yet the trend is not decreasing in popularity. A Turkish dentist in his mid-30s describes himself an “Internet addict” admitting that his ‘‘frequent use of Facebook sometimes causes him to delay his patients’ work.” For Mahir Zeynalov of Today’s Zaman, who tweets to over 37,000 followers about foreign policy almost around the clock, being a “social media addict” means that “your favorite social media site is always with you, no matter what you are doing. Your followers keep asking about your absence and you feel completely isolated from the world when you can’t log on to Twitter for one or two days. It definitely makes you neglect some of your real-life friends and family members but you gain so many friends -- something unthinkable to realize in real life in such a short period.”

The fact that people cannot spend a couple of hours, let alone a day, without signing on to Twitter or Facebook makes even the staunchest Internet users wonder whether we should be worried. Is modern social media use an addiction or is it only the “overuse” of one outlet in our ever individualized lives? Do people take refuge in social media because they feel lonely or do social media cause people to become lonelier?

Cem Hızlan, a doctor at İstanbul Memorial Hospital who specializes in addiction treatment, rejects categorizing social media use as an addiction since “it does not meet the medical criteria for addiction as in other forms of substance abuse.” Dr. Hızlan considers the increasing number of hours spent online no different from other habits and refers to a 19th-century disorder called “book reading among young girls’’ in an effort to put things into a perspective and help us realize how influential social construction can be. “The World Health Organization (WHO) does not evaluate habits like social media use under addictions, but as time management problems,” Dr. Hızlan says, which brings good old procrastination into the picture in a different form.

Similarly, head of the Media School at İstanbul Bilgi University Professor Aslı Tunç says that “we should not rush to attach the term ‘addiction’ to social media overuse” despite the media’s tendency to do so because “as we all know, mainstream media love this kind of hype in covering new technologies, and sometimes report things that are only correlated as being a ‘cause’,” comments Professor Tunç.

However, some studies such as the recent research by Dr. Wilhelm Hofmann from the University of Chicago argue that social media addiction could be even stronger than smoking and alcohol addiction, while noting that lower cost of accessing the Internet compared to “substances” could have an impact on the level of addiction. However, Dr. Hızlan warns about a commercial dimension of including social media habits in the addiction category. ‘‘When you label it as ‘addiction,’ you immediately retain a certain group of customers [seeking medical treatment or self-help books],’’ he says.

Social media: connecting the far away, disconnecting close ones

Whether an addiction or overuse, the impact of social media use on personal relations is undeniable. It seems true that social media connect people who are away from each other while disconnecting the ones who are in physical proximity. Spouses complain about each other’s “over commitment” to their smartphones even at home. A governor’s wife who asked not to be named jokingly calls her husband’s smartphone his “mistress.” When old friends get together for lunch or dinner even after a long time, the addicts hold on to their smartphones tight and seem to prefer whatever is going on in the online world to the company of “real friends.” “When I get bored of people or even friends around me, I run away to the virtual world,” the aforementioned dentist affirms.

İsmail Hakkı Polat from the Department of New Media of Kadir Has University argues almost the opposite and seems unconcerned about the negative impact of social media on our daily lives. “I believe this is a temporary situation,” says Polat when asked about social media addiction. According to him, the old generation is in conflict with the new generation, which is born into technology and considers Internet a land of the promise of unlimited freedom. Unlike the widespread conviction about social media causing loneliness, Polat argues that social media forces people -- who are already alienated in cities -- to socialize in real life. An active latecomer to Twitter, Ankara Mayor Melih Gökçek’s iftar dinner on Tuesday for 240 of his followers, announced on Twitter, came almost as supporting evidence for a claim that might serve to prove social media innocent.

The word “addiction” has a negative connotation most of the time. We use it in our daily lives generously, referring to our habits without thinking about its medical meaning. Despite the high number of self-defined addicts, it seems that we can pronounce social media “not guilty” on charges of addiction for now at least based on medical criteria.

Notwithstanding the ambiguities around the immediate and long-term impacts of social media and the gadgets through which we access it, it will continue to be a reality of our lives. The fact that you are probably reading this paper online should tell us why we cannot afford to remain indifferent to this debate.

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