Ethics for Everyone

Moral wisdom for the modern world

Facebook Addiction?

Is Facebook harder to quit than smoking?

I've been Facebook-free for about six weeks, and I don't miss it at all. I stay in touch with my friends in other ways, and am out of touch with my acquaintances and "Facebook friends," which in all honesty is fine with me. But a recent study claims that for some, quitting Facebook (and Twitter) is more difficult than quitting smoking or giving up alcohol. In this study of the everyday desires of 250 people, it was discovered that what people want most over the course of the day is sex and sleep. However, the urge to stay on top of one's online social networks was the most difficult to resist. In fact, the level of desire for this was higher than that for both alcohol and tobacco.

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What does this mean? For starters, if the findings are correct, it means that social networking poses a special danger of sorts to those of us with "addictive" personalities. The impulse to know what your former best friend from junior high school did on Friday night can apparently be very strong, for some of us, and going without this information can be difficult.

Another study involving students who sought to go without media for 24 hours recorded their reactions to this, and included such feelings as: fretful, confused, anxious, irritable, insecure, nervous, restless, crazy, addicted, panicked, jealous, angry, lonely, dependent, depressed, jittery and paranoid. But near-constant engagement with social media can also have a negative impact. Facebook and Twitter can be time sinks at work and at home. They can make us less productive, but more importantly time spent on our social networks can actually undermine our flesh and blood social lives. The lead researcher on the study involving students, Susan Moeller, reports that

"When the students did not have their mobile phones and other gadgets, they did report that they did get into more in-depth conversations...Quite a number reported quite a difference in conversation in terms of quality and depth as a result."

I believe that a significant part of the attraction of Facebook and other social media is the promise of connections with others. Humans are social creatures; we need relationships in order to flourish. But for many, social media does not fulfill the promise of connection. That promise is best fulfilled in face-to-face conversations and relationships, rather than on Facebook.

Facebook, Twitter, and other social media have good and bad features, like most technology. It is up to us to make the best of these technologies while minimizing their bad effects on our lives. For some people, the only way to minimize those effects is to go cold turkey. That's the route I've taken, with Facebook. Those who engage in social media would do well to limit their time, perhaps to 15-30 minutes per day, just as the wise person will limit the number of drinks he or she has on any given day.

Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

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