To identify what it is about online experiences that makes them compelling to people whose cerebral hemispheres are firmly planted in the land of the sane, researchers are taking a page from video-game cyberpsychology. For just as video games have psychological hooks that make people feel compelled to play, so do online experiences.
Start with the fact that the cost in time and effort of a single online “transaction”—a click, a view, checking Instagram or your Facebook news feed—is so minuscule as to be unmeasurable. It’s often so low, in fact (I’m just waiting to give the barista my order), as to be negative. That is, not texting or checking for texts or reading your smartphone screen feels like a greater burden than doing so. “The time-scale on which you work with online technology is central to making it compelling,” The University of Sheffield’s Tom Stafford told me. “It’s always on, and time is sliced into small bits. What else can you do in five seconds that’s interesting? So why not check your phone?” This is a large part of why “using the internet can be compulsive.”
That suggests that the drive behind use of the internet, especially via smartphones, is the result of feelings and thoughts more akin to those in obsessive compulsive disorder—in particular, compulsive checking—than to addiction. “The underlying motivation to use a mobile phone is not pleasure,” as the addiction model says, “but rather a response to heightened stress and anxiety,” said Moez Limayem of the University of Arkansas, who led a study on this presented to the 2012 Americas Conference on Information Systems. We feel anxious if we’re not making use of every tiny slice of time.
Just how hard—even unpleasant and anxiety-producing—it is to be alone with our thoughts was shown dramatically in a 2014 study. Researchers led by social psychologist Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia gave volunteers (students) two options: do “nothing” for 15 minutes or give themselves a small electric shock (which three-quarters had previously told the researchers they’d pay money not to experience). Two-thirds of the men and one-quarter of the women chose the latter, so anxious were they for “something to do.” Don’t blame millennials: adults whom the scientists recruited from a church and a farmer’s market reacted the same way, feeling antsy and anxious when left alone with only the contents of their mind. Milton, as usual, got there first: “The mind is its own place, and in it self/Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n,” he wrote in Paradise Lost. These days, apparently, the mind regards its own company as more like the second option: “The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself,” Wilson and his colleagues concluded.
Especially when the mind, tutored or otherwise, sees dangled before it a payoff structure common to many forms of social media, texts, and email: the intermittent/variable reward system that we met in video games. Most of what fills your Twitter feed or Facebook updates is digital dross. (“Barbara changed her Facebook picture!”) Payoff: zero. But every so often, you find a rare gem—a friend offering two free Bruce Springsteen tickets she can’t use, or an acquaintance posting that he’ll be in your neighborhood tomorrow and is looking for someone to share a beer. Hopping from one site to another and landing on one that tells you the secret to fixing squeaky wooden floors, or that a Kardashian just blew up the internet again, makes the many duds and time sucks worthwhile. The internet’s cognitive-reward structure compels many people to jump from site to site (This one might have the fact that will change my life), to use social media, to see what YouTube video is trending, lest they miss a life-changing, merely important, or just entertaining bit of information. Our brains want more, and our thumbs oblige. Anxiety that we might miss such treasures in the sea of dross drives compulsive internet use.
“If I give you a treat sometimes, you have to keep checking all the time: you don’t know when it will come,” Tom Stafford said. “No matter how frequently you check, even if you checked only a second ago, a brilliant email might have just come in,” or a friend might have posted on Foursquare only a second after you last checked that she’s in the bar you just passed. “You feel anxiety about possibly missing something.” Such low-cost, occasionally high-reward activities are catnip to the brain: they produce the experiences most likely to reel you in and impale you on the hook of intermittent/variable rewards.
If we’re prevented from engaging in a compulsion like staring at our smartphones for texts, the anxiety that the compulsive behavior alleviates comes roaring back. Psychologists have reported that people who are separated from their smartphone often experience an elevated heart rate and other signs of anxiety. In one 2016 study, volunteers who filled out a standard questionnaire about their smartphone use and emotions told researchers that they turn to their phones “to avoid negative experiences or feelings” and “to cope [with] or escape from feelings related to an anxiety-inducing situation.” Psychologist Alejandro Lleras of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign described it as a security-blanket effect, absorbing our bubbling-over anxiety. That fits with the growing number of studies finding that people text as a way to escape anxiety; in questionnaire-based studies, something like 70 percent of participants say smartphones and texting help them overcome anxiety and other negative moods. It’s become a stereotype that people in awkward (read: anxiety-provoking) situations “turn to their mobile phones as a way to disengage,” the Illinois researchers said, and do the same “during times of more intense distress.”
To get beyond mere observation, Lleras and a colleague attempted something more rigorous. They gave volunteers a short writing assignment that, they explained (falsely), would be evaluated by two experts. To ratchet up the stress further, the researchers said the experts would also conduct an on-camera interview about the essay with the volunteers. While waiting for that, half the volunteers had access to their mobile phones and half didn’t. While 11 of 24 volunteers who were able to text and surf to their anxiety-ridden-heart’s content felt intense anxiety, 18 of the 25 deprived of their phones did, Lleras reported in the journal Computers in Human Behavior. And 82 percent of those who kept their phones used it for every moment of the 10-minute wait. By giving in to a compulsion to use their phone, they were able to defuse much of their anxiety. “People seem to be less vulnerable to becoming stressed in anxiety-provoking situations when they have access” to their mobile phone, the researchers wrote.
Smartphones “function as comfort objects, antidotes to the hostile terrain of wider society,” as British social theorist James Harkin wrote way back in 2003. By making us feel we’re always connected to the world, they alleviate the anxiety that otherwise floods into us from feeling alone and untethered. Anxiety-driven use of mobile phones is pervasive enough to have inspired the neologism nomophobia (for “no mobile phone”) to describe the pathological anxiety, bleeding into fear, that comes from being unable to access our Galaxy, iPhone, or other preferred silicon security blanket. No wonder 40 percent of smartphone owners use their device before getting out of bed, according to a 2013 survey by Ericsson ConsumerLab, an arm of the Swedish technology giant, or that Americans checked their smartphones 46 times a day in 2015 (up from 33 in 2014), according to a survey by the consulting firm Deloitte—and 74 times a day if they’re college-age.
Kevin Holesh’s day always started with a cell phone, usually 20 minutes of swiping through “missed” tweets and emails. He slept with it next to his bed, used it no matter who he was with, constantly checked email, and would no more think of turning it off than a heart patient would consider turning off his pacemaker. “I was afraid of missing out on some big email,” said Holesh, a technology designer and developer in Pittsburgh. “Some CEO wanted to talk, and I wanted to be there instantly. It was me imagining this golden ticket appearing in my inbox.” In 2013, he developed Moment, an app to track how much time users are on their phone each day. Knowing his own numbers—looking at his phone every twenty-three minutes, on average—didn’t quell the anxiety he felt when he tried to resist it, but removing temptation did. He began placing his phone outside his bedroom at night and removed his email from it. That slowly helped him realize he didn’t need to reply to every email instantly; it was fine to wait until morning, or even the next day.
A character in the 2014 New York City production of Laura Eason’s play Sex with Strangers says upon learning there’s no cell phone service at a bed-and-breakfast, “People will think I’m dead.” People don’t like feeling dead. A 2010 study by the International Center for Media & the Public Agenda at the University of Maryland showed how profound an existential dread engulfs people cut off from the online world. The researchers asked 200 students at the school’s College Park campus to abstain from using their phones and computers (and all other media) for 24 hours, after which they were asked to describe their experiences. Those descriptions, in which the students said they felt disconnected and anxious that they were missing out on something or were out of the loop, were full of terms evoking compulsion. Frantically craving. Very anxious. Extremely antsy. Miserable. Jittery. Crazy.
It’s worth reading some of them:
“Texting and IM’ing my friends gives me a constant feeling of comfort . . . the fact that I was not able to communicate with anyone via technology was almost unbearable.”
“I feel so disconnected from all the people who I think are calling me, but really they aren’t half the time.”
“I got back from class around 5, frantically craving some technology . . . I couldn’t take it anymore being in my room . . . alone . . . with nothing to occupy my mind so I gave up.”
That speaks to an itchiness on the part of 21-century denizens, to our inability to be alone with our thoughts now that we and our telecom toys have become joined at the palm. Watch solitary diners at an outdoor cafe some summer afternoon. Time was, they would do some people watching, maybe some reading. Now they scroll through their inbox, check constantly for incoming texts, and click away desperately at website after website to be sure they’re on the right one.
It’s not only being deprived of those variable-interval rewards that makes ditching their smartphone unthinkable for many people. Because it has become our main connection to other people and the world at large, the anxiety that comes from not being able to check it arises, too, from the feeling of being cut off, from missing something, as if the entire population (well, at least your friends and colleagues) is plugged in, connected, on top of things, and you aren’t. How does the online world manage to reach into our cortex and make us feel on edge, anxious, jumpy if we’re not connected? For starters, by extending its tentacles into virtually every aspect of life, from shopping to dating, from keeping in touch with friends to just plain feeling like you’re in the loop. “There are people who feel, If I’m not there, if I’m not on that site, I’m missing something—something about my friends, or my health, or anything else,” psychiatrist Dr. David Reiss, who practices in San Diego, told me. “It’s driven by anxiety over the risk of missing something if they don’t check a site every five minutes.” In other words, the internet exploits FoMO, or Fear of Missing Out.
Coined in the mid-2000s (its first entry on UrbanDictionary.com is from 2006), FoMO is defined as “pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent,” psychologists led by Andrew Przybylski and Valerie Gladwell of England’s University of Essex wrote in a 2013 paper in the journal Computers in Human Behavior. It “is characterized by the desire to stay continually connected with what others are doing.” FoMO studies in 2011 and 2012 had found that some three-quarters of the young adults polled agreed that they at least occasionally had “the uneasy and sometimes all-consuming feeling that you’re missing out, that your peers are doing, in the know about, or in possession of more or something better than you.” For some people that desire is compulsive in the sense I’ve been using it: thinking you might miss an opportunity to meet up with friends (or simply know that others are meeting up), to know what “everyone” knows, or to be aware of someone’s status updates on Facebook triggers an itchy, twitchy, edgy anxiety. Being disconnected is synonymous with missing out.
It certainly felt that way to Cynthia Thompson. In 2010, when she had her first child and started working from home, the London-based writer began finding the pull of the online world irresistible. “It was my way of finding out what’s happening,” she said. Feeling cut off from the world of work, she went online nearly around the clock, checking her phone to find out what she was missing and feeling uneasy if her phone ran out of battery power. “We’re so used to that instant culture, that an hour later, or two hours later, it would be too late. I do feel a bit anxious if I can’t get to the phone straightaway.” Her constant online checking stems from the omnipresent need to reassure herself that she hasn’t missed an emergency message from her son’s school or a work-related email.
In their research, the University of Essex team had 1,031 volunteers aged 18 to 62 from the United States, Britain, India, Australia, and Canada—all recruited online (confounding alert!)—answer how well 32 statements described their everyday experience. From that, they identified 10 statements (which people answered on a five-point scale from “not at all true” about them to “extremely true”) that best picked up on individual differences in FoMO:
- I sometimes fear others have more rewarding experiences than me.
- I fear my friends have more rewarding experiences than me.
- I get worried when I find out my friends are having fun without me.
- I get anxious when I don’t know what my friends are up to.
- It is important that I understand my friends’ “in jokes.”
- Sometimes, I wonder if I spend too much time keeping up with what is going on.
- It bothers me when I miss an opportunity to meet up with friends.
- When I have a good time it is important for me to share the details online (e.g., updating status).
- When I miss out on a planned get-together it bothers me.
- When I go on vacation I continue to keep tabs on what my friends are doing.
They called it the Fear of Missing Out scale, and it was the first attempt to define the concept in a way that would allow researchers to measure it. Younger men had a greater FoMO than younger women, and younger people a greater FoMO than older ones. Then the researchers matched up FoMO scores on a standard assessment of how well people felt they were meeting three core psychological needs—relatedness, or feeling close or connected to others; autonomy, the notion that we’re the authors of our own lives; and competence, the sense that we can exert an effect on and in the world. Conclusion: people who most felt they were falling short in these three were most likely to fear missing out. People high on the FoMO scale were also more likely to feel more unhappy and dissatisfied with life in general. And—the key finding—they were also most likely to use social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other sites that allow us to not only proclaim that we exist, but also to keep tabs on others and stay in the loop, assuaging at least temporarily the angst triggered by the thought that something is going on that we’re not a part of. “Fear of missing out,” the researchers concluded, “played a key and robust role in explaining social media engagement over and above” factors such as age, gender, or even psychological factors such as mood. “Those with low levels of satisfaction of the fundamental needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness tend towards higher levels of fear of missing out as do those with lower levels of general mood and overall life satisfaction.”
And if we do miss out? If we’re not connected? “It struck me that part of the reason we always stay jacked in,” wrote New York Times media columnist David Carr in 2014, shortly before his untimely death the next year, “is that we want everyone—at the other end of the phone, on Facebook and Twitter, on the web, on email—to know that we are part of the now. If we look away, we worry we will disappear.” If existence is defined by an online presence, then not being online is not to exist. Human history knows no greater motivation for action than the existential one of raging against the dying of the light, of fighting mortality by leaving a bit of ourselves behind through the children we bear or the works we create or the tiny nudge with which we try to bend ever-so-slightly the arc of human history. Indeed, reality television wouldn’t exist absent the deep and powerful human motivation to stand up and say, See, I exist! When we’re not online, when we’re not connected, when we miss out, we don’t exist, and that causes the most unbearable and existential anxiety there is.
It’s not internet use per se, nor specifically social media use, that’s compulsive. Instead, the compulsion is to avoid feeling lonely, bored, or out of the loop. What many researchers (who, by the way, are usually decades older than the internet users they study) treat as aberrant is instead a new way of living, playing, socializing, communicating, and working “for which researchers currently have only pathological interpretations,” as Daniel Kardefelt-Winther of the London School of Economics and Political Science put it in a 2014 paper in Computers in Human Behavior. “To suggest that this is a mental disorder seems to be a stretch.”
Compulsive internet use, then, is best understood as the result of nearly ubiquitous psychological traits. The need to feel connected, which existed long before Facebook was a gleam in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye, anxiety over “missing out,” responses to variable intermittent rewards, a primal drive to have our existence recognized by friends and strangers—all of these can drive us to go online compulsively. Like gaming, compulsive internet use is better understood as, at worst, a coping strategy—and all of us need a little help coping occasionally. Just as in other compulsive behaviors, feeling driven by anxiety to constantly check the online world via smartphone or any other device is the result of normal, useful, adaptive, near-universal ways the mind works. That is how we should understand the digital compulsion: not as a pathology, but as the result of the online world’s ability to tap into something deep in the human psyche and make many of us digital casualties.
Sharon Begley is the senior science writer at STAT, the life sciences publication of the Boston Globe. The author of the New York Times bestseller Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, she’s received numerous awards for her writings about science.
Excerpted from the book Can’t. Just. Stop: An Investigation of Compulsions by Sharon Begley. Copyright © 2017 by Sharon Begley. Published by Simon & Shuster. All rights reserved.
Illustration © Tim Ogline