FarmVille, Angry Birds and other online compulsions

FarmVille, I am so over you.

Once upon a time I couldn’t get enough of you. Planting all those virtual crops, watching them grow and raking them in at harvest time was – there’s no other word for it – addicting.

I checked obsessively on the progress of my online farm. I racked up the points as if they were $100 chips in a life-or-death poker game. I confess to becoming rather greedy in the online store. I wanted an apple orchard! A barn and silo! Heck, two barns! Flocks of chickens and ducks! The pony my parents wouldn’t let me have in real life!

Alas, the novelty soon wore off. I visited my virtual farm less and less often. My crops withered and died. I let the fields go fallow.

All told, my fascination with FarmVille lasted about three months – pretty brief, considering the compulsive draw of so many online activities these days.

I had mostly forgotten about my FarmVille phase until I came across a study last week about the compulsive behavior of many smartphone users. The study appears in the latest issue of the Personal and Ubiquitous Computing journal and examines what the authors dubbed the checking habit: “brief, repetitive inspection of dynamic content quickly accessible on the device.”

Among the findings: Many smartphone users frequently and repetitively check their phone each day, more out of habit than any real need to do so. The average was 34 times a day. These visits generally lasted less than half a minute, but they often were a gateway behavior for using other smartphone applications and seemed to lead to greater overall smartphone use over time.

Many people have wondered, and rightly so, whether Internet and mobile technology are giving rise to a whole new category of addictive behaviors.

Anna Kendrick, star of “Twilight,” confessed earlier this year to an obsession with Angry Birds and wondered whether she needs therapy to break herself of the habit. In a guest post this week at Kevin, MD, Dr. Dinah Miller, who blogs at Shrink Rap, analyzed her own compulsion to play Angry Birds and concluded the game is fun, easy to play yet challenging enough to keep the user from becoming bored. Besides, she writes, “It clears my mind and occupies my time in a relatively angst-free way.”

Is it accurate to characterize online games and applications as addictive? Internet gaming doesn’t formally qualify (yet) as a psychiatric disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-IV. Calling it an addiction may be doing a disservice to alcohol, gambling and other dependencies that are severely disruptive, put the user’s health at risk and are sometimes fatal.

The authors of the smartphone study stopped short of describing frequent checking habits as an addiction. The majority of the smartphone users who were studied felt the habit was annoying rather than problematic, they wrote.

The researchers also offered this perspective on being hooked on technology and Internet use:

Recent theories suggest that [I]nternet and media “addiction” is rather a struggle to maintain effective self-regulation over problematic habit-driven behavior. In other words, addiction and habits are parts of the same continuum, but what we colloquially describe as Internet or media addiction is better described as overuse due to loss of self-control.

It’s entirely possible, of course, for someone to become so focused on checking their smartphone or playing Angry Birds that other aspects of their lives are neglected. Sometimes the best course of action is to do what Dr. Phil famously advised a FarmVille-obsessed mom who couldn’t stop: “Unplug it and walk away.”

2 thoughts on “FarmVille, Angry Birds and other online compulsions

  1. Interesting article – great links. I’m curious about future studies. I enjoyed Dr. Phil’s remark: “Get out of FarmVille, start a garden for real.” I appreciate ACGC’s school garden for our kids.

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