The following is the extract from an interview I gave to a journalist at a leading women’s magazine investigating the effects of excessive Facebook usage on the mental health of young women. It contains lots of practical advice about how to manage this problem.
How do you know if you’re taking your social networking usage too far?
The answer obviously depends on the person and the nature of their use. An internet addiction questionnaire that we have developed looks at 4 questions around normal addictive behaviors. With general internet usage, physical symptoms such as headaches, blurred vision, not sleeping well, sore wrists, back and neck are common symptoms.
Psychological symptoms are use at the exclusion of other activities, feeling withdrawn, constant checking, mood changes, amplified emotions such as guilt, envy, jealousy and anger. Its important to look at the negative impact on relationships, work performance, friendships etc as well.
This is where the issue of “what is addiction?” and “what is impulse control or obsessional behavior?” comes into play. In most cases, a mix of the two occurs in that FB and social networking sites are not truly chemically addictive in the way that alcohol, nicotine, caffeine or possibly food are, but there are mechanics built into these technologies that make users repeatedly check for updates, friendships requests etc that engender anxiety and a constant state of arousal.
If you’re unable to write a paragraph or complete a work task without checking Twitter or Facebook, do you need help?
Probably not as this is really about focus and attention. A lot of research has been done on frontal lobe changes in the brain (the part of the brain that controls attention, focus and impulse control) and people’s abilities to stay on task when using new forms of technology. Some commentators believe that our “ wired society” is causing us to develop ADHD because we are constantly distracted by real time information.
Some brain imaging studies have shown that teenagers who use the internet excessively have changes in their brain structure, but that isn’t necessarily as bad as it sounds as the brain is very malleable and these changes are reversible provided the behavior is changed as well. Generally impulsive behaviors tend to reduce with age. I think most people could relate to compulsively checking FB or twitter; the question to put to yourself is: has this behavior become impossible to resist, to the extent that it overrides your ability to carry out other important activities.
How do you know when you’ve crossed the line from being a casual user to an “addict”, or to someone dependent on Facebook for a pickup?
This is really about recognizing behaviours, emotions, physical symptoms and performance issues in yourself that you know are not your normal self and are causing you distress. We all spend too much time checking, updating, texting, but have these moved beyond this into a sense of not being in control?
You mentioned the idea that excessive Facebook usage may be symptomatic of another problem, perhaps low self-esteem. How does Facebook speak to this weak spot in ourselves?
If you remember that we are all social animals and very status driven, there are obviously dynamics on Facebook that will tap into our insecurities about our popularity, what our friends are doing and what people are saying about us. It’s no secret that when we feel unhappy in ourselves, we turn to behaviors that can be seductive at first glance, but make us feel more unhappy, guilty or shameful afterwards.
Why have we taken social networking on and embraced it, when for many people, it just makes us feel bad about ourselves and our lives?
We are trading in the genuine warmth and emotional benefits of nurtured friendships with the short term, falsely reassuring signals of virtual befriending. The problem is our brains are misinterpreting these signals and leading us into unknown territory. Everyone should remember that technology companies are in fierce competition to capture and retain our attention.
We have not as much embraced as been hit with a wave of technology that has drawn us into the misguided belief that distant but superficial virtual relationships are equal to the relationships we have had before. There is no substitute for face to face communication, eye to eye contact and being in the same room as someone.
Finally, what can we do to get ourselves back on track and into more of a balanced state?
Take a step back and recognize that social networking sites (and this applies to any technology) are a tool to make our lives more convenient, efficient and enjoyable. We all have an ability to control this relationship, but we do it poorly.
It’s also important to recognize that “social networks” do not replace the benefits of nurtured relationships with family and friends. A lot of research has shown that it is difficult to have meaningful relationships with more than 10-15 people. Having 500+ friends on FB is meaningless and is simply chasing angst and further unhappiness.
Next, choose to spend time with friends that you trust. See them regularly and spend quality time with them. Avoid people who you know make you feel uncomfortable or insecure.
Next, identify the specific unhelpful behaviors that you resort to on social networking sites, write down how and why they make you feel unhappy. Recognize that some of these feelings may have meaning, but that modern technology is likely to make them worse by “turning up the signal”.
Finally, think carefully about your home, study or work environment and how it can be modified to make it less revolved around the internet. Do you have space you can get away from your PC? Do you have rules at meal times and bed time for use of your computer or smartphone?
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