How To Stop Being Addicted To Facebook
The Economics, The Science & The Silver Lining
In 2006, a friend who went to the U.S. a lot told me I had to sign up to this new thing called Facebook. I was 15 years old. Since no one I knew was on there, I quickly forgot about it.
Standing in the Apple store on 5th Ave four years later, as my travel group talked me into getting on board, I realized that “a Facebook account for this email already exists.” It was the first day of my demise.
I’m not alone. Over two billion people share the same struggle: We want to use Facebook less, but we can’t stop. Maybe you do too. About two years ago, I finally put this technology in its rightful place.
Today, I want to show you why Facebook is designed to make you addicted, what it’s doing to your brain and how to finally get over it.
You’re Not The User, You Are Being Used
Ben Wolford noted there’s a reason Facebook calls us users, not customers: we’re not the ones being served. We’re the ones being sold. The product is us. To understand why, we have to look at Facebook’s economics and its philosophy as a business.
In 2016, over 97% of Facebook’s $28 billion revenue came from advertising. From a business perspective, this means Facebook is incredibly fragile. It’s as if McDonalds, with its huge selection of fries, coffee, milkshakes and all kinds of sandwiches, sold only cheeseburgers. Or Nike selling nothing but shoes. One tiny slip-up and you’re screwed.
To prevent that slip-up from ever happening, Facebook employs one of the most aggressive philosophies we’ve ever seen in business. Hiten Shah recently shared two pages from an employee gift the company handed out on its 10th anniversary, called the Little Red Book. It explains what that philosophy is:
“If we don’t create the thing that kills Facebook, someone else will.”
Facebook is determined to chase your attention wherever you may manage to take it, once you’ve wrestled it back from Facebook’s hands. This explains their ruthless strategy to either make or acquire the apps that dominate the Top 10 in the App Store. And whatever Facebook can’t buy, they copy.
If Facebook really is the unstoppable hydra of tech it seems to be, there’s only one question left to ask:
What if Facebook kills everything — everyone — else?
Given your attention is what Facebook sells, the only product it sells, one thing is clear: The feed isn’t feeding you. It feeds on you. Fast. At the speed of over 70,000 likes per second. That’s one per person per day — for the entire planet.
And we pay the price.
Facebook Does Irreversible Damage To Your Brain
I may have gotten over my Facebook addiction two years ago, but I suffer from the consequences to this day. The following story shows.
I’m terrible at giving to charity. You know someone who always says “I’ll donate bigger sums later, when I have a lot of money?” That’s me. It’s a bullshit excuse, of course. Instead of postponing giving to the day that never comes, I recently decided to just start donating a very small sum every time I get a chance.
So when I saw a friend collecting donations to The Children’s Heart Foundation for her birthday on Facebook, I gave 10 €. What’s interesting is what happened in my head when I returned the next day.
“Let me check my notifications. Hm, no like? That’s weird. Let’s see…no comment either. A thank you message? Nope, nothing.”
I felt disappointed. Angry, even. For no reason at all. I had donated for my own sake. I had a reason and that should be enough. But over the years, Facebook has rewired my brain to expect some form of acknowledgment as a reward for my interactions on the platform.
When those expectations weren’t met, I felt worse off than before. Sadly, they never stood a chance.
Like Or Die: The Science Of Addiction
Tim Pychyl taught us procrastination is a device to repair your mood when you feel anxious, frustrated or bored at work. Facebook takes care of the boredom part. It is the first thing that comes to mind when we’re in that state, and it has engineered this association brilliantly in our brains.
First, Facebook is fundamentally about people. So is the region of our brain that is always on, always running in the background. It is called the default network. Whenever you’re not actively overriding it to do some form of deep work, its favorite pastime is to think about other people. The switch happens after as little as two seconds of idle time, and Facebook is the perfect tool to enhance those daydreams.
It looks like this:
- Boredom acts as an internal trigger, external notifications add to that.
- The action is dead simple: open the app or page in the browser.
- A great variability of rewards is bestowed upon us: photos, comments, likes, gossip, news, emotions, laughter. The wheel of fortune never disappoints.
- We invest more and more time and attention into interacting on the platform, which keeps us coming back.
Taken together, these two elements are what have caused so many of us to spiral into addiction. The worst part is we do it to ourselves. Cigarettes are mean, tobacco is an addictive substance. But Facebook? We addict ourselves to it. That’s devious.
How? We’re the ones loading the next trigger of the cycle, Nir says:
“When I send someone a message on Facebook, or I like something, or I comment on something, guess what Facebook gets to do? They get to send me an external trigger, bringing me back, saying so and so replied to something that you were involved with. And you did it! You prompted that message; it’s not Facebook spamming you. […] Now you’re passing through the hook once again, continuing through the same basic cycle. Forever and ever.”
“There is a circuitry for “seeking” and a circuitry for “liking.” The liking response settles down the excitement of the seeking circuitry. Without the liking response, we’re like the rat pressing the lever over and over to get a little dopamine hit, forgetting all about food and rest.”
Facebook’s own terminology couldn’t describe it any better. Scroll, feed, like. The constant dopamine high leads not just to a mentally hyperactive state, which makes us distracted and unfocused, but also to anxiety, aggression, depression and low stress resistance in the long run.
You scroll, you like, you find more rewards, you keep coming back, like a cat chasing a laser pointer. And so the addiction develops. Researchers from UPenn equate it to Newton’s Third Law of Phsyics:
“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The high transforms into a corresponding low…and with each succeeding drug or alcohol event, the addicted person must use more and more to get less and less of an effect.”
This is called tolerance. As your body’s dopamine receptors become numb, so do you. Eventually, you’re scrolling not to experience a high, but to just get back to feeling normal.
The further we spiral, the more depressed we become, until all we do is try to get out of the imaginary quicksand we’ve maneuvered ourselves into. For an addict on the edge, choosing the bottle feels necessary to survive. In their mind, the alternative is death. It’s a choice between drowning and starving, and both seem equally real, equally threatening.
Like or die. Of course, most of us don’t suffer such a dire fate. We just completely lose touch with the world.
Likes Are Just Greetings Among Prisoners
One day after my disappointment in my friend’s lack of engagement, she came around. On another post of mine, she liked and commented “Like it👍🏼👍🏼😊.” That made me feel better. Isn’t it funny?
Had she expressed her appreciation by pressing the button precisely designed to do so, it would not have gotten through to me. But explicitly stating the exact same thing, with a little bit of extra effort, did. That’s how much Facebook has messed up our brains.
Our likes have long lost their meaning. For us. For others. For anyone, but Facebook. They’re nothing more than slight nods. While you’re chasing dopamine, not to feel good, but a little less sad, you acknowledge others doing the same. And so do they. Greetings among prisoners.
We could be so much more. We’re losing our empathy on a global scale and it’s tearing us apart. As families, as friends, as citizens, as people of the same planet. The only winner in all this is the beast that feeds on advertising. Because no matter how bad we all feel, at least we still signal what gets our attention.
But there’s a silver lining.
How To Break Out: News Feed Eradicator
In 2015, Noah Kagan mentioned one of his favorite tools in a conversation with Tim Ferriss. It’s called News Feed Eradicator and it allows you to break your addiction to Facebook without sacrificing much of its value. It only changes one thing: it removes the news feed on the home page. That’s it.
After you install it, when you go to Facebook in your Chrome browser, you’ll see this:
This might not seem like much of a difference, but it is. With one swift action, you’ve eliminated your brain’s opportunity to instantly go into “seeking” mode when the page loads. You can’t just start scrolling.
Mindfulness is the only alternative. The laser pointer is out, so the cat has to think. A lot of Facebook’s functions do have value. You can use it for business, hit up a friend in a remote place or congratulate people for their birthday. But without the news feed, you first have to remember that’s what you wanted to do.
You’ve redesigned your user experience from…
- Open the feed.
- Mindlessly start scrolling.
- Open the empty home page.
- Ask “What do I want to do here?”
- Figure it out or leave.
The inspirational quotes are a cookie on top. Now, you might not use Facebook primarily in Chrome, like I do. If you’re on other browsers or devices, here are your options to accomplish the same thing:
- Safari: Install Facebook Newsfeed Eradicator for Safari.
- Firefox: Install Kill FB Feed.
- iOS & Android: Uninstall the native app. Messenger and Groups are available as standalone apps, which should cover all you need.
I have been using this solution for two years and my Facebook usage hasn’t been a toxic habit since. I’m still recovering, but the worst is behind me.
I don’t think Facebook is pure evil. They probably didn’t know what they were getting into and painted themselves into a corner. But now that they do so little to change that, it’s up to us. If you’ve recognized yourself in all this, even a little, give News Feed Eradicator a try.
Take back your like. Take back your life.
For as one of the many quotes displayed on my new, calm home page reads:
“If we don’t discipline ourselves, the world will do it for us.” — William Feather