Researchers in the US have linked cultural obsession with social media - BlackBerrys, Facebook, Twitter and other devices of the digital age - with the same insidious neural pathways that trigger cravings in alcoholics and drug addicts. What's more, residents living abroad in predominantly expatriate cities such as Abu Dhabi and Dubai, where Facebook and MySpace are overwhelmingly popular, may be especially at risk.
The link between connection and compulsion comes from a study in which the University of Maryland's International Center for Media and the Public Agenda asked 200 students to abstain from all media for 24 hours. When the day was done, the researchers asked the subjects to blog about their feelings. They expected complaints, but not the physical manifestations of classic withdrawal that were reported: anxiety, mood swings, loneliness, pounding headaches, even delusions of phantom phone rings.
One student wrote: "Texting and IM-ing [instant messaging] my friends gives me a constant feeling of comfort. When I did not have those two luxuries, I felt quite alone and secluded from my life." Another student experienced mood swings and "felt like a person on a deserted island" after being unable to check e-mail. "I noticed physically, that I began to fidget, as if I was addicted to my iPod and other media devices, and maybe I am," the student wrote.
"We were surprised by how many students admitted that they were 'incredibly addicted' to media," Susan Moeller, the director of the media centre, told the online journal LiveScience. "They hated losing their personal connections. Going without media meant, in their world, going without their friends and family." To the students, text messaging and social networking were essential for feeling connected.
The findings resonated with Dr Saliha Afridi, a clinical psychologist with the Human Relations Institute in Dubai. "Whether it's alcohol, drugs, television, it's the same kind of dopamine being released, and the same neural pathways are being reinforced in your brain," she said.
"Everybody here is from somewhere else and we've all left our families and social circles and places we're familiar with, so we find we might be around a lot of people but we might not be connecting to a lot of people. We're social animals, and so we turn to Facebook."
Dopamine - the neurotransmitter that tugs at the brain, telling it to expect pleasure - is part of what the psychologist Susan Weinschenk calls the "dopamine-induced loop". The advent of text messaging and Twitter has brought instant gratification for anyone wanting to talk to someone or be heard right away. A new e-mail popping up in an inbox or the chime on a phone indicating a new text message might deliver the same buzz as when a smoker takes a drag from a cigarette.
"It becomes harder and harder to stop looking at e-mail, stop texting, stop checking our cellphones to see if we have a message or a new text," Dr Weinschenk noted. Dopamine is also to blame for the happy state of wanting to seek things out, such as when a person begins one Google search and ends up ensnared in an hour-long Googling session, according to Kent Berridge, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.
Dr Afridi has seen her share of patients who have replaced real-life connections with compulsive virtual relationships, particularly among Dubai expatriates in recent years. Real-time simulation games such as FarmVille, which allows users to harvest virtual crops, consume hours of patients' time. "Some of the women come to me, they don't work or their kids are at school, and I find they're on Facebook four, five, eight hours a day," she said. "There are kids that come to me and say all my mum does is play on FarmVille every day."
In 2008, the market research firm Synovate found that UAE residents were more likely than North Americans to have an online social network account. The survey said 46 per cent of UAE respondents were members, compared with 44 per cent of respondents in Canada and 40 per cent in the US, out of 13,000 people interviewed globally. People with an unhealthy dependence on updating their Facebook statuses or checking for new Tweets might do well to ask themselves what needs are being met from that behaviour, Dr Afridi said.
"We look at the biopsychosocial needs. Every time I do something, or I'm putting in my new status, it might say something about my needs to be recognised or appreciated or heard." Dr Afridi uses Facebook herself and recognised the convenience of being able to plan dinner parties and get updates on friends' lives, but healthy boundaries are key. Social networking technologies should not become a primary means of communication, she said.
"Our culture is becoming more individualised and isolated, and a lot less mindful of our relations." Crowne Plaza Hotels recently acknowledged this technology-obsessed culture. Last week, the company introduced a "switch off at 7" evening call service across hotels in Europe as well as in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The service reminds guests to turn off their laptops and phones to prepare for sleep. Told of the University of Maryland addiction study, Alexander McNabb, who uses Twitter as many as 30 times a day, did not buy it.
"Two weeks ago, I spent five days in western Ireland without access to the internet or television," he said. "It was brilliant, except I didn't know about that volcano in Iceland. We found out about it in the end over the radio." Did the 45-year-old director of a public relations company experience tech withdrawal? "No pangs at all," he said. "Unless you count the shock and knowledge that I had at least 2,000 e-mails when I got back."