Two years ago, my wife and I went to one of our favorite restaurants to celebrate Valentine’s Day. You know, one of those upscale places with white linen tablecloths, lots of forks, sparkling stemware and penguins as waiters. In anticipation of a larger crowd than usual, the restaurant had set up quite a few extra two-tops uncomfortably close to each other. It was one of those situations where you find yourself so close to the other tables that you can’t help but make eye contact with the folks seated next to you. This leaves you to wonder all kinds of questions about proper etiquette. Do you greet them? Give them a head nod? Ignore them in some code of silence out of respect for their privacy? It ranks right up there with all the social awkwardness of an elevator.
During our meal, the table next to us remained empty. However, we couldn’t help but notice a couple seated two tables away. By their attire, it was obvious they too were there for Valentine’s Day. And yet, throughout the entire meal, he was fixated on his smartphone. She sat across from him obviously annoyed, drinking her wine and glancing around the restaurant trying to look as if she could care less about being ignored.
Or was she just use to it?
Was he reviewing that day’s market activity on the blue-chip stocks upon which their early retirement depended? Keeping up with crucial text messages regarding a crisis at work? For all I know, he could have been a surgeon receiving time-sensitive updates on a struggling patient’s vitals. I don’t know exactly what he was doing.
My impression was that he was looking at box scores, trolling Facebook or playing a round of Angry Birds.
Whatever he was doing, it didn’t quite seem to fit with Valentine’s Day. Two people sitting so close together, yet so far apart.
While there may be numerous explanations for his behavior, the truth could be that he had an addiction to social media. It was so controlling in his life that he either didn’t know or didn’t care that he was rudely ignoring his partner at their Valentine’s Day dinner.
Is it possible to become addicted to the use of social media?
I started using Facebook a few years ago. I quickly discovered that it was, in fact, a remarkable platform from which I could catch up with friends I hadn’t been in touch with for years. Since family and friends are my greatest treasure in life, I really liked the portal Facebook offered to stay connected to this valuable relational network.
However, it was just a matter of time before my insatiable curiosity about human behavior kicked into gear. I became intrigued with the dynamics surrounding a person’s use of social media.
I have concluded that just like with drugs or alcohol, there are “casual users” and there are “habitual abusers” of social media. Some people are high-functioning social media addicts. They successfully disguise their dependency in a life full of exemplary performance with responsible activities like raising kids, holding down jobs, and maintaining relationships. And others? Well, others have a more difficult time hiding their problem. They’re just not getting their stuff done…again…because of hours spent trolling social media sites. You know, stuff like homework, housework, and, um, work-work.
Social media can become a real problem in our lives if we are not careful. Unfortunately, the seduction can be so sinister you don’t even know it is happening until you wake up in the middle of the night to use the restroom and have to check the latest on Facebook before getting back into bed.
I have adopted a working definition of addiction that may be a bit broader than a strict medical one. I define an addiction as “ANY COMPULSIVE BEHAVIOR that we use to COPE with or to AVOID things we don’t like.” It is more utilitarian than scientific, I admit.
Compulsive behavior is any initial or habitual response to a negative or uncomfortable situation; that “very first thing we do” when we don’t like how we are feeling. Eat, smoke, drink, sleep, watch television, play video games, shop, view porn, gamble, chew fingernails, workout, procrastinate, or troll social media are all typical ways that people “deal with” what they don’t like. Psychologists call it “escapist behavior.” An apt term for describing what one is doing.
Unfortunately, it is never a productive route. As innocent as the behaviors may seem, when they are compulsive escapes we use to cope with unwanted feelings, they are still an addiction. And addictions are never harmless! They always hurt somebody.
Here are a couple of telltale signs that you might have a social media problem.
You might have a problem if…
The urge to check your favorite social media is so strong that it leaves you feeling restless (or agitated) until the desire is satisfied.
When you actually start “feeling” like you HAVE TO check social media, you’re in the danger zone. If it seems like (or looks like to others) that you just “can’t help yourself” when it comes to the impulse to check Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat, it might be time to admit you have a problem. If checking social media activity is the very first thing you do when you have even the slightest opening in your schedule, you need to pay serious attention to that.
When every spare moment becomes the perfect opportunity for you to reach for your phone, tablet or laptop to see what you’ve missed, you are bordering on a compulsive behavior.
You might have a problem if….
You essentially ignore other people in the same room while
socializing with people on the other side of your screen.
Look around you these days. In restaurants, parks, meetings at work, social gatherings or other places where you find groups of people, notice how many of them are reading their cellphones. They are standing in the same room, yet isolated from each other in their own little social media world. This may make sense in a roomful of strangers. But when you are ignoring family and friends sitting in the same room with you to socialize with people on the other end of your virtual world, you are sending a dangerous message about the value of the people right next to you.
You might have a problem if….
You make posts with the ambition of garnering
other people’s admiration or approval.
Check your motives here. They don’t lie. Do you secretly hope that your latest update will be affirmed with numerous “likes”, “shares” and “comments”? When the number of responses you receive serve as tokens of approval for your self-esteem, social media has become a drug that helps get you high. If you find yourself frequently checking the latest tally of affirmations to your posts because of the satisfaction it brings about what other people think of you, social media has become more of an enemy than a friend.
This kind of approval is neither sustainable nor sufficient for the needs of the human soul.
You might have a problem if…
You have you developed an online “personality” that isn’t
really the truth about you or your lifestyle.
Your social media circle thinks you are one of the happiest, laid-back, industrious, adventurous, creative, courageous, wise or witty people on the planet. The people who live with you…well, they know that’s not like you at all.
It is possible to create an image of yourself on social media that isn’t really you. Addictions are often disguised under a façade of lies.
You might have a problem if…
The social media activity you find most interesting is your very own.
What motivates you to share every experience of your life with those who follow you on social media is the stuff that keeps psychologists in business. Can you say “narcissism”? Psych Central defines narcissism as “the egotistical preoccupation with self, personal preferences, aspirations, needs, success, and how he/she is perceived by others.”
Remember that Greek myth about Narcissus? He was the guy who caught sight of his own reflection in a pond and could not break his admiring gaze. Unable to leave the beauty of his own reflection, he drowned in an infatuation with himself.
If your Facebook page were a mirror, just exactly how much time do you spend staring at yourself in it? Frequently reviewing your own posts could be a dead giveaway that you are addicted to the admiration of yourself.
Help for Social Media Addicts
So what’s one to do if any of these things ring true? These four helpful suggestions for limiting your risk of a social media addiction may help.
1. Turn off notifications.
Most computers, tablets and smartphones offer a feature where you can set your device to automatically notify you of any activity on your favorite social media sites. If you receive notifications on your devices, go ahead and turn off this feature. You’re just asking for an addiction if you respond to this constant stimulation to stop what you are doing to check your latest updates.
2. Set some boundaries.
Establish some rules for yourself and ask a friend or two to keep you accountable.
· Limit the number of times a day you will check your social media activity.
· Limit the number of posts you will make in a day. Limiting yourself to two posts a day will really force you to share only the most valuable contributions.
· Limit the amount of time you will spend on social media each day. Thirty to sixty minutes a day ought to be more than enough. You’re probably insisting that your children limit their time playing video games or scrolling Instagram each day. Don’t be a hypocrite. Children parented by hypocrites often have a difficult time respecting and obeying people in authority. Let them see you practice the self-control you want to see in them.
3. Force yourself to keep it to yourself.
Try dissecting the motives that drive your decision to post what you are about to share. Ask yourself, “Why am I posting this….honestly?” If you think that a particular post is really about promoting yourself in the eyes of other people, then force yourself not to post it at all.
Don’t find another less self-serving way to compose the post. Don’t wait a few days to make it sound like old news. Don’t come right out and admit your self-centered motive as some self-deprecating way to diffuse your self-promoting ambitions. Just don’t make that post at all. Force yourself to savor that great insight, that witty observation or that enviable experience all by yourself for no other reason than the sheer discipline of self-control.
4. Take a social media sabbatical.
Another healthy exercise is to take an occasional social media sabbatical. Choose a period of time that you swear off the use of your favorite sites. In the spirit of a good cleanse, deny yourself the pleasure of social media for a period of time and then use that time for other important relational or personal activities. Make it hurt a little. I am talking months, not days or weeks.
5. STOP. USING. SOCIAL. MEDIA.
If after a long sabbatical you find yourself immediately immersed right back into the same old habits of social media abuse, it is time for drastic measures. If you can’t control your use of social media, stop using it altogether.
Every recovering alcoholic understands that if they want to stay healthy, they just can’t touch the stuff ever again. The same goes for a social media addict.
When it comes right down to it, there really are more important things in life than what goes on in places like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. There are the relationships you have right there in front of you, the moments you are living right now, the conversations that are unfolding in your presence all the time. Put down that phone, set aside that tablet, walk away from that computer and be present with those who are present.
And whatever you do, don’t let me catch you ignoring your date sitting across the table from you on Valentine’s Day. I’ll pull together a few waiters and initiate an intervention right then and there if I have to.
For your own good, of course!