One of the weirdest things anyone has ever seen when you are looking for signs of Facebook Addiction is a group of teens waiting for their club or sports practice to begin.
These youngsters are sitting with their backs to each other and their faces turned toward their cell phones. Their thumbs are flying, so you can be sure messages are flying, too.
Who are they texting? Amazingly enough, they are texting each other using social media apps like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp or Instagram, all services owned by Facebook.
Passing Notes, Twenty-First Century Style
There is a sanctity about sending a message via cell phone. They can be sitting right next to their worst enemy typing something about that person to someone across the room.
Unless their frenemy (an amazing term coined for the Connected Teen) looks over their shoulder or grabs their phone, they can be mouthing sweet nothings face-to-face and doing a supreme job of character assassination online.
Alternately, they could be wooing their newest crush. If she is showing her friends her phone and giggling, the smartphone addict at least has her attention.
You might say that cell phones are today’s sophisticated means of passing notes, but to me, it's a sign of being addicted to Facebook and being addicted to the Internet.
Social Media Addiction - A Page Out of Science Fiction?
More than sixty years ago, Isaac Asimov wrote his “Robot Series” about a future society where humans have spread out across the universe.
Earth has become technophobic while Solaria, a distant civilization has become so technological that humans do not ever touch humans.
Instead, they interact through televised conversations and their robots. The exception is the rearing of young children, because even in this futuristic dystopia, humans have not overcome the need for young humans to the touched and held.
At some point in this series, a group of youngsters who are training to become adults is sitting in a circle, with their backs to each other, conversing via "mirrors," the societies handheld communication devices.
From Science Fiction to Science Fact: Instruction from Dystopia’s of the Past
Science fiction too often becomes science fact. Asimov was more than a prize-winning fiction author. He was a Professor of Biochemistry at the Boston University, and author of more than 500 books, most of them non-fiction.
He received more than twelve awards for fiction, almost one yearly, and held 14 honorary doctorates from various universities.
He was one of several science fiction authors who was connected in one way or another to the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1944, a group that included Robert Anson Heinlein, Poul Anderson, and others.
Out of this think-tank came several books, including Asimov’s Robot books and Bob Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, that foreshadowed or even suggested technological developments in the subsequent decades.
How did Mr. Asimov’s Solaria turn out?
Let’s just say not well. One of the Solarians discovered a way to circumvent the Three Laws of Positronic Robotics to commit murder.
How Well is Our Modern Game of Mirrors Working?
How well is our modern game of mirrors working? Again, not well. Cell phones with digital connections combine elements from our recent past. In the lyrics for the classic Doris Day song, “I Enjoy Being A Girl” she sang “I can talk upon the telephone for hours…” with passing notes and that notorious whispering game that was once called “Gossip.”
Imagine you would add a little spice of malice and commercialism a la yellow journalism, a type of journalism that does not report much real news with facts but instead uses shocking headlines that catch people's attention to sell more newspapers combined with a problematic business model that sells your attention to advertisers.
On top of that add some neuroscience and behavioral engineering and one person, who had called its users “idiots” but scale his company to reach more than 2 Billion people and you’ll get a combination guaranteed to create some serious mischief.
Facebook: A History of Scandals
From its very beginning, Facebook has had more than its fair share of scandals. From stealing billions of views, to Russian “fake news” posts, and live broadcasting of Terrorist attacks, to large scale psychological experiments.
Facebook usage has been peppered with accounts of personal information being sold to commercial data miners, hurt feelings, friendships lost, lawsuits lost and much, much more.
The question becomes is it thanks to Facebook addiction and an incredibly misguided attempt to monetize a “free” service by selling ads or is it something creepier?
In the end, it scarcely matters. The results are what counts.
Facebook Addiction Works Like a Slot Machine
A casino gambler is aware of the odds of getting a big pay-out from a slot machine. There is a reason why those crazy things are nicknamed “one-armed bandits.”
Yet he or she just keeps feeding tokens into the machine until they are all gone. A big pay-out, which does happen occasionally, is like to get fed back into the machine.
Hence the well-known saying “The house always wins.”
The big problem with Facebook, according to Tristan Harris, began with the “Like” button.
Or maybe it only became a real problem when Apple combined the iPad with the iPod to create an iPhone. A device that not only functioned as a telephone, but also as an Internet portal, along with games, news, and social media.
The Problem Began With the Like Button
Harris explains that the “like” button is where the real trouble begins, however. We are human beings and crave social validation. Who doesn’t want to know if their last comment was “liked” or it the video they shared is gaining attention?
That would be trouble enough, rather like a stockholder who is constantly checking the value of shares, but there is also the interactive element of Facebook.
People frequently expect responses to their “likes.” Some go so far as to create posts that say, “I’m putting this out here to see who my friends are. If you really care about me, you’ll XYZ or ABC in response.”
An absence of a few hours can be the equivalent of centuries in Internet time. A person who has not answered posts for a week is suspected of “ghosting” friends or family members.
Small wonder, then, that a circle of teens is sitting with their backs to one another in real time while busily checking content on their phones.
How Companies Like Facebook Make You "Hooked"
This all follows the hooked model which Nir Eyal describes in his book “Hooked.”
Facebook addiction starts with a trigger. For example a notification on your phone that somebody commented on your post.
This is followed by an action, for example, you check out the profile of the person who commented on your post. You never know what you will find in their newsfeed. Maybe something exciting or may it's a fake account. This is just like a slot machine. You never, know if you will win. (For example how many likes and comments your post will get or what you will find in your newsfeed).
The last phase in this model is the investment phase. You are asked to do a bit of work. This could be leaving a comment or posting a new picture. Even using your thumb to scroll your newsfeed is some is time you invest into the app.
Even with this simple example, you notice a few different features that make people addicted to Facebook. Each time you go through the "hook circle" make it more likely that you become addicted to the service you are using.
Is Facebook Addiction Real?
To answer that question, I will quote Adam Alter. In 2004 Facebook was fun; in 2016 it’s addictive. Of course, this addiction does not involve the ingestion of a substance or introduce chemicals into your system. It's a behavioral addiction. In some cases, it might produce the same effects as a real addiction, but it's not very likely that there is something like PFU, problematic Facebook Use or a Facebook Disorder.
But still. Just like many addictive things Facebook is progressively more difficult to resist.
The real problem is not that you will die from using Facebook.
You won’t even encounter major problematic cases like people dying from playing World of Warcraft.
The Sum Is More Than It’s Parts
Facebook Addiction is problematic because the sum is more than it’s parts.
It’s about the company business model, its design and what it does to us as human beings and our society.
Most of the problems we see are statistical. The algorithm can only calculate chances that a person will act in a particular way, as Jaron Lanier points out in his book “Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.”
It's like climate change or eating a bag of potato chips. You can't say anyone in particular is responsible for a specific storm or drought just like you cannot make a bag of chips or Oreos responsible for being overweight.
Why There Is Not a Bright Line Between Addicts and the Rest of Us
Being addicted to social media and our smartphones has become the norm.
As Adam Alter points out "It's very easy to hide behavioral addictions. The go unnoticed for years and addictive technology is part of the mainstream in a way that addictive substances will never be.
All of us now that too much sugar is not good for us, but it's yet time to recognize the same is true for services like Facebook.
Problematic Facebook use does not involve eating or getting fat. I’m not even sure that addiction is the right term for it.
As I pointed out in another article about Internet Addiction, this is a complicated topic that is not well covered by science yet. There are too many nuances and our world in the last 10-15 years changes a lot.
However, when something is complicated, I like to use heuristics.
Of the most useful ones I’ve ever found comes from Nicolas Nassim Taleb or (maybe your grandmother).
Better be safe than sorry.
Of course, there some use cases that might require you to stay on Facebook, but with all this mounting evidence it's more than likely that you should delete Facebook or at least take a break from the social network to overcome your compulsive urge to check out the app every few minutes.
Keeping the Baby, but Tossing the Bath Water
You might say, “Well, doing that is like tossing the baby out with the bath water.”
Cal Newport, the author of Digital Minimalism, explains that you can keep the baby but that you should definitely toss the bath water.
He recommends taking a thirty-day vacation from social media. He comments that when you return to your social media pages that there is a good chance that you will wonder what the excitement was all about.
However, there is a very good chance that just deciding not to check your social media pages will not be enough. As I explained: “Smart” phones have become a ubiquitous part of our lives.
They have become a tether that we carry in our pocket or purse, a permanent connection to the wider world. They provide the means to shatter our solitude at any moment.
The Importance of Solitude
Solitude does not necessarily mean going off on a retreat to a lonely mountain top. It can mean simply taking a few quiet hours away from family and friends, who, however well-meaning, break in on the creative process.
Creativity is frequently a solitary occupation, especially for writers, programmers, painters, and similar trades.
Solitude can be found in a noisy café, while the coffee cups pile up next to the stacks of handwritten manuscript or pages from a sketchbook.
Creativity needs focused time that is uninterrupted to perform Deep Work. You can’t get that kind of solitude if you are checking your Facebook every five minutes. If social media sites are engineered in a way that self-control and willpower aren’t enough, then how are you supposed to overcome your bad habits?
How to Overcome Facebook Addiction?
There are several possible answers. Perhaps you need to remain in touch with certain people. If you have a loved one in the hospital, for example, or if you are a team leader on a large work project, you cannot simply turn off your phone or leave it at home.
There are steps you can take to free yourself from the temptation to check your social media app every five minutes.
Here are some ideas:
- Delete your social media app from your mobile device.
- Make your social media accessible only from your laptop or computer
- Provide alternative (and better) ways of keeping in touch:
- Telephone calling tree
- Dedicated messenger
- Give important callers a unique ring tone
- Set “office hours” for work communication
- Schedule your social media checks if they are essential to your business or family life
Should these measures be insufficient, then take that hike into the woods. Lock your cell phone in your car. If you are doing something dangerous take a plain, old-fashioned flip phone with you for emergency use. (Although I'm sure my old landlord Fritz Happel would tell you, you are just a weakling. In 1960 there were no cell phones when he crashed with a motorbike in the woods and broke several rips)
According to Cal Newport, your best bet for productive mental health is to quit using social media completely.
But if your business demands it, you should at least take steps to put social media in its place.
Delete the Facebook app from your phone. Use the service sparingly, and only for purposes selected by you.
How to Use Software to Manage Your Craving
A total social media shutdown isn’t possible for everyone. But using will-power alone to limit social media use doesn’t work.
Your cell phone is just too accessible. But Mr. Newport points out that you don’t have to go it alone.
Even though Facebook and similar services have found ways to entice you into participating with donating your personal data to their sales machine, there is a way to block these services and other methods that will help you to stay focused to do the deep work that is only possible when you have access to real solitude.
The kind of solitude that allows you to work in uninterrupted blocks of time. (Yes, it’s possible that because you crave Facebook, you’ll interrupt your work without getting a notification).
That’s why I created FindFocus.
You can block websites that distract you from your real work and to schedule your social media time in a responsible, effective way that puts you in control; Not the behavioral manipulation empire created by Mark Zuckerberg that was built to make you addicted in order to sell ads.