Access to social media has created new self-control challenges for many people—particularly students who report that their use of Facebook is associated with feeling like they lose track of time and that they needlessly delay getting other, more important, tasks done. Research has documented that putting something off with the use of social media is one of the strongest motives for using social media. As I’ve written before, “we give in to feel good.”
In a recent investigation, Adrian Meier, Leonard Reinecke, and Christine Meltzer, researchers in the Department of Communication at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, conducted two studies exploring the predictors of using Facebook for procrastination and its effects on students’ well-being.
Social media is particularly good at meeting a variety of needs; it’s not just an immediate hedonic reward. For example, our relatedness needs are addressed in a variety of ways by social media. However, just the combination of fun and social reward is powerful psychologically, and it’s no surprise that Facebook use becomes a habit (if not an addiction). We check Facebook or other social media without even thinking about it.
The problem is, these hedonic and social needs often conflict with other aspects of our lives, particularly our long-term goal pursuit. In fact, a recent study cited by the researchers revealed that “...media use conflicted with other important goals on more than half of all media use occurrences (61.2%), underlining that media use poses a particularly difficult self-regulatory challenge for many people in day-to-day settings" (p. 66).
Self-control is an obvious antidote. To the extent that we can exert self-control and inhibit our desire to “just update our status” or “just post pictures from the weekend,” etc., we may avoid the procrastination associated with Facebook use. The problem is that it’s difficult to draw on this self-control when we find social media enjoyable and we’ve developed a strong habit. Of course, these two go hand-in-hand in many ways, as it’s typical to develop strong habits, prepotent automatic responses, to things we find highly enjoyable.
Given how self-control, habit and the enjoyment of social media work together, Meier and his colleagues sought to determine to what extent the frequency of Facebook-related procrastination (facebocrastination) could be predicted by dispositional self-control, habitually checking Facebook, and the enjoyment of Facebook use. They then extended this statistical model to examine the extent to which faceboprocrastination was associated with student academic stress as well as Facebook-induced strains.
For both studies, they used convenience samples of students who learned about the studies on Facebook. Their samples were relatively large (354 and 355 for Study 1 and Study 2, respectively), with slightly more females represented and an average age in their early 20s. Not surprisingly, given previous research and anecdotal reports of Facebook use, these researchers found that 78% of their participants reported using Facebook 6 or 7 days in a typical week, and on average they estimated that they spent about 73 minutes per day using Facebook. Put another way, these students spent about 7.3 to 8.5 hours per week, or an average “work day,” on Facebook. Economists might be quick to calculate a cost to this time use, but I digress. Interestingly, only 9% of their participants in Study 1 reported that they never used Facebook to procrastinate during the past 6 months. This is a telling result on its own. Facebook and procrastination are common bedfellows.
Meier and colleagues used sophisticated statistical modeling to test their hypothesized relations, and I will not summarize these here. Instead, I will simply highlight the main findings:
In sum, the prevalence of academic procrastination is affected by Facebook, and this Facebook-related procrastination is predicted by how much students enjoy Facebook and how much their Facebook use has become a habit. At the same time, and as expected, self-control can counter these effects, to the extent that the individual exerts this control. Finally, as has been found in many other studies on procrastination, Facebook-related procrastination undermines well-being with increased academic stress and Facebook-induced strain.
Thoughts on these results
It’s not a pretty picture, is it? So, why do we persist? Well, first there is the habitual aspect identified by the authors. Habits die hard.
Perhaps more important to this discussion speaks to why the habits are established in the first place. Facebook is rewarding. Things that we find rewarding or reinforcing, as the behaviorists might say, are repeated, and habits are formed.
Why is Facebook so rewarding? On the one hand, the social networking (and I won’t get into just what I think about these networks here) can meet many relatedness needs for people. More importantly, and something that the authors argue remains for future research, is to consider how Facebook, among other things, can simply be used as a diversion from the task at hand. Its rewards are relative – better than the alternative tasks which may really seem boring, frustrating or difficult by comparison. In this sense, we use Facebook to avoid other things, and this emotion-focused coping strategy is what becomes the habit. As Meier and colleagues write, “Anecdotal evidence further suggests that non-hedonic online media such as news websites or Wikipedia, or less demanding online task such as checking one’s email, are the preferred tools for procrastination among some individuals” (p. 74)
This is an important point. I’m not convinced that it’s just the social network on Facebook that makes it so “sticky.” And, I don’t want to portray self-control as the only way out. The fundamental psychological process at work here is largely the process of meeting immediate hedonic needs of avoiding things that bring us down. Many of life’s tasks connected to our longer-term goals, such as practice, homework, assignments and studying can be seen this way. Facebook and many other “at-your-fingertips” apps provide an alternative to the relatively drudgery of working now.
In closing, I agree with the authors who note that their study “...furthers our understanding of uncontrolled and potentially detrimental media use by investigating what drives students’ use of Facebook for procrastination” (p. 74). It is urgent that we do more research of this kind because students waste an incredible amount of time on social media, even though they are painfully aware of this as revealed in self-reports as well as through the guilt they experience. What we lack is any real sense of where “reasonable” stress-reducing FB-use ends and self-defeating dawdling begins.
Of course, each of us need not await nomothetic research results to explore this issue in our own lives. The line between amusement and amusing ourselves to death (as Postman once wrote) is a dynamic one. Knowing where to draw that line takes some honest self-assessment on a day-to-day basis.
Meier, A., Reinecke, L., & C.E. Meltzer (2016). “Facebocrastination”? Predictors of using Facebook for procrastination and its effects on students’ well-being. Computers in Human Behavior, 64, 65-76.