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Is Facebook the New Philip Morris?

As if you didn't know it already, there's now yet another psych study detailing the addictive qualities of Facebook. Researchers from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business recently enlisted 205 Germans and monitored them for an entire week...

by Adam Estes
Oct 10 2012, 5:08pm

As if you didn’t know it already, there’s now yet another psych study detailing the addictive qualities of Facebook. Researchers from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business recently enlisted 205 Germans and monitored them for an entire week to try and get a handle on the scale of desire that goes along with everyday activities like, say, checking Facebook or smoking a cigarette or having sex. Each participant was given a BlackBerry, where they were supposed to log their desires every 30 minutes and rank each of them from “strong” to “irresistible.” As their preliminary results showed, checking social networks came out on top — above cigarettes, above sex, even above sleeping. Turns out this Facebook thing is very popular.

This is hardly the first time that psychologists have studied the Facebook urge. Earlier this year, there were a flurry of studies compiled by researchers all around the world, from MIT to Milan. Some of them were more technical than others. "Moreover, the biological signals revealed that Facebook use can evoke a psychophysiological state characterized by high positive valence and high arousal (Core Flow State)," reads one of the reports. “It occurs more regularly among younger than older users,” reads another. The site AddictionInfo has a section on “Facebook envy,” and there’s even a new tool for measuring just how addicted people get to Facebook, aptly named the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale.

Now that everybody agrees that Facebook is addictive, let’s talk for a moment about companies that sell addictive products. Philip Morris is a great example. (NB: Philip Morris officially changed their name to Altria after all of those devastating class action lawsuits, which was a smart move because nobody’s every heard of Altria (have you heard of Xe?), and a lot of people hate Philip Morris. To keep things simple, I’m just going to go with the name that everybody’s heard of.) Here’s a major global corporation that’s made billions of dollars by capitalizing on people’s psychological weaknesses. Over the years, they got in trouble for everything from marketing the product to kids to misleading people about the true risks of said product. For Philip Morris, that product was cigarettes. For Facebook, it’s your friends’ updates.

In an interesting twist of fate, Facebook is now hitting a lot of the road bumps that Philip Morris hit a few years ago. Could we see any class action lawsuits over Facebook’s addictiveness in the near future? Unclear. Then, there’s the appealing to kids thing. If you’ve been following the news, you’ll know that Facebook’s been pushing hard for the government to let children create profiles, only to have their usage tracked and marketed to advertisers. Finally, risk: while it would be silly to try and equate the risks of using Facebook with the risks of smoking cigarettes, there are risks involved in using Facebook, mainly surrounding privacy. This is a problem that Facebook still hasn’t solved. It’s not going to cause cancer or anything — at least, not that we know of, and there are even plenty of pages dedicated to “quitting smoking” – but it can result in firings, breakups, and all sorts of unwanted snooping.

Beyond all of the analogies and jokes about Facebook cancer, though, what’s becoming increasingly clear is that Facebook is a huge global conglomerate. And that, perhaps, is what makes it look most like Philip Morris. For years, people have vilified Philip Morris not only for selling cigarettes but also for being an influence-wielding corporation with their hands in who-knows-what. As Facebook “builds out its presence in Washington” and in capitals around the world, while taking advantage of overseas tax havens, it’s very quickly gone from cool startup to corporate behemoth.

So the real question is, should you try to quit Facebook? After all, addictive things are bad aren’t they? Sometimes they are, yes. But everybody needs their vice, and frankly, if yours is a silly directory of friends, then you’re probably lucky. I mean, have you ever seen the show “My Strange Addiction?” It could be worse. Much worse

Image via Flickr

Further reading: To Live Deep and Suck Out All the Marrow of Life, A Smartphone Is Worse Than a Cigarette