Giving up social media sites is tough, experts contend

The Washington PostDecember 30, 2012 

Nicki Minaj did it once. Alec Baldwin does it often and poorly. And chances are, after heavy days of sonogram photos and rhubarb pies cast in "Lo-Fi" light, you've considered ending it all too.

Deleting yourself -- or what the most morbid among us call "digital suicide" -- is the attempt to go off the grid, to grab control of your persona, time or sanity. The departure is often announced with confident, dramatic flourish. But experts say that more often than not, deserters sulk back to newsfeeds and streams.

"Anxiety is driving people to want to give it up and then to not be able to," said Larry Rosen, author of "iDisorder" and professor of psychology at California State. "Some know they're too wrapped up in it but if they give it up even for an hour, they're afraid they'll miss out on something."

Some users will make sincere attempts to leave social media, particularly as a new year's resolution. They'll issue the "I'm disabling my account" post or tweet, which can frequently be seen during final exams or on Ash Wednesday or any day when an ex-boyfriend becomes engaged somewhere.

But these are empty threats. Rosen says many quitters are back to social media within 24 hours. The anxiety becomes too much to bear. Social media usage is increasingly classified as an addiction -- researchers in Norway have made the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale to decipher just how addicted people can become -- but Rosen disagrees.

"It's not an addiction, it's an obsession," Rosen said. "An addiction is when you do something to gain pleasure, (such as smoking) cigarettes or playing games. We're not doing this to get pleasure; we're doing it reduce our anxiety. If something good is there, then there's a rush of pleasure."

Facebook and Twitter declined to comment on reactivation rates but their growth -- Facebook has 1 billion users, Twitter has 500 million -- indicates that social media are enjoyable, habit-forming and can be overconsumed.

Judith Donath, a faculty fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, is among the group that views media reports on Internet addiction as overblown.

"For one, it is a social thing," Donath said. "There's a lot of people who say it has enhanced their ability to stay in touch with people. Some people take it too far, but as a society, we often look down on things that are purely social. And that's not healthy."

So, yes, America wastes time on social media but we used to waste time watching marathons of "The Golden Girls." Which is worse?

While some researchers recommend reducing social media usage, giving it up entirely is becoming virtually impossible. The old days of starting fresh in a new town no longer exist, even for those who've successfully avoided social media's pull.

"We're making our ability to reinvent ourselves increasingly difficult," Donath said. "Social media is often coupled with your offline identity. ... You don't have a chance to start over gracefully."

Americans don't like admitting this. In May, during Facebook's IPO, an AP-CNBC poll found that 46 percent of Americans predicted Facebook would be a short-lived fad. The poll was shared only 15 times on Facebook, virtually ignored by the 43 percent banking on social media's permanence.

It also doesn't help the quitters that Facebook makes returning so easy. Unlike its bartered bride Instagram, Facebook will forever retain your cadre of study-abroad photos should you have a change of heart. Twitter archives tweets for 30 days after deactivation.

Rosen says it's possible for Internet obsessives to change their habits. With a bit of work, research subjects of various ages were able to minimize time spent on social media by taking gradual steps away from their devices.

"It's just like any other drug that you wean yourself off of," Rosen said.

For the resurrected who've witnessed life on the other side, technology breaks are revealing. They cherish the increased productivity.

And while extremely rare, some determined users have managed to quit cold turkey.

Mitt Romney didn't post on Facebook for weeks after the election until holiday photos got the best of him. But his wife, Ann, typed her last tweet on Nov. 11, proving that yes, America, it can be done.

 

 

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