You Might As Well Face It: You’re Addicted to Facebook?

Many of us know the feeling of being addicted to our devices. Walking down the streets of Manhattan, I’ve done head counts of the percent of passers-by that are either clutching (like a security blanket) or using their handheld devices –the number ranges between 20% and 75%. And I usually have to count myself!

But recently, researchers have come out with a Facebook Addiction Scale, suggesting that it might not only be an addiction to our devices, but an addiction to what social media do for us and make us feel – an addiction to being connected.

A simple and elegant definition of addiction is The continued use of a mood altering substance or behavior despite adverse consequences.” Does this apply to Facebook use? Here are some of the things to look out for:

  1. You’re preoccupied with Facebook when you’re not online – This has to do with spending “a lot” of time thinking about Facebook or making plans to use Facebook. I’m not sure what counts as a lot – and I don’t think the measure specifies – but this is about the feeling that you are putting excessive mental energy  into Facebook.
  2. You need more Facebook time to get the same pleasure from it – This is called tolerance in the addiction literature. It includes getting “sucked in to” and spending more time on Facebook than intended: like when you’ve logged on to Facebook and then all of a sudden two hours have gone by; or when you feel the compulsion to check Facebook every two minutes.  And key to this is that you often have the urge to use Facebook, and find that you have to use Facebook more and more to get the same pleasure from it. Has anyone ever felt a Facebook high? ……
  3. You use Facebook to feel better or forget about your problems – Like others might drink a glass of wine, pop a pill, etc.,… Personally, I don’t use Facebook in this way, but I imagine it’s like my feeling when I log on to Amazon. I’m not much of a shopper, but being able to get exactly what you want immediately – whether it’s socks or a power wheel for your kid (yes, a big green, awesome power wheel car; all terrain!) – is extremely soothing to me. A study showed that when people use Facebook, physiological signs of stress are reduced. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it might even be good – but it could be part and parcel of the addictive process.
  4. You have tried to reduce your Facebook use without success – Here, the questionnaire is sussing out whether you’ve identified it as a problem, and have tried to cut down on your use of Facebook, but have fallen off the wagon. This is the “uh-oh!” moment.
  5. You experience withdrawal feelings when you don’t use Facebook – This is one that might make more sense for younger people, because one of the key questionnaire items for this issue is “Become restless or troubled if you have been prohibited from using Facebook?” I presume they mean prohibited by parents, but perhaps loved ones could be doing the same (see #6 below). These feelings of dis-ease are a sign that dependence is present.
  6. You find that your use of Facebook has had a negative impact on your life – This final dimension is important for putting the label of addiction on Facebook use – it’s getting in the way of having a healthy life. This includes using Facebook so much that your job/studies/or relationships are suffering. It also includes Facebook taking the place of other important things, such as hobbies, leisure activities, and exercise. Have you ever ignored your partner, family members, or friends because of Facebook?

I bet many of us have shown at least one of these warning signs at some point. Should we be worried? Probably not, unless Facebook use is getting in the way of being a functional person. On the other hand, having even one warning sign should perhaps give us pause.

Some preliminary studies suggest that Facebook addiction occurs more frequently in people who have other addictive problems (no surprise there), as well as among the younger and older. People who worry or are socially anxious also may be at more risk, perhaps because they find Facebook to be an easier way to connect with others. Procrastinators beware – Facebook addiction may also be just another way to avoid work.

So, consider this a public service message. If you feel these warning signs apply to you, it might be time to give it a rest. Or just switch to Pinterest.

Mama’s Always on Stage: Social Media and the Psychological Spotlight


In addition to being a shower blogger (see post from two weeks ago), I am also an exerblogger – I talk through blog ideas when I exercise with my trainer Blair. Mostly it’s to take my mind off the unpleasant task of exercising, but really it’s because I have a captive audience – Blair – who is my 20-something sounding board. Blair is not a huge social media user, but like many of his generation, it’s just part and parcel of his social life and the way he thinks about the world. The topic last week was the psychological spotlight.

The notion is that when we use social media, the things we do and say, the way we look, and the things we find interesting seem to have a heightened importance and to be under scrutiny. That is, we know that our lives can be transmitted (by us or others) at any time to the social network, to be seen, heard, and evaluated. So, psychologically, we’re always on stage, in the spotlight. And if we’re always on stage, then maybe, on some level, we are acting and not being fully authentic. Using social media can sometimes feel like being a celebrity walking down the street who knows that the paparazzi are always waiting around the corner.

And this is what is new about social media compared to previous ways of connecting with others – we can share just about anything, via a wide range of media, extremely easily.  We can be seen and heard whenever we want.   And, in turn, we can be nosy parkers and learn a lot about others whenever we want. Decades ago, in her collection of essays, On Photography, Susan Sontag argued that photography creates in people a “chronic voyeuristic relation” to the world around them. But Ms. Sontag did not imagine the level to which social media could take both our voyeuristic and exhibitionistic impulses.

My 3-year-old already gets this, although he doesn’t yet use social media. For him, the impulse to document and to be seen is fully entrenched – “Mama, take a video,” he says, every time he is doing something “cool.” This could be dancing, building blocks, making a funny face, kissing his sister, anything. And every video on demand (that is, he demands the video) ends with my son walking towards me and the device I’m holding to video him saying, “Can I see it? Can I see it?”

And this is what gets me wondering. Am I raising my son to be more self-conscious, more of an exhibitionist, and less authentic about what he says and does, because he knows he will be documented? Because he feels that he is on stage? Does he think he’s special just because he’s being recorded? Maybe not – all kids like to be seen, and among other things, it’s super cute and fun. But the ease of documentation and of sharing with others has taken this natural impulse to a whole new level.

This issue is similar to the debate about self-publishing discussed in a New York Times article over the weekend. The question raised was this:  when parents pay to make their children “published authors,” are they giving children a false sense of self-esteem to the point of self-aggrandizement? Are we ironically, not preparing them for the rigors and tough knocks and rejections of the real world by making everything too easy?  The self-esteem issue here is central because these published child authors feel famous, feel seen because their books are read. They are on stage.

I think there are no clear answers to these issues. I do, however, think that most of us would agree that being on stage is a deeply rooted impulse in our culture today – from reality television to You Tube to Facebook, this has been going on for a long time. Think back to America’s Funniest Home Videos (wait, is that still on?).  I’m not saying this impulse is new, or necessarily bad, but the more central the psychological spotlight becomes to how we all operate, the more we need to take time to understand what it means.

The New Digital Divide

The digital divide typically refers to the gap between those who do and do not have access to information technologies, most notably the internet. But I think a new kind of digital divide is emerging – one focused on the use of social media and computer-mediated tools for social interactions. The gap is not so much based on socio-economic status, or geography, or race and ethnicity. Rather, it is based on a set of beliefs about human interactions, self identity, and technology.

Social media can be polarizing. As I see it, people tend to fall into one of two basic camps. Let’s ignore those inhabiting the middle ground and think about the extremes for a moment:

“Members of the Digital Tribe”: These are the people who keep their devices next to their bed and the first thing they do when they reach consciousness in the morning is check their newsfeed. These folks like to feel “plugged in” and connected to their digital community. They want to have information about the world at their fingertips.

These folks are knowledgeable, on top of the news, feed off of others’ cool thoughts. I would argue that many of us drift into the tribe – habitually checking emails or newsfeeds or tweets. But a true member of the digital tribe believes that life is best lived when a fair portion of it is broadcast to their online social network.

We all define ourselves in the context of our social network – our friends, loved ones, enemies, acquaintances. The digital age has allowed us to stretch this sense of self to include much vaster webs of social connection. Yet, in the case of social media, many members of our network are strangers. Does this mean we feel increasingly comfortable being a stranger and talking to strangers?

Values about privacy likely vary – some folks who live a fair portion of their life online may believe that privacy is overrated, and that sharing random thoughts and experiences is as valid as sharing deeply genuine feelings. Other may feel the opposite.

Members of the Tribe hold up the mirror of social media, look in, and see themselves. And what a fascinating and beautiful mirror it is. Incredibly rich; almost too much to process.

These are the romantic technophiles.

“Worried Outsiders”: Worried Outsiders are not necessarily the “disconnected.” Instead, these are the folks that probably use at least one or several forms of social media. But, in their dark moments, when they’re sitting at the café thinking about life, or laying awake in bed at night, they may picture a future dystopia in which we scuttle around in some anti-social, dark, cityscape and are ‘jacked into” some virtual digital reality via our brain stem. Think Blade Runner meets The Matrix.

These are the people that are REALLY annoyed when they find out about their sister’s engagement – on Facebook. These are the people who still prefer a nice conversation on the phone to other ways of getting things done. These are the people who daydream instead of get on their devices to fill the time.

These might also the same people that might have, if they were alive at the time, voiced grave concerns about that new fangled device the telephone when it first came out. Or the television. Or anything that changes how we interact as social and emotional beings.

That is not to say that this group is comprised of luddites and romanticists (although there are surely some here). Instead, these are the ones that wonder about where it’s all going… and whether it’s all good.

This is Your Brain on Facebook: Social Media and Teens’ Emotional Health

Social media are an integral part of the social landscape of teens today. This seems to have happened overnight, and now we are faced with some difficult questions: What does it mean if teens spend more time interacting via social media and less time interacting face to face? Should we be concerned that teens post suicidal thoughts on blogs rather than talking directly to parents and friends – or just feel relieved that they are telling someone? Is there a problem with the fact that, for many teens, it seems ok to break up a romantic relationship over text?

The short answer to these types of questions is: We have no idea. Scientists know next to nothing. Policy makers are shooting in the dark. Pundits and talking heads and techno-sages have a lot to say, but no basis upon which to draw conclusions. Yet these questions are incredibly important given the growing ubiquity of social media.

As a scientist and mother of two, I am particularly interested in the impact of computer-mediated social exchanges on kids’ social and emotional development. I think this is a major public health and social policy issue that has only begun to be addressed – at least in a way that is backed up by scientific evidence. Some may say these questions are alarmist, but others may ask why it’s taken us so long to ask them. Whatever the case, we need answers.

My intuition is that computer-mediated interactions and social media will create a world in which lots of good things can happen – social movements can blossom, people who feel lonely can feel more connected, and people who already have a rich social network can better stay in touch with their loved ones. And things I can’t even imagine will be the norm when my young children are teens. My own 3-year-old is already completely at ease with technology, and I am quite certain that he will find it natural to connect with others in computer-mediated ways.

But my intuition is also that something has fundamentally changed, and that social media represent a way of connecting that is different from how we evolved. We evolved to talk to each other face to face, to share emotions in real time, and to interpret even extremely subtle signs of emotion in the faces, voices, and bodies of our social partners. These experiences are also the basis upon which our “emotional brains” develop normally. That is, without these experiences, we cannot develop the empathy, emotional sensitivity, and ability to control our emotions that are fundamental to being human.

If social media increasingly replace face-to-face interactions, then kids today may have fewer opportunities to build these basic social and emotional skills. Skills like empathy require that we are emotionally sensitive enough to see that someone is upset, that we take the time to put ourselves in their shoes, and that we offer support. If we are busy posting, texting, and tweeting our thoughts and experiences, do we have less time and ability to support others and in turn receive support?

A recent study suggests perhaps so. Published in the January edition of Evolution and Human Behavior, the team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin found that when girls stressed by a test talked with their moms, stress hormones dropped and comfort hormones rose. When they reached out to their moms via IM, however, nothing happened. By the study’s physiological measures, IM’ing with their moms was barely different than not communicating with them at all. The authors concluded, in an interview with Wired – “people still need to interact the way we evolved to interact.”

It’s very important to note that interacting in ways that differ from how we interacted a hundred thousand or even a hundred years ago isn’t a bad thing. We didn’t evolve to drive cars, or have penicillin. And the modern world is unthinkable without a vast array of technological advances that are evolutionarily new.

But some think that social media may indeed be derailing our emotional evolution. A survey study by Konrath and colleagues published in 2010 suggests that college students today (“Generation Me”) have less empathy and are more selfish than students 20 years ago. Researchers conjecture that social media may be the culprit…. but there is little direct evidence to support this.

In my lab, we are trying to unravel such possibilities. For example, in a study we will soon submit for publication, we showed that college students who use more social media are less emotionally sensitive to faces – they don’t interpret emotional facial expressions as accurately as those who use less social media.

In this study, we used a computerized facial morphing task in which neutral faces gradually “morph” into mad, sad, or happy faces. This task is meant to measure emotional sensitivity, because to do the task well you need to be able to correctly identify very subtle signs of emotion in the face. We found that people who are frequent Facebook users (more than 8 hours a week) made more mistakes when they were asked to identify happy faces than infrequent users (less than 4 hours a week).

So, this finding might mean that by using Facebook frequently, we are becoming less sensitive to emotion – happiness in particular. But it could also mean that people who are already a little less sensitive to subtle emotional expressions choose to use more social media. Importantly, these are correlational data, so we can’t draw strong conclusions about cause and effect.

For this reason, it is crucial to conduct research that can actually get at cause and effect. I have just such a project in the works. The plan is to follow teens from the time they are 13 until they are 17. I’ll track what types of social media they use, how often they use them, why they use them, and if they prefer social media to face-to-face interactions for doing certain things (like sharing emotional experiences). Then I’ll test how these patterns of social media use directly influence changes in teens’ emotional strengths and weaknesses over time– their empathy, emotional sensitivity, their brain functioning, and how well they control their emotions.

By scientifically tracking teens over time, we can start to unravel whether social media drive our emotional lives, whether social media just reflect the way we already are, or whether both are the case. Without research that considers all these possibilities, we just can’t know which is true.

Social media are social tools like any other, right, neither good nor bad? – happy people can use them to share ideas and experiences; troubled people can seek out healthy or destructive social connections; bad people can find victims; and the socially awkward can find a safe haven.

Or maybe social media are very special indeed, and will have a profound impact on how we live as social and emotional beings. This is the question I am most interested in. I think we all embrace the idea that social media will change us in some way. And now, we must spend time, energy and resources to figure out exactly how.