Social media may promise connection and community, but when it stops you from engaging in the real world it can prove to be a negative activity and influence. Anxiety can be such a lonely condition and staying attached to social media feeds can be a way of compounding your negative state of being. Fear of missing out (FoMO) is largely due to the perception that others might be having more rewarding experiences than us or are being better informed than us.
The danger with the constant level of digital connectivity is that we can become compulsive checkers; checking for status updates, messages and breaking news stories for fear of missing an opportunity.
When we feel lonely or blue, the temptation is to think that everyone else in our social network is enjoying richer and more fruitful experiences than us. It is important to remember that people present a filtered snapshot of their lives through social media
Attachment to social media activity is not recognised by the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as an addiction. However, increasing numbers of users are reporting that they have a problem in overusing social media.
It was, therefore, interesting to hear the admission from a Facebook co-founder that the social networking site exploits human weakness. Sean Parker, played by Justin Timberlake in the film the Social Network, recently stated that Facebook created a monster by knowingly “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology”. Parker played a pivotal role in transforming the site from a college project into a multibillion-dollar business with two billion monthly users. Parker explained it was a social validation feedback loop and went on to say “we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while,” noting that “likes” and comments on their pages encouraged users to post more and more. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that affects pleasure (amongst other things), which plays a pivotal role in our mental health. We receive a positive reward in the form of pleasure from dopamine induced by eating, drinking, sex etc. when the brain is functioning properly.
The power of apps can be quite powerful yet subtle. They meet our prime drives for survival and affiliation by promising connection with others as well as offering an apparent escape from prime fears of being alone and of death. Facebook, Instagram and Tinder give “intermittent rewards”, meaning that every time users open them there is a chance they will get a “like”, a message or a date — and a chance they will not. This can keep you attached to the device. Research scientists in Amsterdam earlier this year reported that brain scans of heavy social media users getting their “fix” were similar to the scans of cocaine addicts.
Problems with social media can have similarities to gambling addiction. ‘The zone’ has been described by Natasha Dow Schull, in her book Addiction by Design, which showed how an electronic slot machine random number generator provides a reinforcement schedule that keeps the user in a trance-like state. Once in the zone, problem gamblers use the machines not necessarily to win but rather to keep playing, for as long as possible. They continue to stay in this state in spite of physical and financial exhaustion. In this state, users have described even forgetting the names of their children, such is the hypnotic-like environment in which they exist. The machine and person enter a form of emotional intimacy where fear and worries appear to fade away.
If you feel you have a problem overusing social media then try restricting the amount of time you spend checking for updates. You could also consider the following:
- Remove social media apps from your phone. This can help to eliminate the temptation to be constantly online.
- Restrict time watching television as well as the amount of time engaged with social media.
- Listen to the news on the radio once in the morning and once in the evening for a while rather than constant checking on social media apps.
- Set time boundaries with the use of mobile devices.
- Take breaks like going for walks, but leaving mobile devices behind.
- Cultivate mindfulness and awareness by practising breathing exercises.
See if these steps help you to feel more empowered in tackling your daily tasks. It is possible to reclaim your personal power by concentrating your energies on your own life and paying more attention to the real people in your life.
The need for digital connection could we viewed as existential angst, sometimes called dread, anxiety, or anguish. Indeed, Australian psychologist Dorothy Rowe has said that 'we fear uncertainty more than death itself'. Therefore, perhaps our unconscious drive is to stay busy to avoid our ultimate fear and if our to-do lists remain unfinished, then so much the better. To digitally detox there can be greater creativity, enhanced focus and increased energy levels in the course of your day. Ironically this can create greater connection with other people.
Counselling and psychotherapy can help you to set your boundaries around your online engagement and offer the opportunity to reassess your life direction. It can also help you to gain greater insight into your triggers for negative thinking and exploring “here and now” feelings can be a useful way of working through behavioural addictions. A trained therapist can help you to engage more meaningfully with all of your relationships and help to build higher levels of motivation in your day. You could explore what is behind your need for digital connection as well as investigate how you could let go of your need for constant digital engagement.