Addicted To Social Media? Facebook Wants It That Way.

Addicted To Social Media? Facebook Wants It That Way.

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Originally this post was going to be about quitting social media. I had been thinking about doing this for a while now. Because there is one, simple fact that always stands out to me whenever I look at how I wasted my day: how much time I spend on social media.

Now, the thing is that social media is more or less a part of my job description. So up until now, it never occurred to me that I was wasting so much time on Facebook, Twitter, and the rest of them. For many of my friends, Facebook and wasting time are a 1:1 ratio – if they’re on Facebook, they’re simply not working. For me, however, it was a bit dicey: my personal Facebook time bled into my work Facebook time, convincing me that everything I was doing while I was on Facebook was, in fact, related to my work.

Or so I thought. Despite my productivity (so-called productivity, at least) I had a feeling in the back of my mind that I was lying to myself. I knew that much of my time on Facebook and Twitter was simply leading me to click articles on things totally not related to my job (well, as a blogger, it’s all kind of related, but I digress) and stopping me from the one thing that is essential for me to do: write.

I kind of wanted to quit social media, but I also knew that I still had to, you know, do my job and make money. So I hit upon an idea: I would quit social media for a month. Just cold turkey. Disconnecting the old cord, etc. and all those other clichés we like to use. I spoke with my editors at ET, and they were happy to sign off on it. So with the idea in mind, the deadline loomed near: I would go dark on all my social media beginning January 1, 2015.

Put simply, I am a social media addict.

The experience was quite illuminating, and originally I was going to write all about it.

It was also surprisingly stressful, which I had anticipated- but not to the degree to which I felt it. In fact, it was so stressful that it led me to research the reasons why- and those reasons terrified me. Put simply: I am a social media addict. You probably are too. And that’s not just by accident: Facebook, Twitter, and all the rest want it that way. They’ve carefully crafted their platforms so that you get hooked on them.

You probably don’t want to hear a blow-by-blow of every painful day I spent without Facebook, so instead I’ve worked my experiences into a set of things I learned from my month of being off the social media grid- and the unsettling conclusions that they led me to.

My social media use is almost unconscious

I broke my social media fast the very first day.

Without even realizing it.

It was a day like any other. I woke up, turned off my alarm, saw the notifications on my phone, and casually pressed them to see what was happening. It was seconds before I realized what I had done, and when I did I immediately closed my Twitter app, horrified.

I knew I was abstaining from social media. I knew I wasn’t supposed to check any of those tantalizing little icons in my notification bar. And yet I did it anyway. I immediately uninstalled all my social media apps, but the fact remained that the very first thing I do in the morning, completely out of habit, is check my notifications.

That was just one of the first of many times I almost checked my social media unconsciously, and I discovered something: my social media use is nigh-automatic. I found that whenever I paused in my writing, or reading, or whatever I was doing- a new tab was open, and I had typed “www.faceb” before I stopped myself.

The implications of that are… well, disturbing, to say the least. Think about it: my social media use was so high that it was my automatic, default action. If you put me in front of a computer and I’m not consciously going somewhere else, I will unconsciously open up Facebook. It’s pretty much a habit.

The worst part? That’s intentional. Which leads to our next segment…

Social media is addictive, and it’s designed to be

Multiple studies have shown that social media use is habit-forming.

There’s plenty of evidence out there that social media is addictive: you don’t have to go far for that. Multiple studies have shown that social media use is habit-forming. That’s not necessarily news- everyone has known since MySpace that social media sites are habit-forming. You want to check in to see how the world is doing and get those likes and shares- that’s only natural. Some studies are even showing that social media might be more addictive than even alcohol and tobacco.

What is unnatural is that these companies know this. Not only do they know this, they are actively trying to make their products even more habit-forming and addictive. The current social media ecosystem is basically a bunch of dealers trying to steal each others’ addicts.

Don’t believe me? Here’s a blog on making habit-forming products. Here’s another on making addictive Facebook and mobile apps. And another with quick tips on building more habit-forming products.

The terminology they use is disinterested: “triggers” and “hooks” and “value”. That might not sound bad. After all, it’s just psychology, right? Just like any good marketers, they’re using every trick in the book to catch you. All you have to do is be smarter than them, and you’ll be fine.

Except what they’re doing isn’t just psychological. It’s actually physical.

That’s right. Facebook affects your brain’s addiction centers in the same way that tobacco and alcohol does.  For example: Nir Eyal is mentioned in the above blog post talking about the trigger. He says that loading the trigger primes users to stimulate their nucleus accumbens, or the part of the brain that makes them feel good.

Normally, this is a good part of the brain. It’s associated with hanging out with friends, accomplishment, and exercise. But the spikes in pleasure that come from using social media look less like natural accomplishment pleasure and more like the spikes that come from drug use like tobacco and alcohol.

This part of your brain is so powerful that it can actually override your survival instinct: scientists have found that a rat, when given rewards for pushing a lever, will actually choose to keep pushing the lever instead of eating or drinking.

So it’s not just mental- you can get, at least in part, physically addicted to social media.

So it’s not just mental- you can get, at least in part, physically addicted to social media. Those likes? They’re fueling your self-esteem. You want to log in and get more likes, get more shares, and every like and share you get further fuels your addiction.

So that’s not a problem, right? Just avoid it. It’s probably better for you anyway. No harm no foul.

That’d be great, except…

Social media is now a necessity

It is really, really difficult to live in our world without social media.

No, seriously. It sounds like it might not be, at first. We have phones, texts, email. Social media is great for keeping in touch, but it’s not a necessity, right?

That’s what I thought when I began this experiment. I was wrong. So absolutely, incredibly wrong.

First off, not all social media is created equal in this regard. Twitter and Instagram were less necessary, as far as I could tell. I didn’t miss anything really huge in my life by abstaining from those two, since they’re not normally used as primary communications platforms by the vast majority of my family and friends. I did, however, miss the constant rush of self-gratification that came with them- but it was bearable.

The big problem- the 800 pound gorilla in the room- is that everyone assumes that everyone else is on Facebook.

The big problem- the 800 pound gorilla in the room- is that everyone assumes that everyone else is on Facebook.

Nearly everyone uses Facebook as a primary communications platform now, from my 24 year old sister to my 74 year old grandparents. Nobody calls or texts or emails anymore because, hey, it’s on Facebook!

Here’s a list of big things I missed because I wasn’t on Facebook:

  1.  My sister getting a new job
  2.  My father’s 50th surprise birthday party (well, almost missed)
  3.  A friend of mine moving away to Chicago and their going away party

#2 really, really shocked me. You might be thinking “Eric, really? You didn’t call your dad on his birthday?”

And that’s the thing. I did. But he had no idea he was going to have a surprise birthday party. So he told me that he wasn’t doing anything special, and we talked, and I thought that was it. That is, until my sister called me that evening, at 8 PM.

“Eric, where are you?” she hissed at me, the fury palpable in her voice. I was understandably confused.

“I’m home. Why?” I said to her.

“Dad’s going to cut the cake soon! And you missed the surprise party!” she said.

She had sent out the invites on Facebook- and she assumed I’d get it. And of course I would: why wouldn’t I? I was on Facebook. It never once crossed her mind that I wouldn’t. She had forgotten that I wasn’t on Facebook for a month. As had plenty of other people.

Because let’s face it. In the 21st century, nobody calls or texts or emails anybody individually.

Because let’s face it. In the 21st century, nobody calls or texts or emails anybody individually. And rightly so- it’s a hassle. It’s far easier and quicker to mass message people on a platform you know they’re checking all the time. And why are they checking it all the time?

Because they’re addicted. Just like you.

The Aftermath

And you know what the worst part is? Even after I learned all this, even after I knew everything that Facebook could do to me, I still wanted back in. Because it was painful and isolating not to be on Facebook. I missed that dopamine hit when I got a like, a share, or a comment- that much is obvious. But what I couldn’t ignore was the fact that I was missing out. The weird looks that I got when I told people I was quitting Facebook for a month.

I’d explain why I missed their party, or invite, or whatever- and they’d tell me that it was a good thing that I was quitting Facebook, that I was going to be more productive and happier and all these other things. But you could tell they thought it was strange.

And it wasn’t just how people felt, either: I felt bad. I felt alone and unloved, even though I knew that I wasn’t. But my month away from Facebook left me with an inexorable, terrifying truth: if you’re not on Facebook, your ability to engage and interact in a 21st century social sphere is considerably reduced.

For some people, that might be enough. But not me. So I found myself looking at the calendar, waiting anxiously for the day when I could hit myself with that sweet, sweet relief of social media use once again- eagerly waiting my chance to fall off the wagon.

Hello, my name is Eric Macklin. And I am addicted to Facebook.

  • Tannie

    I actually also have been someone who tends to go on and off facebook. I can’t ever fully quit, but I actually do so much more when I’m not on it. Actually, its during those times I feel like I am closer to a certain set of friends. But usually, I like to engage in discussion also, so I did miss that aspect of Facebook because it seems easier on their because all the people you know and have met before are on there. I also do tons more productive things. I learn new skills I would never take the time to learn because I’m not sucked into a loophole of never-ending dumb click-bait articles from buzzfeed, imgur, or 9gag.com. I think its good to take time off of it every now and then, but maybe its okay to come back every once in awhile because you’re article is correct, I missed out on a lot of social events because I was no longer on FB and only certain close friends ever invited me to do anything. It was sad, but if you’re not used to solitude, it could hurt.

  • SAMUEL TUNES

    I reserve the word “addiction” for behaviors that meet the following criteria:

    1 – the behavior has an adverse impact on your life
    2 – you wish to avoid the adverse consequences of such behavior, but you are unwilling to stop the behavior itself so you do other things to compensate for the adverse consequences.

    One might argue that we are all addicted to breathing because it is repetitive, it is most often done unconsciously, you feel like you can’t live without it, you feel better with it, and feel worse without it. However, breathing does not meet the criteria above.

    Now consider stubbing your toe. This is painful and therefore it has an adverse impact on the quality of your life. However, you are very willing to stop the behavior even though you will inevitably do it again sooner or later. One might say that you must be “addicted” to toe stubbing if you do it even though you don’t want to, but the key point is that you are willing to stop and you take measures to avoid doing it. The toe stubbing is an acceptable risk of the benefits of walking and I’m not talking about just exercise here.

    Some people enjoy drinking alcohol. The quantity and frequency have little to do with anything as long as it does not meet the criteria specified above. Some people might want to drink themselves to death, but this is not so much addiction as it is akin to suicide. That is another problem entirely. Conversely, some people may go to extremes to avoid a perceived adverse consequence. Healthy fear is good, but when one goes to extremes to avoid something to the point that it adversely affects your life, that is a phobia.

    Yes, too much Facebook can be bad and it can be an addiction. But for most people it is just a means of communicating. And communicating is about as natural for humans as breathing. 🙂