While this is only the latest in a series of Facebook-related incidents that cause outrage over data privacy, content moderation, and mental health concerns, unsubscribing doesn’t always seem any easier.
“One of the signs of addiction is that we continue to behave in a way that is not in line with our values,” said Dr. Anna Lembke, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. “It’s entirely possible that people who are angry at Facebook and say Facebook’s behavior is not in line with their values, but continue to use Facebook very regularly, are people who may be really addicted.”
Why is it so hard to turn off an app if you’ve decided to end up with Facebook? Because the platform takes advantage of our societal needs and biological drives to get back for more, experts say.
“If you have such a strong impact on how people feel about themselves or evaluate themselves, it’s going to win,” said John Duffy, a clinical psychologist working in Chicago. “Even if you can rationally show that this is not a good thing for me, emotions win.”
No matter how strong the attraction, understanding how the platform attracts people 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 focused on the things people have developed to attract them, Lembke said.
“We are connected, we want to connect with other human beings,” she said. So when we join in outrage, joy, or heartbreak over an intimate post, we get a wave of dopamine in the brain’s reward path.
Dopamine, often referred to as the “well-being” neurotransmitter, plays a role in intense instincts such as movement, motivation, addiction, and romance.
But it can be too good, Lembke said.
Where people once had to work hard and have meaningful conversations or experiences to expand their circle, social media has made potential human interactions almost endless – and a click away.
“Our primitive brains weren’t developed to accept these huge influxes of dopamine at once,” Lembke said. “We evolved for a world of scarcity and ever-present danger. We were made for natural rewards such as finding food, clothing, shelter, a partner after tremendous effort, suffering and searching.”
To compensate for the overload, the brain adjusts by reducing its own dopamine production – not just to baseline, but to a deficit that requires a return to the dopamine source to be satisfied, Lembke said.
“With repeated exposure over time, we essentially enter a state of chronic dopamine deficiency that is similar to clinical depression,” Lembke said.
Need to recheck
As if biological impulses weren’t enough to keep us going, social media platforms like Facebook provide a lot of social reinforcement.
It’s “as simple as wanting to be a part of things,” Duffy said. “The fear of losing we have at 13 we still have when we’re 50.”
People have a natural tendency to want to define themselves and where they rank in the hierarchy, Duffy said.
“Am I attractive? Do people love me? Am I invited to this thing? These were important things that were important 20 years ago,” Duffy said. “Now it’s, ‘Okay, I posted something this morning. Do I have any new followers, or do I have any likes?’
On social media, where new activities are constantly emerging, this desire to define oneself falls into an intoxicating circle, he said.
“Because it’s refreshing again and again from moment to moment, it’s not like you can sign up for a moment in the day and feel fine, I’ve covered my Facebook aspect. We need to keep checking this out,” Duffy said.
Even when the number of likes is low and checking leads to disappointment, social media platforms promise another chance, Duffy said.
“If you lose today, the idea that‘ Well, I have another try tomorrow, ’we have a lot on our minds,” he said.
How to break away
Facebook’s appeal may be strong, but there is a game plan for those who are motivated to withdraw.
The first step is a cold turkey for about a month, Lembke and Duffy said.
Lembke said it can take at least as long for dopamine levels to recover, but many people don’t wait that long to see results.
“I always warn people that they will feel worse in the first two weeks before they feel better because they will still be in a state of dopamine deficiency in the first two weeks,” she said.
In the third or fourth week, Lembke found that many people begin to notice that they think less about Facebook and enjoy other activities more.
After a month, measuring spending is key, she said. This can be achieved by setting up technology-free spaces, setting usage timers, turning off alerts, and avoiding social media apps that make you feel out of control, whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, or Tiktok, Lembke recommends.
If the temptation to re-sign is too strong right after turning off the timer, Lembke recommended that you do something that connects you to your body, be it a walk outside or a dip in your face in an ice-cold bath.