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When describing the cultural impact of social media, to call it “phenomenal” would be an understatement. But is the overuse of social networking sites like Facebook on par with the use of physically addictive and/or mind-altering substances?
In a trend that shows no signs of slowing, the number of people who use social media has experienced a meteoric rise from just under a billion worldwide users in 2010, to more than 3 billion estimated users by 2021. With nearly 2.2 billion active users each month, Facebook leads the pack as the social networking site (SNS) where we’re spending the bulk of our time online.
Not only are more people using social networking sites, we’re also spending increasing amounts of time each day liking, commenting, and sharing our lives online. Don’t assume that this is only a fad amongst young people: since 2012, adults are spending 50% more time on Facebook each day. An adult in the U.S. uses Facebook for an average of 135 minutes per day, equating to nearly 16 hours—that’s two, full workdays—per week. What accounts for the magnetism people young and old, feel for social media?
Let’s break it down into parts. Social—our inherent human need to connect. Media—today, media is essentially, digital information. It comes in many forms: articles, photos, videos, infographics, to name just some of the media types we are routinely exposed to on social networking sites. So far, it doesn’t sound all that sinister, right?
This is the part that should prick everyone’s ears. The delivery of articles, ads, and even your Friend’s posts, is called “serving content.” This content is designed to stimulate our sense of connection, or opposition, with the world around us. Marketers know what keeps us up at night, and they know what we are (Google) searching for. The exact content that YOU are getting served is determined by complex, proprietary algorithms, and code that adapts to nearly every online action that you take. One thing is certain: you are being served content that are specifically curated to get your attention. Sure, it’s addictive. It’s designed to be that way.
We live in a time when many people feel socially insecure. “FOMO,” the “fear of missing out,” is a known motivator, especially among younger users of social media, that keeps them in a state of habitually checking social accounts for status updates, responses to posts, reactions to shares. For some, the ability to Like, Share, and Comment on Friend’s musings provides a sense of engagement that feels real, and is on our time, and our terms—a safer and more economical alternative to actually socializing. We take willing part in this process, applying glamorous filters through which we selectively share our lives.
"God Only Knows What It Is Doing To Our Children's Brains"
What if all the “feel good” we get in this virtual interaction comes at a price—that we are unwittingly addicted to social media? According to Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook, that was the company’s intention all along. When referring to Facebook's earliest mission, Parker said: "How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?"
Parker, who came clean about his former company’s agenda at the Axios conference in November 2017, described the Facebook founders conscious exploitation of “a social-validation feedback loop” that plays on inherent vulnerabilities in human psychology. "The inventors, creators — it's me, it's Mark [Zuckerberg], it's Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it's all of these people — understood this consciously. And we did it anyway." When the makers of the machine expose its underpinnings, look away at your own risk. It’s time for a wake-up call: every user of social media should know what happens when our brains get stuck in this loop, and what we can do to get unstuck.
A New Type of Psychiatric Condition?
In the early 2000s, members of the psychiatric profession were faced with a new breed of disturbance: young people, primarily middle-class boys, who had become dangerously addicted to internet gaming. Parents were increasingly concerned with the disturbed behavior and in some cases, declining health of their children.
The symptoms of Internet gaming addiction, or IGA, are certainly cause for concern: social withdrawal, decline in interest in outside activities, distorted perception of time, guilt and obsessive behavior, depression and anxiety, loss of weight, change in complexion or pallor, changes in sleep patterns, and increased bouts of illness. While not considered an official psychiatric condition, a child displaying these symptoms, particularly in concert, cannot be considered healthy, nor to be developing normally.
Studies on internet gaming addiction reveal that “excessive use of the Internet [is] linked to a variety of negative psychosocial consequences.” IGA alters brain wave patterns in ways that mirror other addictive disorders, such as addictions to drugs and alcohol.
The somewhat broader Internet Addiction (IA) is defined as “problematic or pathological use of the internet” and is another non-recognized but increasingly common social disease. Excessive time spent in online networks rather than with real-life social groups, has been linked to increased levels of loneliness, depression, academic, social, and occupational impairment, and suicide ideation. This is the darker side of this sea-change in how we are connecting: more people feel disconnected than ever before.
Obviously, creating a new psychiatric disorder has its own dark side: justification would now exist for 'treatment' using psychiatric medications which are arguably some of the most dangerous substances the pharmaceutical industry has ever created. But the essential point -- that social media has the potential to create behavioral addictions and distortions on par with other DSM-V categorizable disorders -- is taken. This is actually not the first time we have reported on Facebook-related psychospiritual problems. You can read our 2012 article to get more insight into this issue: Do You Have Facebook Affective Disorder FAD?
Are You Addicted?
Researchers are aware of this overall uptick in negative effects, and generally agree that overuse of Facebook and other SNS constitutes a real problem. To that end, they have begun to develop concrete ways to measure the presence, pervasiveness, and potential consequences of Facebook addiction. In 2012, a group of Norwegian researchers developed the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale, which asks six basic questions related to your Facebook use. Answers are scaled one to five, from “very rarely” to “very often,” with regards to your Facebook activity. If you answer “often” or “very often”, on four of six questions, you might have an addiction to Facebook.
(1) Very rarely, (2) Rarely, (3) Sometimes, (4) Often, and (5) Very often
- You spend a lot of time thinking about Facebook or planning how to use it.
- You feel an urge to use Facebook more and more.
- You use Facebook to forget about personal problems.
- You have tried to cut down on the use of Facebook without success.
- You become restless or troubled if you are prohibited from using Facebook.
- You use Facebook so much that it has had a negative impact on your job/studies.
Try a Digital Media Fast
If you scored highly (or higher than you’d like) on the scale of Facebook addiction, do not despair. The awareness that you are being programmed is often enough to snap a person out of the digital fog. Another sound method of reprogramming our attention is to take an extended media fast. Choose a period of time that makes sense for your lifestyle and connectivity requirements, but as a rule, it should make you feel at least a little uncomfortable. If it’s easy, then you don’t really need it, right?
Start by putting your cell phone on Airplane mode at a designated time each night. And don’t immediately turn on the TV—negative news stories have similarly bad effects on our stress hormones. Make a serious commitment to turning off all news, video, social media, and if you can get away with it—email. Take time away from the glow of LED screens and EMF radiation. Listen to the natural sounds in your environment, or better yet, get away to a place where you can enjoy the sounds of nature. Not unlike our electronic devices, our spirits require a reboot at times. Clear out the junk that is stored in your short-term memory, and make more room for meaningful experiences, with real friends, connecting eye-to-eye, and smile-to-smile.
Also, consider using an app that, well, reminds you not too use your apps: 6 Apps to Stop Your Smartphone Addiction.
 Marin MF, Morin-Major JK, Schramek TE, Beaupré A, Perna A, et al. There Is No News Like Bad News: Women Are More Remembering and Stress Reactive after Reading Real Negative News than Men. PLoS ONE 2012;7(10)