Might as Well Face It: You’re Addicted to Like

If you’re of a certain age and demographic, you will remember Robert Palmer (or at least his stunning back-up band with their long legs and glossy red lips) and the above headline will conjure some nostalgic moment from 1985. And though you’d like to think that you’re immune to the stuff — in this case, the stuff of social media like Facebook and Instagram — think again.

If you’re below the age of 30, you probably have no idea what I’m talking about; under 21 and you absolutely have no idea and definitely no immunity, either. The internet has been your brain’s amniotic fluid; your mind is not your own. You might as well face it, you’re addicted to Like.

My teenage children don’t even realize how important those little thumbs up have become to them. On those occasions when their eyes have drifted momentarily from their screens, they’ve shared with me their views about social media (which doesn’t even include Facebook anymore) and the impact the online world has had on their self esteem. The results are alarming, particularly because they don’t even hear the alarm bells.

I realize that my research is based on a limited sample size — although I have polled their friends and cousins from time to time — but the findings are born out by academic studies. For today’s kids, it’s all about how many “Friends”, “Followers”, “Likes” and “Comments” they get. But it’s more than that. The social protocols around these terms are Byzantine and the maneuvers to come out on top nothing short of Machiavellian. Think Lord of the Flies meets the Borgia’s.

The internet has replaced the shopping mall not just as a consumer venue, but as the social market and gathering place where a teenager’s status can be decided in the blink of an emoji. The group chat is the virtual slumber party to which some get disinvited and others wish they had rather than endure a slew of online taunts. And we thought Truth or Dare was rough.

Yet, to disconnect is social suicide, a confirmation of one’s irrelevance and a sentence of virtual solitary confinement.

My children are no more addicted, I believe, than their peers — or even their peers’ parents. (Think I’m wrong? Just look around next time you’re riding the bus, waiting at the gas pump, or frankly just walking down the street.) Still, I have taken such drastic measures as cutting off wi-fi, deleting their social media accounts, and suspending their phone service, to no avail. Nothing short of physically prying the electronics out of their clenched fists — and I’ve resorted even to that, resulting in disastrous consequences I’d rather not share — can stop them from seeking another “Like” for their photo or keeping up their “Streaks” on Snapchat.

Even taking away their electronics doesn’t always work. They have been known to subcontract their accounts, handing off passwords to trusted friends to post on their behalf, blithely unaware of how ill-advised such a move might prove to be. Anything for a fix.

All of that said, I do understand the seductive nature of social media. I use most platforms and have occasionally found myself checking my phone semi-compulsively (note the important use of the prefix “semi” here), often when I’m bored but sometimes when I should be paying attention to real people. I’ve noticed that a smile may come to my face when I see that someone has “Liked” my post. As the number of “Likes” climbs higher, I feel an absurd little flush of pride; when someone comments, I suspect that an actual dopamine hit has gone off in my brain.

Even the best of us can be infected by such vanity and the viral social afflictions of our time: FOMO, FOBLO and our tendency to hyper-focus on how others perceive our experience rather than on our actual enjoyment of the experience itself. Anyone can fall prey to the notion that if we don’t have an online presence we don’t exist, not just socially but professionally. We may rail against the shallowness of Twitter with its brevity and simplicity, but we set up accounts, Tweet our opinions, and watch the numbers rise. We believe that we now have influence, and eventually that belief translates into reality. Aren’t you reading this on social media, after all? By chasing our individual success we become complicit in our collective demise.

But, isn’t being liked, accepted and included what we pack-minded humans have always been about, what adolescents have yearned for since the term “peer pressure” was invented? Seeking approval is not new, it’s just exponentially amplified. The roar of the high school stadium crowd as you score a touchdown or get the homecoming crown is now echoed by everyone you know plus everyone they know. They all weigh in on your success — or failure.

Of course, we prefer real love and acceptance, but in their absence, we’ve all settled at times for imperfect relationships, superficial friendships, and the conceit of public applause. Donald Trump didn’t need Twitter to become a narcissist. And, Van Gogh suffered depression long before cyber bullies ever taunted their first victim (although one can imagine the vitriolic memes he might have inspired in his day).

I hope I’ve taught my kids that their internet selves are no different from their real selves while a virtual friend is not necessarily a real one. I’d like to think that they understand how far a Snapchat “Streak” will get them in life (or not) and why it’s less important to be “Liked” by many than genuinely loved by a few.

I’d also like to think that I’m writing these essays or posting pictures of my family, my accomplishments, or the good times I’m having with friends, because I have something worth sharing, not just because I crave attention.

But I can’t deny the siren song of that red circle with the number of “Likes”, calling me to look. What an adrenaline rush to know that a total stranger time zones away is reading what I’ve just typed on my laptop in my pajamas — and actually likes it! I feel like Sally Field accepting her Oscar (another reference for the over 40 crowd). Validation is a powerful drug.

Yes, I’d like to think that I’m immune to that, but maybe it’s closer to the truth to say I can’t get enough. You know, I’m gonna have to face it: I’m addicted to Like.