Is Facebook addictive?

In the wake of the National Security Agency (NSA) information sharing scandal many are questioning their use of social media sites and what they share over the internet. Yet how many people will actually come off Facebook? I wasn’t as surprised by the NSA story as many people seemed to be, but security aside I’m not convinced that Facebook does much to improve my quality of life. If anything it makes me more distractible, less efficient, and more likely to waste time looking at other people’s lives rather than live my own fully. So why is it so hard to leave it? Sure, there are rational reasons why I like it: I hear about social events on there, it connects me to international friends, I enjoy seeing other people’s pictures. But is there something else that hooks me in? Is Facebook addictive?

Addiction is defined by the Collins English Dictionary as a “condition of being abnormally dependent on some habit, especially compulsive dependency on narcotic drugs”. Avoiding Facebook doesn’t make me get the shakes, but the tendency to log on does feel a bit compulsive. And Facebook does share characteristics with other addictions: most significantly that there is an intermittent reinforcement schedule going on.

What is an intermittent reinforcement schedule? This is when we are rewarded for doing something, some, but crucially, not all, of the times we do it. The classic experiment involves a rat pressing a lever. Some of the time the rat is rewarded for pressing the lever with a sip of sugar solution. Some of the time it’s not. The reward is unpredictable. The rat goes mental for pressing the lever. Seriously, it doesn’t stop easily.

People are the same. This is why it is so hard to get toddlers to do what you want them to do if some of the time you give into their screaming fits. They learn to keep trying screaming as a tactic for getting whatever it is they want. Similarly with drugs, if only some of the time you have an amazing time on a drug you are more likely to keep chasing that elusive chance of having a brilliant experience. And in romantic relationships, if someone is a bit hot and cold with you it might make you feel crap when they are being cold, but you are still more likely to persist in trying to chase the times when they are lovely.

Facebook, as a friend pointed out to me in the pub the other night, has a similar quality. You can comb through it for hours with nothing but mediocre photos and boring status updates about people’s dinner, and then suddenly someone tags some great pictures of a fantastic holiday you went on, or there’s a flurry of interesting conversation about something you care about, you have lots of those little red cherries by your world and you feel connected.

None of this is to suggest that this sort of pattern is helpful in sustaining long term relationships with activities or people. To stay in a relationship where someone is unpredictable with their affection does not make you likely to form a healthy bond with them. And a hit and miss experience on social networking is not likely to lead to your days being more fulfilling if you spend more time with it. But it can be useful to understand some of the reasons that people or things hook us in.

Because unlike rats, we at least have a chance of noticing when this is going on, and we are able to make more of a decision about what we do next. Unlike the rats we can make sure we’ve got our own supplies of sugar solution in reserve, by choosing to do other things we like instead. So if Facebook is feeling like a compulsion try swapping it for something else for a bit. Here’s one alternative activity for you:  try watching this short clip of famous behaviourist Skinner explaining how intermittent reward schedules affect pigeons and gamblers. He talks about “variable ratio schedules” but this is just one type of intermittent reward schedule, so it’s all the same thing, explained very nicely with the aid of a good-looking pigeon.

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