Consider this: Less than a decade ago, there was no Facebook. Twitter hadn’t yet been conceived. Researchers and psychologists were still learning that the Internet—and more so, computer games—could indeed be addictive. We hadn’t yet programmed ourselves to share intimate details of our lives on a minute-to-minute basis.
Today, that has changed. Everyone seems to have a Facebook page now, from university students in New York City to cab drivers in New Delhi. When we “like” something, we may not necessarily like it. When we “friend” someone, they may not actually be our friends.
A recent study at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business concluded that tweeting or checking emails may actually be harder to resist than cigarettes and alcohol, and that while sleep and sex may be stronger urges, people are more likely to give in to longings or cravings to use social and other media.
So why, exactly, is Facebook so hard to quit?
GIVING UP ON FACEBOOK
“Facebook is the millennium’s new water cooler,” says Dr. Deborah Serani, a lecturer, professor, therapist and author of the book Living with Depression. “Though virtual in its design, it serves as a way for us to catch up on latest trends, share milestones, learn about juicy gossip or live vicariously through the experience of others.” Not only is Facebook a way to keep up with the Joneses, she says, it’s a way to keep track of the Joneses. It provides us with social capital.
That’s the attraction of Facebook and other social media—it promises a connection with others. But is Facebook too much of a good thing? “The reason Facebook and other forms of social media are so addicting and hard to quit is due to the instant gratification that they provide,” says Elika Kormeili, a clinical therapist in Los Angeles. “There is a sense of satisfaction each time someone ‘likes’ or comments on your status update. This in turn boosts our self-esteem and reinforces the Facebook cycle. It provides instant gratification and reinforcement.”
By nature, people are social creatures who crave human interaction, Kormeili explains. “The social media world allows us to find information on others in a way that is socially acceptable and for the most part unknown to others. We can connect with our friends, family, find people with similar lifestyles and suddenly, the world does not seem like such a big and lonely place.”
It gets hard to quit, however, because it has a highly addictive component. “Think about it,” says Jonathan Alpert, a Manhattan-based psychotherapist and author of Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days. “You never know when you might have a new message, friend request or see a status update on someone else’s page. It keeps you coming back for more. Due to the unpredictable nature of this form of reinforcement it is the most powerful form of reinforcement known. It’s what keeps people going back again and again and again. Not too different from a slot machine at a casino. You put the money in and you never know when you might win. Could be now or it could be 10 plays from now. The occasional reinforcement or win is what provides hope for more and keeps you going back. Facebook is no different.”
Dr. Jennifer Love Farrell, a psychiatrist and addiction specialist at Amen Clinics and a diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and the American Board of Addiction Medicine, feels that people like Facebook so much because it allows us to create a selected identity online. “It’s me, only better,” she says. “I can be funny, never negative, always beautiful (who posts a pic with a double chin?) and create for others a ‘memory’ or ‘picture’ of me that is entirely realistic or completely selective.” She says she has patients who spend hours thinking of a funny comment, then rewriting it over and over. Their friends think they are hilarious and have no idea it took them 6 hours (and an entire distracted day at work) to come up with that snappy retort. “We can convince people we are clever, thin, popular, busy and important; basically we can show everyone how much we rock, right?”
YOUR BRAIN ON FACEBOOK
When we first log on to Facebook, the brain’s reward-circuitry is activated, surging the levels of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. The problem is that this rush is short-lived and, says Dr. Serani, we soon need to find that feel-good thrill again. “This triggers a desire for many users to connect further,” she says. “Be that leaving comments, friending, liking or reading news feeds. Dopamine is a great turn-on. It feels awesome. And though you’d think that too much of it would send you into the most blissful of places, the truth is that too much of it results in an agitated restlessness.” For some, that’s enough anxiety to remove themselves from the situation by logging off. But for others, the craving opens up a desire to seek more social experiences, to seek that high again, which makes them stay on Facebook longer or check in more frequently in the hopes of recreating that buzz.”
A recent study by neuroscientists at Harvard found that talking about ourselves brings us a kind of pleasure similar to what we feel eating food, having sex or getting money. Diana Tamir, the study’s lead researcher, said the study found people were even willing to forgo money in order to talk about themselves.
Compulsive behaviors, like video games and gambling, can create a situation in which the brain doesn’t want to switch gears and gets caught in OCD-like repetition, says Farrell. “The more involvement one has on Facebook, the more feedback and attention one will get which reinforces the need to continually spend time on or improve their Facebook image. Interactions replace socializing—you can flirt in your PJs and you can post bikini photos while eating a tub of ice cream and wearing last night’s mascara.”
In children, this can lead to problematic results. Since the brain isn’t fully developed until age 21 or 22, when children log on to a social network expecting accolades, positive feedback and comparison, it can mess with their minds, says Mary Jo Rapini, a psychotherapist and author. “In the morning you could be very popular, and by noon someone could begin a rumor which would destroy your status. The addiction is fed by the anxiety of constantly checking your ranking.” No one knows what this compulsion, anxiety or constant immediate feedback will do to our children in the future, she says. “We haven’t had to face this before as a society. Immediate feedback means the child reacts quickly. Teens aren’t good at being able to be rational or postponing comments. No one, especially teens, makes wise choices when they are emotional and being attacked.”
ADDICTED TO FACEBOOK
In a recent study at the University of Maryland, researchers found that nearly four in five students experienced significant mental and physical distress, panic, confusion and extreme isolation when forced to unplug from technology for an entire day. The 1,000 students, who were interviewed at 12 campuses across 10 countries, including Britain, America and China, were unable to voluntarily avoid their gadgets for one full day, the study concluded. Prof. Susan Moeller, who led the research, said technology had changed the students’ relationships. “Students talked about how scary it was, how addicted they were,” she said. “They expected frustration. But they didn’t expect to have the psychological effects, to be lonely, to be panicked, the anxiety, literally heart palpitations.”
There is no official diagnosis for social-media or Internet addiction. Despite that, it is a serious problem, says Alpert. “I see at least one new client a week with some sort of Internet-related issue, especially in the context of relationships. Ten years ago I rarely saw issues related to the Internet, now it is almost as common as more traditional addictions. A questionable text or Facebook post has become the 2012 version of lipstick on the collar.”
Dr. Wes Crenshaw, a Kansas-based psychologist, says that several years ago World of Warcraft was killing people’s marriages, school lives, and jobs. “It was incredibly addictive because it was so well written,” he says. “I think Facebook is far below that, but I do know young adults now state they are on it far more than is helpful.”