I always knew social media would be a bad idea for me, and very deliberately managed to avoid it until July 2016.
I’d left my job and was gearing up to be a freelancer, with distant dreams of one day starting a health blog. I didn’t see how any of this would be possible with no social media.
I dived in headfirst. I fell in love with Instagram. I found LinkedIn useful, if not exciting. Got bored with Twitter. Pinned lots of recipes on Pinterest.
And, without wishing to be dramatic… became massively addicted to Facebook which completely undermined my already shaky mental health.
Just so you know, I’m not going to suggest we all ditch social media altogether. I’m just here to talk about its dark side, and ways to manage it.
It fascinates me watching my husband use social media. He picks up his phone, has a scroll, hits a few likes, laughs at something, puts the phone down, forgets all about it and gets on with his day.
He has no idea how remarkable this is to me!
For me, it’s a very different story. I can see beautiful people leading perfect lives on IG all day and it’s all good – but if I’m not careful, Facebook really messes with my head.
Short history: I’m somebody who has insecurity around being liked. I was bullied at school and you’d be surprised at how much this still affects me, even aged 39.
I don’t really talk about it, or think about it, and I’ve moved on. My brain hasn’t, entirely. Certain things are really hard on me. Any hint of nastiness, negativity or being left out hits me hard. Can you stop for a moment and imagine what Facebook did to my poor brain?
So, we’re now counting how many friends I have, and showing me how that stacks up against everyone else? Everything I post is measured in Likes?
And I can see how people are responding to what others post, so I know they’re THERE. They’re just ignoring me.
I found the whole experience massively addictive.
The novelty. The validation. The never quite knowing what you’ll find next. The high of feeling liked and included. The crash of later feeling left out and ignored.
FOMO. The need to see what everyone is up to. The need to (constantly) tell them what you’re up to. ‘Look, I can do good things too. Don’t forget me.’ Wanting to keep up. The sting of comparison.
Getting utterly confused about what’s real. Getting a birthday text when the person hasn’t posted a FB birthday message and thinking, ‘Oh God – people will think I don’t have friends.’
If it’s not on Facebook, did it even happen?
Facebook groups, making friends who *get you* on the other side of the world, epic conversations, feeling seen and understood.
First experience of being torn down in an online group setting (for something you innocently said and would still stand by, but which was grossly misunderstood).
All of this is close to the bone, and hard to write. Frankly, it’s embarrassing. And for the record, I no longer feel this way. And I LOVE a birthday text!
In writing down the distorted thinking I developed, I’m just addressing the elephant in the room. I am convinced I’m not the only person to feel or to have felt this way.
Facebook played into my insecurities. When I look back, it seems ridiculous the number of times I cried over a story I’d pieced together of everyone else leading better lives than me, and not really liking me. Based on Likes.
I may be an extreme case, but I’m far from alone, and that’s why I’m writing about this topic.
So, why is Facebook so addictive?
Part of the answer is, it’s designed to be. Sean Parker, the Founding President of Facebook (who left in 2005), has spoken out about how the platform was designed to entice people use it compulsively.
‘That thought process was all about, how do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible? It’s a social validation feedback loop, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. We understood this consciously, and we did it anyway.’
Whilst there has been a reluctance to classify social media as addictive in the same way as drugs and alcohol, it is accepted that many of the effects on the brain are incredibly similar.
What’s happening to your brain when you use Facebook?
Whenever someone likes or comments on a post, you get a hit of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (a chemical messenger that acts within your brain) which inspires us to take action to meet our needs and desires. Dopamine drives motivation and focus.
Have you experienced the ‘flow state’ where you’re creating something, writing, painting, playing music, or competing in a sports event? (I sometimes experience this when I’m writing.) You’re hyper-focussed, exhilarated, everything comes easily, and time flies. THAT is powered by dopamine.
Drugs, alcohol, sex, pornography, shopping, food, and social media all increase dopamine levels in the short term – lighting up the reward circuitry in the brain, and telling us this is something we want more of. The role of dopamine is to make us take the action needed to GET more of what we want.
Why is social media so rewarding?
As humans, we are wired to be socially connected. Social acceptance, affirmation and validation will always be compelling for us. Earlier in our evolution, our survival depended on living in social groups – and it’s still very important now.
So, we are primed to notice, and to care about, whether we’re accepted by our social group. When you think about it, Facebook is social validation on steroids.
Another factor to throw into the mix is lack of predictability. If you look at gambling, it’s addictive because the unpredictable nature of the reward – winning – is an incredibly strong way to reinforce behaviour. You come back for more, because you might just be ONE dice-roll away from a huge win. And when a gambler feels favoured by luck, dopamine is released.
Tech companies understand all of this, and they build in ‘compulsion loops’ that keep people coming back for more. Likes, shares, and comments provide social affirmation – on an unpredictable schedule. We compulsively check Facebook because we never quite know what we’ll find next.
This is bad enough in a healthy person, but if you’re suffering from anxiety, social media can massively amplify this. The more anxious you feel, the more compulsively you go back and check – just one more time – frantically searching for something that will make you feel better.
I’ve talked about the addictive nature of social media – but the consensus is that very few people are genuinely addicted to it. However for a minority of individuals, it is associated with a number of psychological problems – including anxiety, depression, loneliness, ADHD and addiction.
There are six questions you can ask yourself to check whether you’re at risk of developing a social media addiction:
- Do you spend a lot of time thinking about social media or planning to use social media?
- Do you feel urges to use social media more and more?
- Do you use social media to forget about personal problems?
- Do you often try to reduce your use of social media without success?
- Do you become restless or troubled if you are unable to use social media?
- Do you use social media so much that it has a negative impact on your job or studies?
At one point in time, I would have answered ‘yes’ to five of these (all except for using social media to forget about personal problems. I’m just not the forgetting type!)
Right now, I don’t think I would answer yes to any of them.
If you find yourself spending too much time on Facebook, checking your phone too often and it’s a major time suck – you would probably benefit from cutting back. You might not need to do everything I’ll outline here, but have a look, and pick and choose your strategies.
At the other extreme, if Facebook is causing you psychological problems and distress and you DON’T need it for a specific purpose (e.g. freelance work), consider closing your account altogether. It’s a pretty simple and effective solution.
However, if you have compulsive behaviour around Facebook, your usage is escalating and it’s making you anxious and miserable BUT you need to keep your account open and in use (which I do as a freelancer and blogger), the following steps are for you.
How I cut down my Facebook usage and regained my peace of mind
I tried, unsuccessfully, to cut down on my Facebook usage so many times and ended up right back where I started. But with a lot of trial and error, I eventually figured out a formula that works for me. Of course, we’re all different – but I hope it gives you a good starting point.
I’m not talking about never using Facebook, but using it carefully and intentionally. I still have an active account, I still check notifications daily, I can still see if I’m tagged in something, I actively participate in Facebook groups, and I post every few weeks.
But I truly don’t think about Facebook outside of those times, and it is liberating.
1. Buy an alarm clock and charge your phone outside your bedroom, preferably on another floor.
Not taking your phone up to bed means you cut out those last social media checks of the day, and your phone is not the first thing you look at when you wake up. In the morning, this gives you a little space to have thoughts of your own – rather than filling your mind with extraneous information before you’re even fully awake. It also helps train your mind not to need this straight away.
I resisted making this change for quite some time and then one day, I just did it – and it was surprisingly easy to establish a new habit.
I still check Instagram within the first half hour of waking up, but it’s no longer the first thing I do, and I don’t *need* to do it. I don’t usually check Facebook until I start my computer.
2. Do a one-month digital detox.
I have only ever managed to successfully cut back my social media usage by first cutting it out altogether. I could speculate as to the reasons why, and I suspect it allows your brain to reset, and stops fuelling the compulsion loops. But all I really know is, it works.
You don’t have to announce it, although I often have let people know I’m doing a digital detox just out of courtesy – as I’d hate for anyone to think I was ignoring them.
At the height of my Facebook usage, when I was checking my phone many times an hour and then stopped cold, I got overwhelming urges to scroll my phone and didn’t know what to do with my hands. I discovered an app called Binky, which is basically a nicotine patch for social media addicts.
It’s faintly ridiculous, but it actually worked a treat! Every time I felt the urge to scroll, I scrolled Binky instead. The app has a feed with completely random images which you can like, comment on and re-bink. It’s strangely soothing. After a week or two, I was able to delete Binky and I remained Facebook-free.
3. Reintroduce slowly.
I found that the best way to start using Facebook again without getting sucked right back into it was to only use it on my computer. It’s much less slick than using it on your phone, and less immersive. Occasionally I download the app in order to share a photo, and then delete it again a day or so later.
I do sometimes check the Facebook site on my phone using my browser, but I don’t leave my account logged in, making it harder to check regularly.
For me, that’s as far as I can go. If I keep the app on my phone, within a week, it’s game over. Every time, I go through the same thought process: I’m so much better with it now, this time might be different. It’s never different.
4. Sort out your notification settings
If you want to work your way up to having the app on your phone, TURN OFF THOSE NOTIFICATIONS! No notifications is best, but if you have to have them, go through in detail and take off all notifications except the ones you can’t live without.
I’d recommend taking notifications off for all groups – it’s just another prompt to look at the app, and you rarely need to jump into the group with any urgency. You can check in on groups in your own sweet time. You’ll still be notified of any likes and comments on your posts within the group.
Side note – if you comment on a busy post where you really don’t need to see everyone else’s replies (babies, weddings or anything else calling for congratulations) it’s a good idea to turn off notifications for that post.
5. Work out what you’re going to use Facebook for and stick to it.
So, you need to cut down your Facebook usage drastically, but you have chosen not to deactivate your account altogether. What are the specific reasons you need to stay on Facebook? A few examples would be:
- You need a social media presence as a freelancer
- You want to participate in Facebook groups
- You have family abroad and you want to keep them updated
Ask yourself – what is the bare minimum I need to post to achieve this?
Personally, I keep my Facebook account because I need some sort of social media presence as a freelancer and blogger; I need to have a Facebook account in order to boost posts on my Instagram business account, should I ever wish to; I have family across the country and abroad, and it’s nice for them to see family pics.
So, all I need is a feed that looks vaguely up-to-date. I don’t need to see everyone else’s posts, and I don’t need to get involved in the day-to-day goings-on. I thought I would really miss it, but it turns out – I really don’t.
To keep my feed updated, I post about once a month. I save Facebook posts for big news, the kids’ birthdays, anything seasonal such as Halloween and Christmas, holidays, and the occasional picture that’s just too good not to share.
The beauty of using Facebook in this way is you’re much less susceptible to feeling disappointed or upset if a post is ignored. You have a clear reason for posting, which is simply to put something on your feed so it doesn’t look too dormant, and share pics of your kids (dog, cat, whatever) with the handful of people who love to see them. Job done, what happens after that doesn’t matter.
(Phone pictured at top of post is not mine. I don’t have so many – in fact any – sports news apps!)