It should come as no surprise to anyone that the more time we spend on Facebook the less happy we are. But the platform has so insidiously made itself indispensable that many of us probably don't even realize how much time we spend there, let alone the detrimental effect it's having on us. The site, like others (I'm looking at you Instagram!) is designed to keep us there, endlessly scrolling.
“What we're getting is this charge,” professor Eleazar Eusebio, Psy.D., of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, says. “It's like a drug. In the same way a drug stimulates and excites our reward pathways, [so does] Facebook.” The primitive parts of our brains are lighting up just like rats getting rewards in a lab.
The difference? A rat doesn't have a thought process to say, 'Oh my God. I just spent my entire day [on the internet]. We're now aware that this is aberrant. We should be doing other things,” Eusebio explains.
And that takes “a tremendous amount of willpower,” he says. Not keeping your phone by your bed (get an actual clock!) and limiting check-ins with an app or a timer is a great place to start. “We're just creatures of habit,” he says. “With practice, we routinize everything.” So once you're off the hamster wheel it becomes easier to stay off. But just starting can be surprisingly difficult.
I Needed a Facebook Intervention
I'm as guilty as anyone. Working from home, Facebook has become my water cooler to chat with friends throughout the day. It gradually became the source of the majority of my news. And it was the ultimate sounding board to run ideas by people or take quick surveys.
But the more I've used it the more impatient I got, the narrower my world became and the less productive I grew. I needed an intervention, but nobody's going to take my phone away.
My 3-Step Facebook Diet Plan
So I came up with a three-part plan to go on a Facebook diet and consulted with Eusebio to see if it could work. With what he called an applied behavioral analysis approach (who knew I was being so fancy?), I'm scaling way back on Facebook (and even working on reducing my phone time in general), and after only a few days feel less stressed, more calm and definitely more productive.
But first, I installed Moment, an app to track my usage. The results? We'll call them eye-opening. Horrifying might be another word for it. On a given day I might pick up my phone 70 times. I'm spending a quarter of my waking life staring at my phone. (Let's not even get into my laptop and Netlix-burning TV screen time). And even with what feels like pretty strict new rules for how many times I check Facebook a day, and a little alert that pops up on my phone to remind me how much time I've spent, I'm at an average of 28 minutes on Facebook (and 15 on Instagram).
On a given day I might pick up my phone 70 times. I'm spending a quarter of my waking life staring at my phone.
According to research from Moment, around 20 minutes is the sweet spot for actually feeling happy about your Facebook usage (meanwhile the average person spends 55 minutes). So here's my approach for dialing back on Facebook; adapting it for your own situation could help jumpstart your own Facebook diet:
Step 1: Amp up real world interaction
With no co-workers in my physical space (canine companionship notwithstanding!) I miss out on the positive effects of social interaction, so —with some newfound time thanks to outsourcing some work around the house — I'm making a conscious effort to see friends IRL at least once or twice a week, setting up in a coffee shop to work at least once a week and I have even tried a dog-friendly co-working space a couple of times.
The verdict: I've missed my friends! Cute emojis on their Facebook posts don't hold a candle to sipping spritzes together, letting our dogs romp in the park and throwing away two dollar bets at the track.
Eusebio gave the thumbs up to this swap. “Researchers are looking at [whether we] are actually getting the same engaging conversation [online] but I honestly don't think it's the same quite yet,” he says. “There's a physicality that we're missing.”
So, yes, he explains “doing these simple steps of replacing, for example, an hour of Facebook with a call to a friend, even a step further, going to meet somebody in person, I think that is even more meaningful, and stands to potentially even replace some of your need for that Facebook connection. The ultimate result of that I think, is a very good feeling. People will report, 'Look, I did this. I actually have evidence of me doing something today,' which is very much the opposite of what people report after being online for 12 hours.”
Step 2: Cast a wider news net
I had let Facebook become my news curator and we know how dangerous that can be. I'm not alone — as of August 2017, 67 percent of Americans report that they get at least some of their news on social media, according to a new survey from Pew Research Center — but that doesn't mean it's a good idea. So I thought back to how I used to get news in the good old days of iGoogle (RIP) as my home page and went old school with rss feeds from various publications on my browser home page. Because I also pick up my phone to idly read during downtime I downloaded Pocket to gather interesting articles from a variety of people.
Now, rather than checking Facebook and the tightly curated news links there as I drink my coffee, I check the latest news on this new home page — on my actual computer — and anytime I'm itching to open Facebook, I open Pocket and read a new article instead.
This is key, Eusebio says. “It's really important for people to counter their echo chamber with discovering news from sources that they normally wouldn't read,” he says. For instance “if you're a regular NPR user, maybe you might start looking at Business Weekly. This is hard to do,” he acknowledged. “We like to read things that we agree with. But I think it's important to just scan through for the purposes of seeing where other perspectives lie. ... the idea is to continually be curious about what other people are thinking about the same topic.”
Step 3: Stop crowdsourcing EVERYTHING
Picking out paint colors, puppy names or what to binge watch next? How did people decide anything before Facebook? On decisions large and small I'd turn to Facebook to solicit input, but if I'm being honest, sometimes I was just looking for affirmation. And too often this approach left me frustrated when negative comments came in or people didn't understand where I was coming from.
I decided to stop asking everyone's opinion, and just do … whatever it was. It was remarkably liberating, but a little help from your friends does have a time and place, Eusebio says.
Here's where we can have a little of the best of both worlds. For me it's easiest to process my thoughts in writing, so Eusebio encouraged doing just that — on paper. Not only does that eliminate the peanut gallery, but, he says, “there's something about writing it down that makes it more personal and a little bit more concrete. You're confirming what you want in your journal based on what it is that's personal to you. Because nobody's going to know your entire story … even though we know each other online, we really only know bits and pieces.”
However, there's no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater. “Facebook is easy and it's quite a great survey taker” he says. “We have limited time on doing a ton of research ourselves. Hey, here's 500 trusted friends, or 5,000 trusted friends that I could get their opinion. Go ahead and put it out there.”
Here's what we have to remember, he warns.“Remain as objective as possible. Try not to let anybody tap into your emotional personality. We have to know going in that I'm just not going to answer any trolling.”
That's a tough one. Because of course at the end of the day “we don't want anybody to judge us negatively,” he says. “That's the bottom line. We would rather nobody comment on anything at all.” While getting all those likes “makes us feel like we're validated.”
“It's the popularity portal,” he went on. “Many of the people that receive a lot of likes online are actually popular people and likable people, but do they like themselves? That's another question altogether.”
As for me, the fewer likes I'm seeking on Facebook the more I'm liking my life.