A few days ago Dr. Phil scolded a mother on his show for her obsession with Farmville, the insanely popular game that more than 11 million people on Facebook are playing. According to the woman, she’d all but stopped interacting with her family or doing anything other than tending her thriving virtual crops and animals. She even allegedly unplugged the router in her house to make sure her daughter couldn’t get online, and then reconnected it to secretly get back to working the farm.
Dr. Phil told the woman,
You unplugged it because you have a ridiculous addiction to a ridiculous computer game that’s interfering with your ability to be a mother. You needed a fix, and she [the daughter] wouldn’t get off, so you had to create the opportunity.
Dr. Phil’s response illustrates why pop psychology will always be limited when it comes to making real contributions to understanding important topics.
Note, first, that this woman could hardly be an easier target for Dr. Phil’s wrath. She’s neglecting her family for a cartoonish digital simulation featuring sunflowers and little lost lambs. What could be more ridiculous? And that’s exactly what Dr. Phil needs to wield his tried and true brand of psych reductionism. The “solution” to her problem is so obvious, needing only Dr. Phil’s force of personality to make it explicitly clear. What is the solution?
Unplug it and walk away.
On the circus that is talk show television, this is entertaining fodder for snippet hungry audiences. The KISS principle applies: Keep It Simple Stupid.
But I’ve spent enough time working through the research on the psychosocial effects of social networking to know that Dr. Phil is doing this woman and his audience a disservice. I started digging into the topic precisely because I was sick of hearing reductionistic platitudes (ala Dr. Phil) on one hand, and baseless alarmism on the other, and wanted to discover what credible research was really uncovering about how the social networking juggernaut is affecting us.
My search culminated in an article for Scientific American Mind magazine, out now in the January/February issue. Check it out if the topic interests you, and I’d be more than happy to discuss the subject here or via email. For the sake of this post, however, there are just a few items I’d like to mention.
First, while it fits Dr. Phil’s format to castigate the Farmville mom, the truth is that playing a computer simulation—however silly it might sound—is just a symptom of a far deeper problem for this woman, and for thousands of others. Consider that in the U.S. roughly one out of every 50 people displays hallmarks of obsessive-compulsive disorder. When someone with an obsessive-compulsive predisposition begins using Facebook and playing Farmville, or any of the other simulations, the likelihood of problematic use is significantly higher than for someone who doesn’t bring these tendencies to the technology. And the technology—a supremely effective instant gratification delivery system–accelerates the effect.
According to researchers I interviewed for the article, one of the strongest dynamics driving the obsession is mood regulation in response to social anxiety. One of the experts I interviewed was Scott Caplan, professor and social media researcher at the University of Delaware. Here’s a clip from the section about his research:
A consistent factor across many of the studies in this realm is that social networking is simply a new forum for bad habits. Social media researcher Scott Caplan of the University of Delaware says, “People who prefer online interaction over face-to-face interaction also score higher on measures of compulsive Internet use and using the Internet to alter their moods.”
In 2007 Caplan conducted a study of 343 undergraduate students to determine what stoked the fires of compulsive behavior online. He homed in on personality traits that leave people vulnerable, such as loneliness and social anxiety, and online activities that attract people with compulsive tendencies, such as playing video games, watching pornography and gambling. Of these variables, social anxiety emerged as the strongest.
“Socially anxious individuals who have problems with face-to-face interactions are drawn to the unique features of online conversation,” Caplan says. In time, they may start using social networking compulsively to regulate their mood, and the self-feeding cycle begins.
To highlight the main point: social anxiety was the single most compelling factor driving obsessive use, outpacing even pornography. Can an issue this potent be solved with “unplug it and walk away”? Maybe for some, but for most, probably not.
There’s nothing special about Farmville or any other computer simulation. Most people play these games without any significant interference in their lives. People who develop problems, like the mother on Dr. Phil, are predisposed to getting hooked on the latest brand of heroine, and if it wasn’t that brand, it would be another.
So my concluding message to Dr. Phil is this: we all know that your job is to make your show compelling and entertaining, and it’s obvious that targeting the addiction de jour is a standard part of your format. But you should be aware that when you couch significant problems as ridiculous and easy-to-solve personality quirks, you’re contributing to the pop psych smokescreen that makes understanding the real issues all the more difficult. What’s worse, you are misleading your audience–and isn’t that exactly the opposite of what you claim your show is all about?