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People take Facebook breaks all the time. They post a status update saying that they’re leaving for a month or a week or a weekend. A lot of people will “like” that post. Here’s the thing though- nobody cares. Sorry! They just don’t. They’ll either see things you post or they won’t. Nobody (maybe except really close friends or that aunt you have with only 5 Facebook friends) is going to notice. If someone really needs to contact you, they’ll figure out how to do so if you don’t immediately respond to whatever they send you on Facebook.

So anyway- I’ve been on a Facebook break and yes, you don’t care. You haven’t missed me. I get it. Not offended in the least.

I knew for quite a while that Facebook was taking up way too much of my time. I deleted the app from my devices, but then I would just log on via the web browser- which you can’t delete. And then if I decided to stop using Facebook for a while, I would start obsessing over my Instagram feed.

Hello everyone, I am a social media addict.

I thought it was just a problem with me and having an issue with self-control. I thought maybe it was a problem with me being an “Obliger” according to Gretchen Rubin- I needed the constant validation of others to feel worthy. I thought it might be me numbing myself to cope with stress.

Then I listened to episode 208 of the Slow Home Podcast called “The Age of Distraction and what to do about it.” It was inspired by an article posted by the Guardian called “Our minds can be hijacked: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia”   about the very people who engineered social media apps to be addictive imposing controls on themselves to prevent themselves from having their time sucked away from them like the rest of us. I don’t think I realized, before reading this article, that the apps had actually been intentionally designed to keep me on them for as long as possible. They have been created to be addictive- on purpose.

In my graduate program for speech pathology, we had a professor explain to us that the best way to give positive feedback to a client is using “the Vegas method.” It’s less effective to say “nice work” or “good job” after every correct production than it is to say it sometimes and withhold it other times. This is what behaviorist B.F. Skinner called variable ratio reinforcement- and it’s what makes Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and all the rest of them addictive. It’s also why gambling is addictive.

You log in to Facebook and sometimes you see that red bubble indicating you have notifications. That’s a reward. You check your notifications- and one of them is a comment on a post you’ve made. That’s a good reward. Another is about how a friend of yours is going to an event in your area you’re not interested in. Not interesting- not reinforcing. Another is that someone has posted something in a group you’re a part of (and you haven’t figured out how to turn off that notification- or you’ve tried several times and it hasn’t worked…) also not interesting. Another is that several friends have “liked” a post of yours. That’s a good reward. Sometimes you get the good reward- sometimes you don’t. It’s thrilling. It’s exciting. Gimme more.

You pull down on your Instagram feed to refresh it- hoping you’ll get something interesting. Sometimes you’ll get a new post from someone you follow- good reward- sometimes you’ll get an ad- not good. Sometimes you get nothing- sometimes you get something great. Not unlike pulling the lever on a slot machine. The pull-down-to-refresh is a gimmick engineered to be addictive.

It is intentional. Tech developers attend conferences about how to make their products “habitual.”

“How dare they?” is what Brooke McAlary of the Slow Home Podcast said. I said it too. Like her, I also got very angry. This is what finally made me quit. I realized that my attention had been hijacked by people who did not deserve it.

The article suggests bigger implications of these mind-hijack effects- about a war over attention. People consume media in 140 character bites. They elected the guy who captured their attention best on Twitter. It quotes James Williams- an “ex-Google strategist,” talking about the sensationalization of the news when it is boiled down to headlines-only. He said “We’ve habituated ourselves into a perpetual cognitive style of outrage, by internalising the dynamics of the medium.” I think “perpetual outrage” is a good way to describe my Facebook feed.

So anyway-it’s not just you and it’s not your fault. Now you know and you can take steps to take back your attention and give it to people and projects which are more deserving. I will be writing another post about what happens when you give up social media and what has helped me. What has helped you? Please leave a comment here (not on the Facebook post- because that will help me continue to stay off it…!).