Published December 26, 2017 in Warp & Woof
My Struggle with Facebook Addiction
Not a Teenager, But a Senior
In Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World(1932), the World State exercised control over its population by administering a “soma” drug to them. It was a psychoactive drug, producing states of euphoria, and general happiness. It was addictive, and the state monopolized its distribution.
Substitute the amorphously managed “Internet” for the World State, and Facebook, a publicly held corporation in Silicon Valley, could well be the administering entity for soma in the 21stcentury. When Mark Zuckerberg invented the social media platform at the beginning of the century, he built it around the idea that people universally wanted to be liked. They would always respond to positive feedback. Much like B.F. Skinner’s rats, they would continually come back to press the lever for more pellets of reinforcement.
If Zuckerberg could package content in such a way that his customers could share it, with some chance of positive intermittent feedback, he might build a giant marketing machine from his platform. Some think the idea sprang from his own personal need to be liked. He was incredibly successful. But, Facebook may have discovered a darker side to its success, as well. Apparently, users are just as likely to come back for more feedback from feelings of anger or sadness as from more conventional “feel good” vibes. The recent controversy over “fake news” planted by Russian intelligence operatives is an example.
It turns out that intermittent reinforcementis a very strong motivator, regardless of the emotional content of the initial behavior. Add the clever opportunities for self-expression on the Facebook platform, and you have the makings of a serious psychological addiction problem. Some studies have even shown physiological changes in subjects that use social media platforms extensively.
When social media are used for active self-expression, it appears that people’s mental health may benefit. Those who post and comment more on the platform are often happier than they were before Facebook. But, passive scrolling through news feeds and over-use of reaction emojis are mostly associated with greater levels of depression and poorer mental health. Also, comparative behavior tends to promote feelings of inadequacy, and perceived social isolation – Instagram is especially bad here — but, all those shared Facebook photos of happy families and status updates about vacation adventures don’t help.
Facebook does allow you a high degree of control over what you see in your feeds. It would be worthwhile for any heavy Facebook user to explore the updated prioritizing tools for news feeds. You do determine what you see, and you can block things you don’t want to see. Close friends’ posts are now always prioritized ahead of anything commercial. Some say Facebook gives you too much control over news – leading to insulation in bubbles of like-minded screeds.
My own predilection for expressing myself in writing, even short quips in a comment, strikes me as a positive interaction with the platform. Is it really interaction with my friends, though? I sometimes ask myself, “does anybody care?” Of course, the intermittent feedback is largely to blame here. For my part, I try to react to anything my friends post that I feel expresses themselves well – but, there’s a judgmental quality to this. I intentionally fail to react when I do not feel they are expressing themselves well, or when I’m simply not interested in the content they are sharing. And, of course, I impute similar judgement calls to their reactions, or lack thereof, on my posts. Hence, I fall victim to the comparative trap that supposedly haunts teenage girls. Am I not good enough, or clever enough, to be interesting to my friends? Or perhaps to some friends, but not others? And, I’m 70 years old!
A disclaimer is warranted regarding my peculiar usage of Facebook. None (or few) of my friends are people with whom I have a day-to-day relationship IRL (In Real Life). As my immersion in the platform has grown, some friends are mere friends-of-friends whom I’ve never even met IRL. This does not fit the profile of the beneficial social capital some users gain from the platform. It appears that my social media avatar is literally the only me that my Facebook friends know. This is probably not a healthy social milieu! It’s acting. It’s a personal fantasy of who I want to be. Does it smack of narcissism?
With all these potential negatives, it may seem wise to take a break from the platform now and again. You should consider this when Facebook grows boring, when it seems too commercial, when you see too many news feeds whose authenticity you doubt, or when friends’ posts are too closely connected to their personal lives – and not you!
Breaks can feel good, allowing you to “recharge.” Facebook even facilitates blocking feeds from certain sources (“hiding” them, or “snoozing” them for 30 days if they just get too intense). You can always “unfriend” people (highly recommended for exes), and all these things can be undone when you want to jump back in. Limiting your feedback to others also serves a purpose: I never pick fights, and often refrain even from giving positive feedback when I fear it might spin out of control (discussion groups are notorious for that). Purposeful restraint in use of reaction emojis and making comments can sometimes increase your control over Facebook’s algorithm, too. The platform keeps the details secret, but if you’re good, you may even be able to beat Facebook at its own game.
Dealing with the withdrawal symptoms is best handled by increasing your IRL interaction with people – try email for folks too far away to see in person. Facetime and Skype? For self-expression, try writing a blog (like me), or art? music?
And, do a reality check on that Facebook avatar – it’s dangerous when you start believing it yourself. Don’t delude yourself into depression because you can’t get the feedback you crave. It’s just narcissistic supply, after all. Since you invented the avatar in the first place, you can always tweak it as necessary. Once you focus your self-expression needs on real creativity, it may be time to re-enter the social media world – cleverness and effort should get you more positive feedback. Use Facebook to feel better about yourself, not worse.
There are plenty of tools provided by Facebook (and Twitter) allowing you to take control of the platform, if you’re willing to use your agency. Nobody needs to be a Facebook addict – the platform is not smarter than you! You are your own soma.