Facebook Addiction Disorder (FAD)

Michael Fenichel, Ph.D.

It is not difficult to observe the ubiquity of "Internet Addiction" as a phenomenon and/or accepted part of every day life in the Digital Age. Much less mentioned is the even more pervasive "cell phone addiction", "Crackberry addiction", "gaming addiction", or "texting addiction". Are we now at risk of seeing a vast presentation - a cultural commonality - of "Facebook Addiction Disorder"? (Or is sometimes FAD just a fad?) :-)

Some may argue that since these have become just as much a part of daily life as water coolers and word processing programs, these cannot be painted as "addictive" so much as just another daily life tool in the world of the 21st Century. However, just as "newbie" infatuation with the connectedness and immediacy of email and web surfing led to a societal concern about "Internet Addiction" or pathological Internet use, the phenomenon of social networking has left the arena of personal and group networking to a very public and constant arena which allows for strong reinforcement of exhibitionist, voyeuristic, &/or interaction-seeking behavior, often in combination. Add to the instant texting component the ability to post pictures and videos, play pop-psychology and pop-culture games and quizzes ("applications"), follow (slightly less closely than Twitter) the every move, decision, feeling, and random thought of everyone in countless networks, and also maintain a homepage/"wall" for all to see and visit, and this is the best possible recipe for significant (behavioral) addiction, as it fills a large and "normal" part of so many lives. Whether it is more of an "addiction" than say ice cream, or "staying connected", or talking, reading, gambling, or excessive online/TV/cellphone activity (to the extent it interferes with other necessary and/or "healthy" behavior), is no doubt individual. But it is only a matter of time before large numbers fall prey to the lures of a 24/7 social network with so many wonderful things to offer, a home among friends and shared applications (aka games, quizzes, personality-types "tests", awards, gifts and various "silly stuff") not to mention sharing laughs and creative feedback via photos, graphics, videos and more.

Need evidence for the pervasiveness of Facebook? If you have a Facebook account, you already know: Real and imagined friends, f2f and online acquaintances, school buddies from the past, ex-spouses, military leaders, even the President of the United States, all appreciate the power of "having a Facebook" presence. (This turns out to be much more so than with Second Life's initial promise, perhaps because of the ease of use and fading of novelty.) The amazing thing is that, like cell phones, nobody seems to notice the vast amount of time and energy - at work, at home, and now while on the move - people are devoting to Facebook. It has become a given. An article on computer hardware for photographers (Shutterbug, May 2009, p.95) advises, "If you need a PC to access your e-mail and Facebook accounts when you're on the road..." to consider specific small mobile PC's. Commercial television features closing credits inviting viewers to follow-up via Facebook or Twitter. More and more links on web pages invite "sharing" on Facebook or RSS feeds or Twitter. We're all connected, hooray! And for some the opportunities are pure ecstacy, both for the social networking component (which was at the heart of the idea in the first place, albeit targeted at students) and for the games and contests which can be more of a time sponge than any prior computer diversion known to wo/man, such as solitaire or randomly surfing the web.

One of the ironies is that the very people who might otherwise be working with people professionally to treat addictions, social isolation, etc., seem to be themselves among the most active Facebookers. Admittedly drawn from a limited Sample, it is nonetheless overwhelming to see how much time is devoted to things like determining what crayon color one is, or who is the best at Bejeweled Blitz - and these are often mental health professionals who assumedly spend at least some time off of Facebook, and might be able to endure a day (or hour) or two without going through withdrawal. However, many people have so integrated Facebook as a part of normal life - "I wake up in the morning and check Facebook" has overtaken waking up, getting dressed, and finding/checking the cell phone - that it has become as much a part of the (invisible) tapestry of normal daily life as using the telephone or checking email. For better and worse. Like many Internet tools, this can be both an opportunity and challenge, and for many it is easy to strike a perfect blend. Students - who I have recently observed taking "breaks" from homework to take quizzes on what kind of element, lover, animal, serial killer, doctor or rock star one most resembles - have already integrated everything from Facebook to texting to I-phones, AIM, SMS, and Tivo into "normal daily life". But there is seemingly a new "newbie" experience among oldsters who seem to enjoy the same treats which were intended for college students and then co-opted by high school students as well.

As with all potentially "addictive"online activities, people vary in their involvement, some periodically "checking in" to stay in touch, others checking once or twice a day, as a supplement to phone and e-mail checking, and some seemingly spending quite substantial portions of time in activities which might be called creative, self-revealing, competitive, or purely social. Different age groups focus on different important activities, of course, students often sharing woes about assignments or gossip about peers, as well as creative videos and self-affirming photos or quiz results, some adults checking in occasionally or only when notified of incoming messages (to inbox or wall), still others invariably posting multiple messages every day relating to mundane daily life activities, or quiz results, or feeling states of the moment. One may wonder: Is this happening in the presence of clients? Co-workers? While supposedly conversing online with another person? At the expense of Real Life (RL), or to be more accurate, Non-Online Life?

I have reported on some of the research and theory pertaining to "Internet Addiction", and have (silently) observed what appears to be a commercially-blessed wave of cell-phone and device addiction (as distinct from social networking addiction). But Facebook Addiction Disorder (FAD) appears to me to have the most ingrained and self-reinforcing of all scenarios, reinforcing through immediacy, acclamation, intimacy, shared experience, shared creativity, and the ability to be the complete and total captain of the ship of one's Facebook home page. For some the "apps" seem to be totally compelling, for hours on end, for others Facebook is used more like email, to keep in touch with a group, sometimes serious, sometimes playful, sometimes simply sharing. But the fact of how ingrained Facebook has become culturally is one which is easy to miss, because, well, everybody's doing it! Or so it seems. The irony of who is most pathologically addicted (as opposed to homework, relationship, or work avoidant even without such a seductive companion as Facebook) is that nobody may be left to observe or treat this huge behavioral phenomenon, as everybody is too focused on Walls and apps and networks and finding old & new friends.

When is a friend a friend? When is constant behavior an addiction? Is there such a thing as too much or too little social networking? Who decides? Who asks?

Obviously much of this is rightfully engaging, and also quite healthy. Like most activities, moderation and integration are key. Those that may seriously label and treat FAD as a behavioral addiction will clearly need to use context in determining if a behavior has become demonstrably harmful to overall social, work, or (f2f) interpersonal efficacy. For many people, especially those not already invested in maintaining personal homepages, blogs, photo-sharing collections, IM-ing networks, etc., Facebook offers the perfect menu of opportunity. It may be similar to the proverbial "kid in the candy store" who cannot turn away from every temptation in sight, for hours of time supposedly spent on work, homework, housework, or relationship work, who may have a problem, if not "disorder". It is when one cannot leave the continuous activation/reinforcement of a daily (or hourly or constant) activity that one may surmise it has become a problem. For others, it's a wonderful candy store available whenever one is in the mood for sweets or hanging out with friends online or checking in - without the need to do so on a constant and urgent basis.

Look for the next stage: "How to Tell if You're a Facebook Addict". And then, can it be long before we see specialized treatments for FADs?

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In the News [Updated]

It seems that, not surprisingly, mainstream media (online and off) has become interested specifically in "Facebook Addiction Disorder". Already the "symptom lists" are appearing on their own or are offered in response to journalist inquiries. As in the mid 1990's, lists -- and even the inevitable "apps" now -- are springing up to amuse us and/or advise us on "How to Tell if You're a Facebook Addict" and citing the "Top Symptoms" etc.

CNN: Five clues that you are addicted to Facebook (April 29 2009)
One of the earlier media stories highlighting the power of the web to "addict".

Are You a Facebook Addict? (October 2009)
Here is a recent article which quoted some of my own writing on this subject (fairly and contextually), and provided some thoughts by other psychologists as well - one of whom provided a brief symptom list.

I might be inclined to add or subtract from this list. For example: the cold shakes might be a bit extreme as an expectation in the case of non-chemical withdrawal but then I do speak with adult professionals who say they cannot envision a period of one whole day (or less) without checking one's social world via Facebook. One told me it would be like life stopped. Facebook-enabled "addicts" seem to fall prey to the endless availability of "apps", whether self-oriented quizzes or game-playing or being at the hub of nonstop social opportunity. Like the Internet in general, Facebook has it all, but in a convenient package all in one master home page.

Some treatment approaches are being developed which attempt to use notions of stimulus control and contextual cues to better monitor one's time and behavior; more will be shared as results are known. Clearly not everyone adversely impacted by a specific online behavioral addiction is able to completely abandon the computer. Stay tuned...

El Pais (En Español) :
Los arrepentidos de Facebook

Fri 13 Nov 2009

This article in Spain's leading newspaper explores the phenomenon of social network participation. While sometimes I'm (partially) quoted in ways which make me sound like the absolute voice of gloom & doom about the addictive aspects of Facebook in particular, I was pleased that this journalist used my thoughts on the *positive* aspects of online communication: providing access to social and professional support, opening the world to the geographically isolated or physically challenged, etc.

It must have been a relevant topic for a lot of people, as the journalist shared with me it was the most accessed online story of the day. Bueno!

It's in Spanish, of course (coming from Spain), and I think a fair and not-too-sensationalized article, where the journalist sought out comments by myself and others to several perspectives. There's also a description of a Spanish social network (invitation-only) which has been around for a few years now.

BBC Tech Brief
12 August 2010

The BBC recently highlighted Mashable.com's presentation of Flowtown's
2010 Social Networking Map, which was described as accurate while also "quirky and amusing": " Facebook is the largest single landmass but it is interesting to see how Twitter, Habbo and the Empire of Google compare." You may also find the "Former Kingdom of MySpace" and "Receding Glaciers of AOL" represented on the map.

Your Brain On Computers - Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime
24 August 2010
New York Times

Beyond sleep-deprivation and eye fatigue, there is real reason for concern over people's can't-get-enough push to ever more immediacy and multi-tasking. Think: attention, focus, efficiency, self-monitoring, things like this which once were a large part of normal daily life.

Facebook fiends tend to be narcissistic, insecure: York U study
TORONTO, September 7, 2010

The link above leads to the press release by York University (Sept. 2010) and the full study was published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. Not shocking, perhaps, the short story definitely gets attention and invites finger-pointing at the closest "Facebook Addict". There is also an interesting description of the dynamics behind FB "self-promotion". Narcissism conjures up images of vanity in the public's eye, but interestingly these findings at least suggest how FB may be playing a role in offering an avenue for people to bolster flagging self-esteem through social connection, and acceptance within groups. Is it perhaps basic human nature to fluff up the ego and seek or make friends? Here is a world brimming with candy, disguises, all sorts of social and gaming opportunities, and the perfect escape from time... :-)

Narcissism's Alive and Well on Facebook
CBS NEWS, 10 September 2010
The broadcast TV tease: "How many times have you logged onto Facebook only to find that (fill in the name here) has updated their page for the upteenth time with yet another entirely forgettable, wonder of me moment?" (CBS). Their web article includes related links.

I've not seen the original study but would be interested in learning more about how they defined/determined/operationalized "narcissism". Psychological theory (object relations) holds that there is, after all, "good" or "healthy" narcissism in addition to the pathological.

How to Defeat a Facebook Addiction
Retrieved October 5 2010, with over 16,000 views thus far. (wikiHow)

Although content may change here (due to the nature of a Wiki), online presently (Oct. 2010) one can find several good points and tips. While not endorsing any specific comment or treatment proposal, the overall collection of links and suggestions offers some fine ideas in addition to reinforcing the notion that there is such thing as "too much". One of the key points here seems to be underscoring the importance of "mindfulness" about our time use, while another suggests the value of employing strategies to help with time management rather than simply going "cold turkey" from FB &/or computers. This is consistent with the treatment approach now used (e.g., by Kimberly Young) with "Internet Addiction" more generally.

The Anti-Social Network: Is Facebook Making Us Sad? (Slate 26 Jan 2011)[New]

A new study from Stanford University suggests that the constant idealizing and positive spin we put "out there" on FB may contrast painfully with our real-life daily experience away from the comfortable world of FB. There is a lot here which might be discussed on a number of sociological and psychological levels. Freud might have called the undue "cathexis" (mental energy allocation) directed towards devices and self-entertainment "denial" or "displacement", while one's online wall offers the perfect place for projection, fantasy, and distortion. Others might address narcissism, or the role of attention and focus, or peer/social pressure. A lot to consider!

Author, author: Sherry Turkle (The Guardian, UK, 29 Jan 2011)[New]

A discussion with the author of "Alone Together", who recognizes the potential for individual empowerment which the Internet offers, while highlighting too the way in which one may be seduced by, and fixated on, the devices rather than the RL situation at hand: "I go to a funeral and people are texting, hiding their phones under the order of service". Exactly. Why text or pull out a device now? Where are we now when we refer to being "in the moment" or in the Here and Now?

Please note that my inclusion of recent media articles about the topic of Facebook addiction and related aspects of social networking life, does not necessarily mean that I agree with the details, "spin" (characterization), or ideas as presented by those independent researchers and reporters. Except for my own article which appears above - before the list of news items - these additional links are meant as "talking points" or "grist for the mill" to invite discussion and further research.

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