I came across an interesting quote from American TV host Bill Maher recently.
Berating the addictive power of social media, he called social media tycoons "tobacco farmers in T-shirts".
"Let's face it," Maher says. "Checking your likes is the new smoking."
He raises an interesting point. The longing to check your phone, lying enticingly just out of reach; the fidgeting between checks; the constant hand-to-face action; the sudden rush of pleasure on giving it to the urge … it's all heavily reminiscent of smoking.
You won't see a Surgeon General's warning on your smartphone. Yet in a more surreptitious way, social media has become addictive like smoking.
Bad habits start early
Like smoking, the habit is formed in youth. According to the 2017 Sensis Social Media report, the 18 to 29-year group is the biggest demographic for accessing social media first thing in the morning (79 per cent), the last thing at night (65 per cent) and at work (46 per cent).
Like smoking, it's hard to resist. Researchers at Chicago University's Booth Business School discovered in a study of 205 people aged between 18 and 85 that participants found it easier to resist alcohol and even cigarettes than tweeting or checking emails.
Yet unlike smoking, social media surfing is only growing in popularity. While cigarette smoking adoption rates are plummeting – the Heart Foundation estimates that in 2014/2015, one in seven Australians aged 15 years and over smoked daily – Deloitte estimates that 88 per cent of Australians own a smartphone. There's a good chance you're reading this article on a smartphone right now.
So why are we so hooked? According to neuroscience, receiving a "like" or a text releases dopamine, the body's reward molecule. When we get that rush of dopamine, we keep going back for more and more, scrabbling like a smoker searching for that one last missing cigarette in a desk draw.
I remember when I first started in the media, there was always a team of hard-core smokers lurking outside the building puffing away. Yet for today's intrepid truth seekers, their addictive form of time wasting is the internet.
If you see just about any Gen X-Z worker on their break today, odds are they don't have a Winnie Blue or rolled-up Champion Ruby in their hand: they've got a smartphone.
Pass a bus stop and you'll probably see half the people on their smartphones. At lunchtime – and many times in between – people at their computers check Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, checking those "likes" Maher warned about.
So if people are now filling their hands and their spare time with smartphones instead of cigarettes – and aren't exactly sure why they're so compelled to do so every half an hour so their brain gets that little dopamine hit – perhaps it's time for us to be honest about it.
Here is my modest proposal.
Maybe the veritable "smoko" should become a "social media smoko".
Let's stop fighting the inevitable. Let staff take the time that used to be reserved for smoking to access their social media feeds.
Thus sated, they can go about their regular work.
Until it's time to check for those "likes" again.
Have you succumbed to social media? Share your experience in the comments section below.