As entertaining as social media is, it’s also addictive, a source of anxiety and consumes much of our time. So journalist Otje van der Lelij decided to go on a Facebook sabbatical.
Checking Facebook: it was the first thing I did every morning and the last thing I did every night before going to sleep. Even when I was writing for my work, I couldn’t stop refreshing my timeline. If I had posted something myself, it became even worse and I was continuously distracted. After all, it wouldn’t do to ignore any of those little beeps. I had to read any new messages immediately—not later, now.
I did this even though they seldom contained anything surprising or inspiring, and I increasingly felt as if I was absentmindedly thumbing through a brochure. So why was I doing it, all this mindless lurking? I was equally eager to read books about the drawbacks of social media, about the destructive influence it has on our powers of concentration and on productivity in general. And still, an hour later, there I was again, clicking through the vacation album of the neighbor or cousin of a friend. Enough. I decided to quit Facebook.
Love that reward
According to Dutch cognitive behavioral therapist Debbie Been, I am not the only one who continuously checks their timeline. “I often hear people say that they have no difficulty with alcohol, smoking or drugs, but they can’t leave their smartphone alone,” she says. “This seems to indicate that the smartphone has a wider range than other addictive substances. Which is understandable: Social media, like Facebook and Instagram, are specifically designed to tempt us over and over again. And if you are actively present online, you’re particularly susceptible to this addiction. Every like, every share, every ‘LOL’ is a confirmation that you are seen and appreciated. That social reward is pleasant for us, so we come back for more.”
The fact that you can never know for sure whether someone will respond and whether your post will be ‘liked’ makes it even more addictive, according to research by American psychologist B.F. Skinner. He taught pigeons that they could earn a treat by pressing a button with their beak. If the birds were only sometimes rewarded with a treat, they would go to extraordinary lengths to get one. They kept pecking at the button like crazy, craving a reward. This behavior is very similar to that of the social media addict who grabs their smartphone for the umpteenth time to check: Has anyone responded yet? Do they still like me?
I have to admit, I didn’t find it easy to quit. My Facebook page holds ten years of memories: vacation snaps, milestones in my career, photos of my daughters when they were just born—and last but not least, the flurry of reactions that followed. It would hurt to erase all of this permanently, so I decided to only deactivate my account. Not for a week or a month, as I’ve done before, but for half a year.
- Read the full story ‘A Facebook time-out’ in Issue 28.
Text Otje van der Lelij Photography Margriet Hoekstra