Updated: Sep 24, 2018
Firstly, relax. I won't be asking you to quit Facebook. I probably won't be quitting any time soon either. But could it be possible that Facebook has taken us hostage, without us realizing it...and if it has, what can we do about it?
The small black screen lying on my desk glinted at me, daring me— "check your facebook, check your facebook, check your facebook..." I moved it to another room. Before long, I walked past it and stopped in my tracks, hearing its siren call again— "check your facebook, check your facebook...." After playing this game a few times, trying various different locations, I finally gave in. I had lasted about 45 minutes. That's when I realised I had an problem— a digital habit.
In his groundbreaking book, "Digital Cocaine," Brad Huddleston highlights the dangers of excessive screen time and social media use. An hour of playing a video game, he maintains, is no different than "half a line of cocaine, as far as your brain is concerned." Studies have shown that social media use produces a chemical response in the brain's pleasure center, much in the same way that drug use or physical intimacy does. That's why it is so easy to develop a "digital habit."
The Effects of Facebook (and other Social Media) on the Brain:
1) Fragmented attention/Short attention span
Facebook is designed in such a way that you are constantly bombarded with small distractions that lead to other distractions. The idea is to keep you browsing for as long as possible (the longer you browse, the more marketing you are exposed to.) Think about the last time you went to a friend's profile to see pictures of their newborn, then managed to "surf" your way through a pile of adorable kids clothes, the latest dirt out of D.C. and a flock of drunken goats. And now here you are, watching two dogs playing the banjo and wondering how on earth you got there. "Online wandering," repeated over and over, eventually starts to "fragment" our attention. We get used to seeing "bites" of information that we never take in entirely because we've already moved onto the next thing. Over time, this lessens our ability to stay focused on one thing at a time, causing tasks to take longer.
Ironically, the more our attention is fragmented, the less efficient we become at multitasking. In an experiment that demonstrates the effects of social media on concentration, participants were asked to complete a number of cognitive tasks— with or without their phones handy. The study found that those with their phones in another room performed better than those with their phones sitting on their desk. In other words, just having your phone in the same room can affect your ability to think straight.
Spiritually speaking, wouldn't it make sense for the enemy to capitalize on social media's endless rabbit trails to fragment our attention spans and make spending time with God difficult?
In all honesty, when was the last time you had time alone with God without any digital distractions? I'm not even talking about some kind of digital detox or spiritual retreat, I am talking about day to day time with Him. Remember, the number one thing the enemy is after is your relationship with God. If he can make it harder for you to hear God's voice and limit your interactions with him, mission accomplished. Ultimately this results a weak, shallow christian walk— "having a form of godliness without power" (2 Timothy 3:5).
2) Less Patience and Perseverance
It makes sense that a shorter attention span also means less patience. Is Facebook and social media weakening our ability to persevere? Is it actually sucking away our creativity and ability to think outside the box, instead of enhancing it? These are important questions we need to ask ourselves.
Facebook was deliberately created to be psychologically addictive. In fact, Facebook employs the same principles as gambling, with the help of a team of people called "attention engineers." Think of a slot machine. The principle is simple. You pull the lever (physical action), the machine scrolls through a series of images (creating suspense) and you wait to hit the jackpot (reward). If you don't, there's always the temptation to pull the lever "just one more time— " after all, you could be one more crank away from a big win.
Now think about Facebook. You click a button (physical action), scroll through your news feed (suspense) looking for some interesting tidbit or a comment that will evoke a pleasant reaction (reward). If you don't find anything, you can always just keep scrolling. Before you know it, you are in a trance, having succumbed to "infinite scrolling mode" You are looking for that "reward" to give you a hit of endorphins (the "happy" hormones.) Ultimately this pattern erodes our impulse control— making it harder and harder to say no. Sadly, people are literally getting into car wrecks because they can't say no. Just like Pavlov's dogs, we have been conditioned (in this instance with a gentle chime) to respond (check our notifications).
5) Emotional and Psychological issues
Do you tend to go to Facebook when you are stressed? There's a reason for this. In the same way we might turn to chocolate to trigger a dopamine high, Facebook does the same thing, creating a calming effect— but not for long. Studies have shown that while we may feel relaxed for a moment, excessive Facebook use also leads to elevated levels of cortisol (the "stress" hormone). Over a prolonged period of time, high cortisol adversely affect our health, physically and emotionally. Years of overstimulation cause the reward center of the brain become exhausted, depleting it of dopamine and serotonin, two chemicals necessary for healthy mental and emotional function. Sometimes this can actually lead to social-media induced anxiety and/or depression.
Hormones and biochemistry aside, is it any wonder that after years of comparing ourselves with our friends online, that so many are suffering from anxiety and loneliness? Ironically, these are the very same friends that we seem to be in constant communication with and yet somehow become more alienated from.
Social media "tricks" the brain into thinking that we are having meaningful emotional and relational exchanges. In reality, the more time we invest in social media, the less engagement we have in the "real world." Unless we take steps to either significantly reduce our Facebook usage, or be more intentional about physically reaching out to our friends, we risk watering down our relationships.
But I NEED Facebook
"Okay," You might be thinking. "I get it. Facebook has some pitfalls. But you don't understand. I need to use Facebook. I have a business. I have clients I'm connected to on it and I do a lot of my advertising on social media." My response would be that I completely agree— Facebook can be a useful tool. However, the bigger issues are;
1) "Could we be more effective by taking a predominantly interpersonal approach to our businesses and relationships?" and,
2) "Do the negative outcomes outweigh the positive ones?"
I don't have time here to go into all the reasons why you may not need Facebook as much as you think you do, but if you still have reservations I would encourage you to listen to this "Ted Talk" by Dr. Cal Newport. Incredibly, Dr. Newport is a young, successful computer scientist and author who has never owned a social media account. Now, while you might not want to go that extreme, his ideas on how to excel in life without social media are enlightening, to say the least.
Are You Addicted to Facebook?
What's the Next Step?
So are you ready to make some lifestyle changes and start enjoying the benefits of less time on social media? Find out how to make it through your first week and discover what you'll gain in my post, "How to Break up With Facebook— or at Least Spend Less Time Together." [ADD HYPERLINK HERE WHEN DONE]