I have a baby and spending so much time on Facebook or checking the phone screen makes me feel like a terrible parent. My daughter is intrigued by the screen too.
Collage by the IotL Magazine (based on the artwork “Mother and Child” by Harold Gilman)
I have a confession to make: I am a Facebook addict. I do not know exactly how much time I spend on the website daily because I am afraid to install one of those tracking apps. But I have a feeling it’s a lot. I have had many botched attempts to leave the social network; my experience seems lifted from the old joke “everyone can quit smoking but it takes a man to face cancer”.
Facebook dominates my daily life. I check the feed on my smartphone first thing in the morning. Sometimes I scroll it while I brush my teeth. I check it while I’m driving (OK, at red lights, but still). It’s the last thing I see before I fall asleep at night. The only place I am not using it is in the shower, but I am pretty sure developers will find a solution to this problem soon enough.
There are studies and testimonies of software engineers who worked for the company who said that the site has been deliberately designed to make us dependent on it. Take, for example, the red light of the much-awaited ‘like’ notification. At first it was blue but then Facebook drew on the findings of psychology and cognitive research proving that our brains are more attracted to the red colour, and to bright colours in general. (I tried to solve this by turning my phone screen B/W but it didn’t last for long). Not to mention that most features on Facebook feeds on our insecurities and the need for validation.
Addiction: an Individual History
Yet, this is not all Facebook’s fault. I have a long history of addictive behavior. My father was an alcoholic and there is a chance that I am predisposed to getting addicted easily. Fortunately, I am not into drugs and alcohol and neither do I smoke. But in my early 20s, in my junior year at an art history department, I dropped out of the degree because of computer gaming.
I used to spend 18 hours a day on average on computer games. This illustrates the severity of my addiction: in my early 20s, my boyfriend and I used to frequent a computer café to play MMORPGs. They had bargain prices if you played all night, which we did almost every night for a period of time.
My mother used to come at 11am to literally kick us out of the premises, to the incredulous looks of much younger kids who had skipped class to play a game. Being forcefully extricated from the computer screen after long, 15-hour night shifts of intense gaming and exposed to the bright day sunlight felt acutely painful. It made me feel like my necromancer avatar.
One morning my mother stormed into my room and told me I was late for school. I had the temerity to tell her to fuck off and that I was going to do what I want and if I do not feel like sitting in lectures, I won’t.
At some point, I stopped going to university altogether. That episode had a huge emancipatory ring to it because, till my late teens, my mother used to exercise strict control over me, and for the first time an open defiance on my part did not result into a shouting match between us, nor in my will getting crushed. She just quietly left my room and I felt like an adult for the first time in my life.
It’s a weird thought: gaming—stuff we normally associate with children and adolescents—can mediate one’s coming of age. Gradually, I grew out of the gaming addiction, but it took a great effort. So, after four failed attempts, I managed to finish a BA, and have stayed clear of computer games ever since.
But Facebook seems to have filled the vacuum that gaming left. In fact, it is much surprising even to myself that I have somehow managed to write a PhD dissertation despite putting up more hours on Facebook posts than on the thesis.
For every 200 or so words typed, I would allow myself to check what’s up on Facebook. So, I gave myself a huge incentive to work.
Believe it or not, at some point I devised a way to harness Facebook’s distracting and destructive effects to help with the write-up. It was a simple reward scheme: for every 200 or so words typed, I would allow myself to check what’s up on Facebook. So, I gave myself a huge incentive to work. Of course, towards the end, the looming deadline was an even bigger incentive, inducing that very delicate balance between productive and crushing panic that triggers a wondrous, if rare, productivity of completing 3-4 pages at one go.
Finishing a PhD is already a feat but doubly so when your addiction to Facebook or the phone screen is so severe. Social media truly fucks with our ability to focus and read longer texts, such as books. This is one of the best articles I’ve read on the subject, written by an author who has forgotten how to read—I second every word in it.
Now I have a baby and spending so much time on Facebook or checking the phone screen makes me feel like a terrible parent. My daughter is intrigued by the screen too. Changing her nappies is a tough task—imagine trying to diaper a cat—and I distract her with YouTube videos. So, she actively seeks the phone and cries when I take it back. At the tender age of 1, she has already figured out how swiping works.
Addiction: a Social Fault
Years ago, I read an article about heroin addiction that claimed that post-op patients in hospitals are given the same substance (only cleaner of harmful additives), but unlike ordinary users, they don’t get hooked on it even after spending weeks of being sedated. The reason is that they enjoy the tangible support of friends and families whereas lonely, alienated and otherwise troubled people resort to heroin to medicate their alienation. In short, addiction is less a function of the objective qualities of a substance than of the quality of the inter-subjective social relationships (or the lack thereof) the addict has.
I am a budding sociologist, thus a theory that invites us to think of addictions as practices and social relations—and not so much as objective properties of the things we get overly attached to—appeals to me. Still, there is more to it.
I am not a behavioral psychologist but having observed how quickly babies get attached to the pacifier I presume human beings could be physiologically hardwired to addiction or repetitive behavior, if you will. However, to my daughter’s credit, her addiction to the pacifier has had positive cognitive effects on her, unlike Facebook on me. Thus, the first word she said was the word for pacifier. Our addictions are not limited to substances; they extend to practices such as sucking the thumb, gaming or eating glass. Or—returning to our case—to the social validation that Facebook gives us.
Addiction is less a function of the objective qualities of a substance than of the quality of the inter-subjective social relationships (or the lack thereof) the addict has.
In fact, thinking of addiction as a practice that is triggered by and helps us deal with alienation opens up a productive way to assess the role Facebook plays in our lives.
For example, I may be a sociologist, but I have lately grown increasingly anti-social and lonely; thus, Facebook doubles as social interaction for me. Yet, precisely in this function, it deepens my loneliness because the impersonal communication in it tends to numb cordiality and erodes inhibitions we normally have when communicating face-to-face. Thus, while I am a fairly amicable and polite person in real life, Facebook wakes up the dormant monster in me, especially when I engage in political arguments. In turn, this has tangible effects outside of the online domain: people get angry with me and begin to avoid me.
A friend of mine—a rare specimen without a Facebook account—often comments on the offline effects of tensions arising from within the network. Relations with people who were offline friends can turn sour in no time. Not having Facebook means that he is late to such developments which often puts him in awkward situations, i.e. organizing work lunch with colleagues who have meanwhile stopped talking to each other because of a Facebook row. So, as usual, the boundaries between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ are porous and tricky like shifting sands.
Addiction: a Systemic Fault
Yet, back to the ‘real’ I want, especially for my child’s sake. Research is piling up warning us of the destructive effects social media and smartphone use have on our minds and the harm they cause to vulnerable adolescent brains. This may sound like an irrational panic; it certainly smacks of the 1980s anti-TV hysteria (repeated in the 1990s over videogames) but having realized how Facebook has destroyed my ability to focus on anything for longer than 30 seconds, I will do what it takes to delay the introduction of social media to my daughter’s life.
But above all Facebook addiction has to do with capitalism. This is not only because Facebook itself is among the largest and most profitable capitalist enterprises globally. Addiction itself is in the DNA of capitalism. Since its dawn, capitalism has sought to profit from deadly consumption. Think opium or sugar (killing both its consumers and enslaved producers) that drove capitalism’s early imperial expansion, or lately the opioid crisis in the US, fueled by the insatiable drive for the profit of Big Pharma.
I don’t think it’s farfetched to say that addiction did not exist before capitalism and thus won’t outlive it. Before capitalism, people used medicinal herbs in rituals, that is to say, in those rare and special moments of encounters with the ‘divine’, rather than daily and as an end in itself, which mirrors capital’s logic for perpetual growth for its own sake. In short, capitalism makes us vulnerable to addictions because the accumulation of capital requires repetitive consumption, even if it kills us. That is why pharmaceutical companies will always try to bypass regulations of and innovate addictive substances like fentanyl.
Before capitalism, people used medicinal herbs in rituals, that is to say, in those rare and special moments of encounters with the ‘divine’, rather than daily and as an end in itself.
Yet, I do believe that even Facebook can be made less addictive, i.e. by placing it in public ownership and extricating it from the grips of a business model premised on the production of content by the very people whose attention is sold to advertisers because their own efforts make the Facebook space so profitable. Facebook vampirizes our attention and our social relations for profit, having a huge environmental imprint in the process. That is why it is all the more urgent to devise ideas of placing it under firm public control and thus transforming it into what it is supposed to be—a social network, rather than a marketplace generating enormous profits to for its few owners and shareholders.
The author would like to withhold her name at this stage. Writing about addiction is already difficult, if therapeutic, and she is not ready to reveal her identity yet for fear of institutional backlash.