They’re everywhere you look — millions of Americans, in fact — hooked on instantly communicating with their friends via social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Twitter, Digg, StumbleUpon and others.
Driver inattention while texting or sending messages to these sites causes untold numbers of accidents on the highway. Students furiously typing away at their laptops on college campuses may not be doing schoolwork — they’re more likely to be posting on their wall or updating their pages.
Despite claims of the benefits of being constantly in touch with friends, such slavish devotion to social networking sites can quickly lead to addiction.
Look at the numbers
In 2010, MySpace was in decline with 64.2 million users, as Facebook climbed to 92.9 million. People spend more than 500 billion minutes (you read that right, billion) on Facebook per month. More than 25 billion pieces of content (web links, blog posts, news links, photo albums, notes, etc.) are shared each month. There are more than 100 million active users currently accessing Facebook through their mobile devices. In addition, mobile Facebook active users are twice as active on the site than non-mobile Facebook users.
Communicating via Facebook
Since the big gorilla in the room is Facebook, let’s take a look at how users communicate using the social networking site. According to Sheryl Sandberg, the site’s chief operating officer, the average user has 120 confirmed friend connections (data from the Facebook press room says the number is 130). But since this number doesn’t take into account all the different relationships people have in their lives, the folks on the Facebook Data Team dove in to figure out a solution. They came up with what they term an “active network,” which consists of all the people with whom users stay up to date. Obviously, an active network implies action, and it’s different that the ways users communicate with friends on other types of networks.
On Facebook, there’s reciprocal communication — trading messages back and forth. This can be accomplished using a Wall-to-Wall exchange or a real-time chat. There’s also direct communication — sending a message to a specific person whether or not you expect a reply. You can do this through direct one-way inbox message or a Wall post. But the newest Facebook method — designed to get you connected to even more of your friends — is the stream. Every time a user logs into their Facebook home page, they see a running timeline or stream of information their friends are sharing as well as all the other things the user is connected to on Facebook. The more people user share, the more information that comes in on a non-stop basis.
Here’s where it gets interesting. According to Facebook, stream communication forms your active network. Whenever a user interacts with a story in the stream, say they “Like” the content, comment on it, or just click on it, the person who shared the content instantly becomes part of the user’s active network. On any given month, according to the organization’s Data Team, users keep up with between 2-4 times more people using the active network than through more traditional communication.
It’s easy to see how users can get lost just following the stream, replying to messages, posting on the Wall, or getting up-to-speed on friends’ comings and goings.
For its part, Facebook claims that with this greater connectedness comes the ability for people to extend their influence to others with amazing speed and efficiency. Take, for example, organizing events on a mass scale or spreading information. Facebook’s advertising follows a similar pattern.
How users get addicted
Granted, staying in touch with friends is a good thing to do. The more isolated you are, the more attractive social networking sites become. And even though users say they realize it’s not face-to-face, they swear it’s the next best thing. But things have just mushroomed to the point where there’s no stopping the instant stream of messages, photos, comments, postings, blogs, sharing of stories, etc. ad infinitum. How can a person ever get anything else done when all they’re doing is trying to stay on top of what’s going on with their friends and expanded, extended network?
Psychiatrists say users of social networking sites are extending their sense of identity, their sense of self. But these same psychiatrists also say they’re treating patients who use the Internet excessively — 30-40 hours plus each week. Some studies have found that the number of Internet addicts is in the millions.
Not surprisingly, social networking honchos say it’s more a matter of substitution. Users of MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and others, are going on the sites as opposed to watching television. Too much of anything can be addicting, whether it is alcohol, drugs, food, work, gambling, sex, or social networking.
What happens is that it starts with the simple desire to stay in touch with friends. You sign up on Facebook or MySpace or another social networking site, create your profile, work your magic on customizing pages, send out invites to others to add you as a friend, and off you go. Before long, according to many users, you find yourself connecting with many more people than you otherwise would. And this is where all that instant connectivity starts to have a down side.
Some call it a type of stalking. Curiosity about what someone’s doing may start innocently enough, but it can easily get out of hand. Users report that they often find themselves trying to follow their friends’ every move online. This can not only be time-consuming, it’s also unhealthy.
The American Psychiatric Association (APA), which will study and review proposed criteria for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) for the next two years, considered adding Internet addiction to the new behavioral addictions category, but has decided to recommend it be included in the manual’s index instead. The goal is to encourage additional study, since there is currently insufficient research data to put it in with behavioral addiction. But the APA does recognize the significant effect that Internet addiction is having on people. Interestingly, the APA markets its presence on Facebook and Twitter on its website.
Signs of addiction to social networking
There are clues that you — or someone you care about — are addicted to social networking sites. The first, and most obvious, is that you can’t function in your everyday life without them. If you can’t last a half hour without checking your Facebook page or responding via Twitter, then you know you’ve got a problem.
CNN Health recently posted a story about clues to Facebook addiction. While they are briefly listed here, they apply to more than just Facebook. Just substitute the name of any other social networking site.
You know you are addicted to Facebook (or Twitter, or MySpace, etc.), if you:
- Lose sleep over the site — Staying up all night (or the better part of it), trying to connect and write your most clever thoughts on your Wall, will really eat into your energy level. You’ll find yourself dragging through the next day, unable to concentrate on whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing – not a good thing, and certainly not conducive to overall mental and/or physical well-being.
- Spend more than an hour a day on Facebook — The compulsion to be on the site for hours on end is just that: compulsive behavior. You shouldn’t need to be on the site for more than 30 minutes – one hour maximum.
- Become obsessed with old loves — While it’s natural to wonder whatever happened to your old flame from high school or college, when you start trying to dig up and possibly rekindle old loves, you may wind up in addiction territory. First of all, it’s easy to reminisce with someone who’s not face-to-face. As with all internet communication, it’s just too easy to let slip some inadvertent (and inappropriate) comments about the state of your life right now, how miserable or lonely your marriage or current relationship is, pining over old times, wondering what if, and so on. Don’t think that all of this stays private. Many a marriage (and relationship) has ended as a result of such communication getting back to the other party.
- Ignore work in favor of Facebook — Sneaking onto your Facebook home page while you’re supposed to be working will sooner or later land you in hot water. Not only are you not paying attention to work you’re supposed to be doing, you’re being a thief with time. That’s what happens with addictions: Users become obsessed with the behavior to the exclusion of all else.
- The thought of getting off Facebook leaves you in a cold sweat — If it was alcohol or drugs, suddenly quitting would soon result in withdrawal symptoms, including a cold sweat. It’s the same thing with stopping Facebook addiction cold turkey. Experts say that you should try to stay off your social networking site of choice for a single day. If you become stressed out, anxious, or depressed, you should get some professional help. You very well may be addicted.
How to prevent addiction to social networking
Okay, enough about the warnings. What can you do to actually prevent becoming addicted to social networking sites? Here are a few tips. Some are fairly obvious, while others may leave you feeling a bit edgy. Remember, you have to first recognize the behavior as addictive before you can decide it’s necessary for you to do something to prevent becoming an addict. Denial and justification for your actions is a sure sign you’re already addicted.
- Set limits for yourself: In the early days of the Internet, way back in the mid-1990s, people accessing the web found themselves getting lost in the endless data links. Then came email and a new way to connect. Experts in business productivity recommended that people set aside a certain time of day to access email, and to avoid other times, since it’s so easy to become mired in non-stop communication. Enter social networking sites and the always-accessible siren call, and you can see how setting limits becomes even more important. Remember that social networking sites are a leisure activity. This isn’t something you have to do.
- Limit memberships: Who needs memberships in a dozen different social networking sites, anyway? Drop it down to two sites that do the same thing. You don’t need Facebook and MySpace, for example. Be sure to use discretion and the aforementioned time limits while using them.
- Disable email alerts: While this should be a no-brainer, it’s amazing how many people can’t force themselves to turn off instant notification when they get a message from a friend posted on their site. It’s just too enticing to see what so and so has to say. It might be important. Think about all the friends you have in your network (or your active network, the new Facebook time-leach). Add in all the alerts of messages from these friends and you’ll wind up spending all your time just checking and responding and checking and responding… and getting nothing else done.
- Close out browser windows to these sites: Out of sight, out of mind — maybe. Too many users leave multiple windows open on their computers, including browser windows to social networking sites. Close them out. That way, you can cut down on your urges and cravings to connect.
- Forget mobile apps to social networking sites: Do you really need to be tethered to Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and others on your mobile device? Sure, there are apps available that promise to link you instantly — the newest ones make them all available simultaneously — but isn’t this really overkill? If you’re already close to being addicted to Facebook, for example, using mobile apps to stay in the loop will just put you over the edge. Resist the urge to go for mobile apps to social networking sites. If you already have them, get rid of them.
- Reconnect with friends and family real-time: If you really want to communicate, there’s no better way to do it than spending some quality time face-to-face with family and friends. When you’re in their presence, laughing, recreating, having a meal or just plain fun, you’re not obsessing over taking cool pictures or composing witty comments or following the latest antics of one of your cadre of social networking friends.
- Engage in physical exercise: If you spend all your time on Facebook or Twitter or other social networking sites, chances are you’re oblivious to what’s going on in the real world. It’s also highly likely that you’re a bit under-exercised, possibly sun-deprived, and definitely in need of getting outside for some fresh air. Don’t use the argument that you can walk and connect at the same time. That’s defeating the purpose. Besides, you might get hit by a vehicle crossing the street — hey, it’s not the driver’s fault you’re a bonehead.
- Enjoy real life, not a replacement life: Getting bogged down checking up on all your friends means you’re spending all your time in pseudo-life and not real life. It’s too easy to start using social networking sites as a replacement for living instead of actually spending time to improve the quality of their lives. Instead of avoiding life by being a slave to social networking sites, get out and enjoy life.
- Leave your mobile device turned off in gatherings: How annoying it is to be at a party or gathering and see someone furiously typing away a message (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) instead of actually communicating with the people all around him or her? Such addictive behavior will really put a crimp in anyone’s social skills. Stop hiding behind your mobile device and your Facebook addiction and get out there and mingle.
Social networking is fine in moderation
Bottom line: Social networking is a great concept and is fine in moderation. Just be sure to use your time productively, set limits, reconnect with family and friends in real-time, and be alert to signs that you’re stepping over the line from casual use to addiction.
One final thought: It might be nice to go on a trip where you’re totally unconnected. In the old days, they’d call it disconnect from the stresses of work. No TV, no phone, no Internet, no newspaper — just relaxing on the beach or hitting the slopes or fishing or whatever. How great is that? Try it sometime. You’ll come back refreshed and totally relaxed. Besides, the social network will be there waiting on your return. Need more convincing? Just think of it this way: You’ll have so much more to talk about (and probably some very cool photos, too).