I used to use Facebook a lot, and read Twitter a lot.
FB gave me immediate access to cultural and social events that I wouldn’t otherwise know about. There was some good writing, some good photography, some good music. There was a lot of joking around. I enjoyed some people’s travel photography.
Twitter let me know the background to what’s going on in politics, especially in relation to the Donald Trump clownshow, and Robert Mueller’s investigation into it.
At a certain point I realised that this was making me miserable. This is how I expressed it to a friend:
Being retired I find my life alternates between being ridiculously busy and having nothing special to do. And it’s those quiet times that are the problem. Thing is, every so often FB comes up with a gem. It’s easy to overlook that the rest is dross. The big thing, however, has been to restrict my Twitter usage, where once again I found myself looking for shreds of hope, where really there is none. It’s quite sobering to realise that my primary form of political thought is wishful thinking.
In November I decided once again to give up Facebook and Twitter, because I was spending too much time on them for no obvious benefit.
To which my friend responded:
Blimey Jeremy, that’s bleak.
I have been partially successful. I have only posted once on FB, and my reading habit is much reduced for both. I’m reading books a lot more, and doing a lot more practice on guitar, bass and singing.
The key here was to recognise that, for me, social media was / is a Bad Habit, and how that habit works.
To discuss this stuff I think we need a few definitions1.
Habit: a repeated activity that you have been trained into, or have trained yourself into. Started/done without conscious intention
Withdrawal Symptom: symptoms that are caused by stopping a habit. They disrupt the course of your ordinary life (eg tremors, fever, pain) and may encourage you to do dangerous things in order to get relief
Health costs: when a habit makes you ill or has negative affects on you or on the people around you
Dependence: a habit with significant withdrawal symptoms. You can be dependent on something without being addicted
Addiction: a habit with significant withdrawal symptoms and with significant health costs
Bad habit: a habit without significant withdrawal symptoms but with significant health costs
Good habit: a habit with significant benefits, and without health costs2
The first step to giving up a habit seems to be to recognise that I’ve got one. As I was writing this I realised that I might have a load of other bad habits.
So here’s a little questionnaire that I wrote out. You might like to classify each of these for yourself as one of not a habit, good or neutral habit, bad habit, dependence or addiction.
Think about going a day or month without:
- having your mobile phone with you
- drinking alcohol
- drinking tea
- drinking coffee
- smoking cigarettes
- using non-medical drugs
- cleaning your teeth
- taking a bath
- wearing clothes
- eating sugar
- checking social media
- posting on social media
- playing your instrument
- writing something
- going for a walk
- watching porn
- having sex
- eating a meal
- using a toilet
- using a car
- using public transport.
The things in this list that bother you may be different from those that bother me, and I’d love to hear your suggestions for more. The point here is that forgoing social media perhaps ought not to compare with forgoing clothes or food or whatever. But for some reason it remains compulsive.
I’m pretty horrified about the idea going out without my mobile phone. It gives me access to train times, navigation, help in an emergency, all sorts of communication. It feels like these things make my life safer / better / lower stress. With the exception of social media, I’d say my phone usage falls somewhere between a neutral habit and a dependence.
I’m a lot less horrified about giving up social media, and it definitely has health costs for me, so I’d classify it as a bad habit.
What makes social media compulsive?
More than 25 years ago, when I gave up cigarettes, when I finally saw that the reward I got from smoking a cigarette was a moment’s relief from the symptoms that were caused by all the cigarettes I had smoked previously. That made me want to not be a smoker and was the key to giving up.3 4
So what is it about social media and Facebook in particular that makes them so compulsive? I think I have a handle on that. And a key realisation helped me to reduce my usage. The realisation is that:
Our reaction to likes and comments on FB is out of all proportion to the effort made by the person liking or commenting.
In the book Darkness At Noon, Arthur Koestler talks about prisoners in solitary confinement developing a communication code by tapping on the heating pipes. Can you imagine the thrill of being able to communicate with another prisoner in those circumstances? In ordinary life it would be almost impossible to become interested in such a thing. It’s the isolation that makes it significant.
The reward that we get from an event is dependent on the context in which it happens, and something inside us calibrates our responses in proportion to the available range of stimuli. Most of my posts on FB would get between 0 and maybe 60 likes. So 60 likes appears to be a massive reward.
If I go for a coffee with a friend I might get 2 hours of undivided attention.
How do these two things compare?
A like on FB only takes a click – maybe half a second of attention. So 60 likes on FB probably costs no more than 30 person-seconds. That’s 1/120 person-hours.
The coffee takes two person-hours of the other person’s time. That’s 240 times as much attention as the 60 FB likes.
I doubt if anyone considers 60 likes as comparable to 2 hours with a friend, but I used to over value the likes by a huge proportion. Maybe this suggests that I was living in some form of isolation, a bit like the prisoners in Koestler’s book.
This realisation was the key for me to stop the habit of posting on FB. I will probably post this, consciously, and I will probably check for likes, but I’ll try not to get excited about the likes. And that’ll be my last post for a while.
What progress have I made? Well, this will be my second FB post since November, so OK there.
I still read FB, but not much. I don’t sit there waiting for it to entertain me. It still has benefits that I’m not ready to give up and it feels less of a problem.
I’ve deleted FB from my phone. This feels like a good thing, although I recognise that my continued use of WhatsApp, FB Messenger and Instagram still keep me deep in FB’s pocket.
I continue to read Twitter in a futile search for hope about the Trump thing. But not so much, and I’m a lot better at recognising the behaviour and going to play guitar or read a book instead.
- This is how I’m using the terms here, the DSM may say something different. ↩
- I’d say that some good habits are dependencies. For example, I’d have pretty bad withdrawal symptoms if someone I love were to die. But that’s not an argument for not loving them. ↩
- I realise now that I wasn’t addicted to cigarettes, it was just a bad habit, so it was relatively easy for me. Some people get terrible withdrawal symptoms that make it very hard to give up. ↩
- I’m sure this is not original but I can’t recall where I got the idea from. ↩