FACEBOOK and Twitter users suffered withdrawal symptoms when forced to go cold turkey as part of a scientific study into the addictiveness of social media, describing strong feelings of isolation and frustration.
In a study by researchers at the University of Winchester, ten self-confessed Facebook “addicts” and ten prolific tweeters were asked to stop using their accounts for four weeks. Many quickly became isolated from friends and family and reported feeling "cut off from the world".
One female participant from Yorkshire said: “So much of my life was organised via Facebook. I haven’t communicated with my family all week.”
Another volunteer said: “I’ve felt alone and cut off from the world. My fingers seem to be programmed to seek out the Facebook app every time I pick up my phone.”
But Dr David Giles, a reader in media psychology who led the study, said that heavy use of social networks is not necessarily dangerous. “Some people would argue this addiction to social media is eating away at people’s lives, but what most of these so-called addicts are doing online is profoundly social," he said.
“The average internet user today is not the bedroom hermit of the 1990s but a savvy individual with a smartphone who openly manages his or her entire social life and personal relationships online.”
Moderation could be key, however. Complete abstinence caused many of the participants to suffer withdrawal symptoms, but not all of the effects were negative. One woman from Wales said being forced off Facebook allowed her to catch-up on household chores, while another volunteer confessed that the ban had allowed her to spend more time with her daughter.
The study, commissioned by first direct, also showed that those who had avoided social media in the past could find it useful and enjoyable. Researchers took ten people with inactive Twitter and Facebook accounts, and ten who had never used social media at all, and asked them to regularly tweet and update their Facebook status for four weeks.
One participant said: “I thought I would find using Facebook every day dull and pointless, but I’m finding that I’m quite enjoying it. I’m actually seeing my friends more now.”
The research showed that Twitter users coped better than their Facebook counterparts with being cut off from their accounts, which researchers put down to Twitter's less "social" nature.
Dr Giles believes that more people will eventually be forced to accept using social media as a fact of life. Life is getting more difficult for people who lack an email address or Facebook profile, and companies increasingly treat them as the “vagrants of the digital age”, he said.
The research also highlighted 12 distinct types of social media users, from occasional "dippers" who only occasionally log-in to post an update to full-blown "ultras" who are habitual participants.