Facebook and I have a love/hate relationship. I’ve reconnected with people I never would have without social media, which has been (mostly) a blessing, and made new friends. I’ve seen some ideas that have changed how I operate in my daily life, like bullet journaling, and found some great parenting advice, insight and camaraderie. In the last couple of years, political and social justice actions have been facilitated or even made possible by Facebook. I’ve participated in some important and enlightening discussions (along with the many futile and exhausting ones). I’ve been educated, enraged, amazed and moved (both to tears and to action) by countless articles, blog posts, long form Facebook posts, and discussions I likely would not have seen otherwise. And this platform has allowed me to share my own writing. Lots to love.
AND. Facebook trips the wiring of my addictive tendency, which is always looking for a way to get reactivated, the minute I leave it unsupervised.
Most of us have experienced losing an hour or more to Facebook before we know it when we only intended to “pop on real quick.” (I hear the same thing can happen with Instagram and Pinterest, but I wouldn’t know. I have avoided those platforms since clearly I’ve got all I can handle!) Seeing the little number on your notifications globe is a prime example of intermittent reinforcement, the same basic mechanism of slot machines. Sometimes we have notifications, sometimes we don’t—or, depending on how often we’re checking, we could have a couple or a dozen or more. The unpredictable nature of it creates a “checking” addiction.
When I find myself mindlessly checking my phone frequently, often Facebook but also email—especially when I really need and intended to be doing other things—I can say I’m wasting time and that’s certainly true, but if I’m honest with myself about it, I know it’s more than that. It’s entrenchment in an active addiction cycle.
This was my default mode toward the end of last year. I was dealing with some stressful events and using it a lot—sometimes for good and useful purpose, but often to numb out and fill any empty moment that arose. Several times, I vowed to reduce my checking and scrolling, but after a day or two I would fall back quickly into compulsive use. As the holidays approached, I knew I wanted to be in a less anxious and grasping state and create some quiet internal space. It was past time for a break already, and the season made it all the more essential. My kids are getting older and I feel time speeding up. I wanted to slow down and really feel the spaces between things as we went about our traditions. And as much as the holidays can be stressful, I love the turning of the New Year and I wanted to take full advantage of the opportunity for reflection.
I first noticed that when I’m hooked into an addictive behavior, there’s the decision to stop that behavior, then there’s actually feeling unhooked. These are two separate things, and there’s a time gap between them when I’m not doing the thing, but still feeling the pull. So the first couple of days were weird. It reminded me of accounts I’ve read from amputees describing the phantom pain phenomenon, wherein they continue to feel pain from a limb they no longer have. I kept having this phantom internal “checking” impulse frequently, before I reminded myself that I’m not doing that right now.
So yeah, that was kind of horrifying. If losing Facebook for a couple days was conjuring up images of losing a limb and its aftermath, clearly this hiatus was sorely needed!
After those first couple days, I started to feel the space open up. I felt calmer, less scattered, more able to sit with whatever was happening without looking ahead to whatever the next thing was. I was more attentive to my family and less irritable. Reflections on the passing year and insights about where I wanted to focus my energies for 2018 started flowing freely.
New Year’s Day came and went, and instead of feeling “Oh, good! I committed to going off Facebook until the New Year, and now I can log on! Let’s go!” I felt more like, “How much longer do I want to stay off?” I was enjoying life without Facebook and leery of starting up again.
It was a better way to live for me, no doubt about it, if you compare it to how I was using it before I took the break. The question is, can I find (and more importantly, sustain) a happy medium? Can Facebook be in my life and remain relegated to its rightful place? A place to connect, plan events, read other people’s writing, share my own writing, and have important or fun conversations, all in the amount of time I consciously choose, and not a minute more? Without the compulsive checking, endless scrolling and random clicking?
As the second week of January began, I logged on for the first time in over 3 weeks. I checked my nearly 100 notifications. Mostly nonsense. To think we can feel so internally driven to check that little red number! I did see that I missed an invite to a family New Year’s Eve dance party that sounded fun, and we would have considered going. I felt a little pang of regret. I’m ambivalent about “if it’s meant to be, it will happen” thinking, but in that scenario, I figured if we were meant to be there, we would have found out some other way. I live in a small-ish community and you see someone you know everywhere you go.
That was it. Everything else I “missed” was nonessential at best. Next, I went onto the group page of one of the political/social justice groups I’m in to check for activity and posts before an upcoming meeting. I had logged back on with the intent to go in with surgical precision, briefly check notifications, and get some specific information I needed. Success!
I knew I wasn’t the only one who has seen chunks of time evaporate on Facebook, but I underestimated how prevalent social media addiction is even among people who have never had other addictions. Once my radar was up for this topic, I started hearing and reading that all sorts of people are admitting to social media and electronic device addiction, or at least feeling the unwelcome, disruptive pull. An organizational psychologist. A motivational New Age thought leader. A favorite writer. A dear friend of mine, who has no other addiction issues said, “Oh yeah, it’s crazy. One second of downtime, and it’s grab my phone, check all the things.”
The difference between someone like her and someone like me is our likely response to that quaint suggestion people make of taking the Facebook app off your phone. She might say, “Great idea, thanks!” whereas I would say, “Yup, tried that. It’s so easy to go in through the browser.”
Watch this segment of 60 minutes, entitled, “Brain Hacking,” and it’s clear that compulsive use of devices is widespread and intentionally built into the design of every device and app.
Remember the phantom pain-like phenomenon I felt during my first couple days of cold turkey? I thought that correlation was just the odd workings of my own mind. Then I saw the part of this segment (at about 4:05 in the video) that describes device and app design as “a race to the bottom of the brain stem.” I almost fell off my chair. Looks like the way people can feel when separated from their devices is neurologically similar to the phantom pain of an amputee after all. According to the Mayo Clinic website, “Doctors once believed this post-amputation phenomenon was a psychological problem, but experts now recognize that these real sensations originate in the spinal cord and brain.”
It’s always a relief to find out you’re not as crazy as you thought, right?
Oh, and by the way—all this terrifies me as a parent.
How many times have you heard, “It’s just like anything else—it’s a matter of teaching them to use it responsibly.” Nope. If only it were that simple. As Tristan Harris said in the Brain Hacking segment, “There’s a narrative that, ‘Oh, I guess they’re doing this like we used to gossip on the phone,’ but what this misses is that your telephone in the 1970’s didn’t have 1000 engineers on the other side of the telephone who were redesigning it to work with other telephones and then updating the way your telephone worked every day to be more and more persuasive.”
So far, we are holding back the floodgates, but my 11-year-old has begun asking for a phone. “Not yet,” I say. “Look around and see how difficult it is even for adults to manage how much they stare at their phones, including me and (to a lesser extent) your dad. It’s even harder for kids.” I try to make it less enticing, telling him it may not be what he imagines, because when the time comes for him to get one, it might be a flip phone (if they’re even still available by then!). If it is a smartphone, internet access will be disabled and apps limited. I am willing to be the mean, strict mom on this one.
I don’t want to be the hypocritical one, though. By the time my kids are allowed to open their first social media accounts and become subject to “the pull” themselves, I plan to have my own house in order.
Those first couple of weeks, I didn’t go back to my habits from the fall, but I did slip back into time-lapsed scrolling and compulsive checking here and there. Enough times to know that unless I become that odd, rare bird who has no social media accounts, this will require intentional management on an indefinite basis. (Which kinda sucks, but oh well!)
As more weeks have passed, I’ve consciously created new habits around this by keeping myself accountable on a daily basis. I use a habit tracking system in my bullet journal, and social media use is right there with meditation, journaling, exercise, and nutrition.
If you’re thinking of taking a social media hiatus yourself, I highly recommend it. Regardless of whether we are personally prone to addictive behaviors, it could be useful for anyone to grapple a bit with what this engineered cultural behemoth means for our daily lives.
I’ve become more aware of how precious time is, and I’m more intentional and deliberate about how I spend my time in general. I’m rediscovering the gift of empty moments as a chance to pause and take in my surroundings or internal landscape. As busy as life is, I’m seeing that there are more of those moments than we realize, when we don’t give in to the kneejerk urges to immediately fill them. My husband has asked me many times, “Do you ever let your mind rest?” Not much, but I’m learning.
They say it takes 21 days to form a new habit, and it’s been over a month since I’ve been back on Facebook determined to do this differently, so I guess that 21-day thing works. How and when I engage with Facebook is now governed by my own conscious choices much more so than impulse—most of the time. And mercifully, I feel “the pull” only occasionally. Perhaps I’ve succeeded in rescuing my brain stem from engineered corporate programming.
I’m not letting my guard down, though!
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