Facebook addictionUs Brits can’t get enough of Facebook it seems. A new report forecasts that more than half of the UK population will be using the platform by the time the year is out.

The study from eMarketer predicts that 33 million Britons will be regular, active users – logging in at least once a month – on Facebook at some point during 2016; that’s 50.5% of the UK’s population.

The report suggests that the proliferation of smartphones will allow Facebook to reach the milestone, with the number of UK mobile users with active Facebook accounts expected to reach 26.9 million or 50.8%.

Little surprise, then, that this year 81% of UK Facebook users will access the social network through a mobile phone, rising to 88% in 2020.

“People are spending more time than ever with mobile devices,” said Bill Fisher, eMarketer’s UK analyst. “Indeed, such is the ubiquity of these devices that the default platform for the vast majority of Facebook users is now mobile.”

Do the findings suggest the UK is becoming a nation of Facebook addicts?

Well, it’s worth noting first that Facebook addiction is not a recognised clinical addiction. However, various studies have shown how Facebook has a real hold on some people.

California State University study

Last week, the Telegraph ran the headline: “Facebook addiction ‘activates the same part of the brain as cocaine'”. As a marketer who spends a great deal of time utilising the platform, I couldn’t help but click through to see the research behind the claim.

Professor Ofir Turel of California State University, Fullerton, monitored the brains of 20 volunteers – and found that the amygdala-striatal system, involved in drug addiction, was affected when they saw images related to Facebook.

“The impulsive system can be thought of as a car’s accelerator, while the inhibitory system can be likened to a brake,” Turel explained.

“In addictions, there is very strong acceleration associated with the impulsive system often coupled with a malfunctioning inhibitory system.”

First, the volunteers had to fill out a questionnaire which sought to find out how addicted they were to Facebook. Then they took a test which involved pressing buttons when they saw Facebook-related images and traffic signs.

Those who were quick to hit their button when they saw Facebook-themed images also scored highly in the initial addiction test. In fact, some of the participants were quicker to respond to Facebook stimuli than they were to road signs.

Turel called the findings “scary”, but because he also found that the impulsive systems in the brain worked OK for compulsive Facebook users during the monitoring period, he asserted that behaviour can be corrected with treatment.

“We speculate that addictive behaviour in this case stems from low motivation to control the behaviour, which is due partly to the relatively benign societal and personal consequences of technology overuse, compared to, say, substance abuse,” he concluded in the study published in Psychological Reports: Disability and Trauma.

Cornell University study

So why is that users keep coming back to the social networking site – even if they set out not to. That’s what researchers at Cornell University sought to try and understand, utilising data from 99daysoffreedom.com.

The data was yielded from an online campaign from 99 Days of Freedom which asked Facebook users to log out of the site for 99 days and complete surveys about their moods every 33 days. The survey generated more than 5,000 completed forms, allowing researchers to draw some conclusions on what it is that prevents users from coming off Facebook completely.

The first factor they came up with was perceived addiction, i.e. those who think that Facebook is addictive or habitual were more likely to return. Or as one participant put it: “In the first 10 days, whenever I opened up an internet browser, my fingers would automatically go to ‘f.'”

The second factor it found was privacy and surveillance. Users who had concerns that their Facebook activity was being monitored were less likely to revert. However, those who use Facebook to manage how other people think of them – their personal brand, if you will – are more likely to log back in.

The third factor was subjective mood, i.e. if you’re in a good mood when you decide to come off Facebook, there’s a better chance that you’ll stay off. This fits nicely with California State University’s findings that Facebook addiction “stems from low motivation”.

Finally, Cornell University researchers said that if a Facebook user had access to other social media outlets, they were less likely to miss Facebook quite so much, which makes lots of sense.

Author of the research, Eric Baumer, concluded: “These results show just how difficult daily decisions about social media use can be. In addition to concerns over personal addiction, people are reluctant about corporations collecting, analysing and potentially monetizing their personal information.”

His report ended on why Facebook is such an important outlet for some people, as to not portray Facebook as a modern evil.

“Facebook also serves numerous important social functions, in some cases providing the only means for certain groups to keep in touch. These results highlight the complexities involved in people’s ongoing decisions about how to use, or not use, social media,” he said.

What can we do with these findings?

We haven’t highlighted these findings as evidence to why businesses should be spending more time on social.

However, they do tell us some interesting things about people’s relationship with the platform. As Baumer touches upon, spending a lot of time on Facebook is not necessarily a bad thing. That’s the message from Canadian website Tech Addiction, too, which offers “effective help for video game and computer addiction”.

It gives 21 reasons why Facebook can prove addictive, which include: it satisfies people’s ‘infinite curiosity about the world around us’; it makes people feel understood; it can boost your mood; it makes people feel part of an ‘expansive exciting world’; and it feeds the essential need for human connection.

These are explanations that marketers can use to appeal to their target audience on social media. By understanding the role it serves, you can start to create content that users come to Facebook for, rather than just sales-driven content which is entirely unfulfilling.

That’s not me saying that you can’t spend too long using technology, but if the projections in Ernest Cline’s novel ‘Ready Player One’ bear fruit, there will come a time when we are totally immersed in technology – if we’re not already. In Cline’s book, set in 2044, people live much of their lives in a virtual universe called the OASIS.

It’s not hard to see where Cline got his inspiration from with OASIS, and it offers the book’s characters access to an unimaginable amount of content. Until the virtual universe arrives, though, Facebook is our platform to offer people incredible content.

Ben Hollom

February 26, 2016