Thursday, October 26, 2006

Internet Addiction

The media still likes a scare story, but we shouldn't let these obscure the fact that the web is now a mass-market phenomenon, not just the preserve of geeks.  This article dates from a time when some still stuck to the view that digital was a geek thing; amazingly some still do.

More than one in eight US adults shows signs of being addicted to the internet, according to a study released in October by Stanford University.

Addiction is a serious business.  In October the Priory, better known for sorting out celebrity substance abuse, launched a programme for internet addiction, joining a stream of clinics set up to address this concern across the world – even Beijing has one.

As we wring our hands about this latest tech-threat (carefully avoiding any repetitive strain injuries), we’re assailed by yet more.

One Australian website reports “Psychiatrists say mobile phone addiction is an obsessive-compulsive disorder that’s set to become one of the biggest non-drug addictions in the 21st century”.  In Spain, one study shows that 15% of teenagers sleep with their mobile at hand to answer messages at night.

Setting aside the natural relief most parents would experience on discovering that their teenager only sleeps with a mobile, texting addiction has racked up acres of coverage in recent years.  Nevertheless it seems we’re still suckers for a good old-fashioned scare story.  One teenager in Scotland resigned his job after his bosses discovered he’d sent 8,000 emails in one month, mostly to his girlfriend.  He’d also sent 700 texts a week (she’s since binned him, perhaps unsurprisingly).

Meanwhile, online gaming has attracted attention for the amount of time spent by players – we’ve had stories of people dying from playing too much, and one young man suffered a breakdown after playing for 36 hours straight – believing that the characters had leapt out of the game and were chasing him down the street.  A typical user is said to be 26 years old, and plays for 22 hours a week.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a lot to me.  It seems like a lot to the Chinese government too – they introduced new controls to discourage obsessive gamers.  The abilities of their game character will be progressively reduced after more than three hours a day in-game, and severely limited after five hours.  They then need a five-hour break before they can resume with their faculties restored.

So is new technology really that addictive, or are we falling victim to another media feeding frenzy?

In the UK, the average viewer spends 24 hours a week watching TV.  The latest RAJAR figures show UK adults spending 23.5 hours a week listening to the radio.  Is this cause for concern?

One Timothy Dumouchel of West Bend, Wisconsin, threatened to sue his cable television provider for TV addiction. "I believe that the reason I smoke and drink every day and my wife is overweight is because we watched TV every day for the last four years," stated Dumouchel’s written complaint against the company, who had failed to bill him for four years.

Office for National Statistics figures show that UK men spend three times as much time watching TV as socialising.  So it looks like there’s nothing new in these addictions, and in these addiction stories.  There are always going to be a few people who can’t control their consumption – be it food, TV or texting – and for these people this is a serious issue.  But for the various digital addictions, there’s an added dimension that makes it all the more compelling for the media – its prevalence amongst young people, an alien race they struggle to understand at the best of times.

So we can be confident in the continued addiction of the media to these ‘new media addiction’ stories.  As new digital devices and pursuits emerge, new addictions will be identified to fill the news.  But as marketers, we need to be wary of this attitude.  Reports like this feed a desire to deny change, implying that the growth of digital can be dismissed as a fad, the preserve of the obsessive.  It’s not.  Every one of us is affected by the rise of digital, and it’s inevitable that our behaviour will adapt to reflect this – it’s just going to take a little getting used to.

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