The tides are turning against Facebook. But no matter how much they may want to, some people just can’t seem to break away.
Controversy has spilled out of the tens of thousands of pages of internal company documents leaked by company whistleblower Frances Haugen, who said the files show that the company’s products “harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy.”
Although this is just the latest in a series of Facebook-related incidents building outrage over data privacy, content moderation and mental health concerns, it doesn’t seem to be getting easier to log off.
“One of the hallmarks of addiction is we continue a behavior that’s inconsistent with our values,” Dr. Anna Lembke, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, said. “It’s quite possible that people who are angry with Facebook and say that Facebook’s behavior is not consistent to their values but who continue to use Facebook on a very regular basis are people who may indeed be addicted.”
Facebook continues to rank among the most widely used online platforms by US adults, with 69% saying they use the social media space, according to an April survey from the Pew Research Center.
Why is it so hard to keep off the app if you have decided you are done with Facebook? Because the platform taps into our societal needs and biological drives to keep us coming back for more, experts say.
“When you have such a profound impact on how people feel about themselves or rate themselves, that’s going to win,” said John Duffy, a clinical psychologist who practices in Chicago. “Even if you can point to rationally that this is not a good thing for me, the emotion wins.”
As strong as the pull may be, understanding how the platform draws people in can help those who want to spend less time scrolling.
Wired for likes
Beautiful faces, bright lights, instant emotional connection – it’s hard to look away when Facebook is geared to the things humans evolved to be drawn toward, Lembke said.
“We are wired to want to connect with other human beings,” she said. So, when we join in the outrage, joy or heartbreak of an intimate post, we get a surge of dopamine in the reward pathway of the brain.
Dopamine, often called the “feel-good” neurotransmitter, plays a part in intense drives like movement, motivation, addiction and romance.
There can be too much of a good thing, however, Lembke said.
Where humans once had to work hard and have meaningful conversations or experiences to expand their circle, social media has made potential human interactions nearly infinite – and a click away.
“Our primitive brains were not evolved to accommodate these huge influxes of dopamine all at once,” Lembke said. “We were evolved for a world of scarcity and ever-present danger. We were wired for natural rewards of finding food, clothing, shelter, mate after tremendous effort, suffering and searching.”
To compensate for the overload, brains adjust by decreasing their own dopamine productions – not just to a baseline, but a deficit that requires a return to the source of dopamine to be satisfied, Lembke said.
“With repeated exposure over time, we essentially enter a chronic dopamine deficit state, which is akin to clinical depression,” Lembke said.
The need to check again
As if biological impulses weren’t enough to keep us hooked, social media platforms like Facebook provide plenty of social reinforcements.
It’s “as simple as wanting to be a part of the thing,” Duffy said. “The fear of missing out we have at 13 we still have when we’re 50.”
Humans have a natural tendency to want to define themselves and where they fit in a hierarchy, Duffy said.
“Am I attractive? Do people like me? Am I invited to the thing? Those were the important things that mattered 20 years ago,” Duffy said. “Now it’s, ‘OK, I posted something this morning. Do I have any new followers, do I have any likes?’”
On social media, where new activity is cropping up all the time, that drive to define oneself falls into an intoxicating cycle, he said.
“Because its forever refreshed from moment to moment to moment, it’s not like you can check in for a moment in a day and feel like OK, I’ve covered my Facebook angle. We have to keep checking it,” Duffy said.
Even when the likes are low and the checking leads to disappointment, social media platforms offer the promise of another chance, Duffy said.
“If you lose today, there is this idea in the back of a lot of our minds that ‘Well, I’ve got another shot at it tomorrow,’” he said.
How to break away
Facebook’s attraction may be strong, but there is a game plan for those who are motivated to break away.
The first step is going cold turkey for about a month, both Lembke and Duffy said.
It can take at least that long for dopamine levels to restore themselves, but many people don’t wait that long to see results, Lembke said.
“I always warn people that in the first two weeks, they’re going to feel worse before they feel better because in the first two weeks, they’ll still be in that dopamine deficit state,” she said.
By week three or four, Lembke found that many people start to notice they are thinking about Facebook less and enjoying their other activities more.
After the month, the key is moderating consumption, she said. That can be done through establishing tech-free spaces, setting timers for use, turning off alerts and avoiding the social media apps that make you feel out of control, whether it is Facebook, Instagram or Tiktok, Lembke recommended.
If the temptation to log back on is too strong right after the timer goes off, Lembke recommended doing something that connects you back with your body, whether that is a walk outside or plunging your face in an ice-cold bath.