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‘It’s kind of like fight club — once you’re in, you’re in’

Photo illustration by Tina Wallace

Last summer, I thought I logged out for good. I decided to walk away from my online network and work on my real-life social network. I was wasting too much time creeping my feeds — to the point where I had extreme feelings of inadequacy. It had reached a point where I just didn’t give a like.

“Are you sure you want to leave?” asked each and every single social platform after I pressed the glowing “deactivate” button. Yes, I was sure. Facebook was pretty melodramatic. By showing countless pictures of my friends and I having a great time, it warned me that they’d miss me if I left. Good try, Zuckerberg.

I don’t know if I expected angels to sing, doves to cry, or something special to happen, but the act of logging out was surprisingly anti-climactic. However the four months that followed my social media absence was anything but. After experiencing serious social media withdrawal, I started wondering if everyone connected is as much of an addict and if we can truly walk away from it.

Social media or crack cocaine? 

For a few short months, Twitter was practically my home. When I woke up, I would update my status with a cheesy tweet like, “Good morning all my tweethearts!” If I went out to lunch, I would tweet it. If I went shopping, I would tweet it. I believed every occasion was a Twitter occasion. While my Twitter updates have considerably died down — thank God — I think at one point I was addicted.

A Harvard study found social media to be just as addictive as drugs or alcohol. In the experiment, researchers Diana Tamir and Jason Mitchell had participants either disclose personal information or answer trivia questions to test brain activity during personal conversation versus ordinary conversation. When people spoke about themselves, the nucleus accumbens, the area of the brain associated with addiction development, was affected.

According to University of Ottawa communications professor and media expert Patrick McCurdy, the very premise of online networking gives users a high not unlike other addictive substances. He says that social media itself is like an addiction because of how instantaneous it is.

“The media is perceived as king,” he said. “You send an email to a professor and many people expect a reply instantly. It’s the same with Facebook, we expect everybody is connected.”

Darren Sharp, a U of O alumnus and active social media user, agrees. He believes the addictiveness of social media occurs largely because it takes constant updates to maintain a strong presence on websites like Twitter.

“Social media is really immersive and I find it takes a lot of time and energy to be good at it and to be really involved. Especially something like Twitter which moves so quickly. In order to be involved in a conversation you kind of have to be on it all the time,” he said.

“That’s why I’d say I sort of have adverse feelings towards social media right now. When you’re doing so many things, it’s a lot of effort to be really good at it and to be really involved.”

“Comparison is the death of joy” — Mark Twain

Maryam Dualeh, a third-year communications student at Carleton University, hasn’t had a Facebook account for five years because she believes social media is just a popularity contest.

“I don’t have a personal Facebook anymore because I don’t see the point in advertising my personal life,” she said. “There’s always competition, people are always looking to one-up each other.”

Dualeh’s belief that social media creates a platform for competition isn’t a novel idea. American social psychologist Leon Festinger developed the social comparison theory in the 1950s. He stated that in order to try to understand ourselves we compare with others.

In Communication in Clinical Contexts, communication experts Benjamin Bates and Rukhsana Ahmed wrote that we believe we can compare ourselves to others based on the level of success we think our peers are experiencing.

According to the authors, there are two types of comparison: upward comparison, in which we’re looking at others whom we deem to be doing better than ourselves; and its opposite, downward comparison, when we compare ourselves to individuals we deem to be less successful. Though some may find it useful to gauge how they measure up to their friends, many professionals believe it can be emotionally damaging to determine our own success based on the apparent success of others.

“Research has found that comparing breeds feelings of envy, low self-confidence, and depression, as well as compromising our ability to trust others,” Daniela Tempesta wrote in an article for the Huffington Post. She further argued that downward comparisons aren’t uplifting either, seeing as they require us to take pleasure in other people’s misfortunes.

Am I missing out?

According to an article in Maclean’s, around 19 million Canadians log in to Facebook at least once a month. That’s more than half the country’s population getting the latest news on what’s going on with the people around them.

Fear of missing out, or FOMO, has become a catchphrase people use to describe the anxiety associated with logging out of social media completely. When I first disconnected, I thought I’d be missing out on important things. But the longer I went without Facebook or Twitter, the more my FOMO disappeared.

In an interview with the New York Times, Dan Ariely, a psychology and behavioural economics professor at Duke University, said we can experience FOMO even if we’re actively using social media. The instantaneousness of social media causes immediate feelings of inadequacy with our current situation, a symptom of FOMO.

“When would you be more upset? After missing your flight by two minutes or two hours? Two minutes, of course,” he said. “You can imagine how things could have been different, and that really motivates us to behave in strange ways.”

Sharp said he doesn’t experience FOMO as much as he used to. After having been on social media for so long, it’s easier to cope with negative feelings. But it’s something that would’ve bothered him more a few years ago.

“People go to such great lengths to present their lives in such a way,” he said. “Because we’ve had social media in our lives for so long, I find I can reach out easier now and identify that feeling and avoid it. I would say FOMO’s happened to me before but I wouldn’t say it happens quite as often.”

Keep your privacy in mind

Dualeh believes one major downfall to social media is that there’s no privacy.

“Ten years ago if I wanted to get to know someone, I would have to actually meet them in person,” she says. “Now if you want to get to know someone, you would go online. A total stranger could know your entire life all through your Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or whatever.”

McCurdy warns that while we may treat online communications as natural platforms for interacting with each other, it’s anything but. He cites the graphic Facebook chat betweenstudent officials at the U of O as an example. Even though the individuals involved were chatting on a private messenger, snap shots of the conversation on someone’s computer in public view makes them liable for what they said since it has been recorded.

“Never assume anything on social media is private,” said McCurdy. “Remember that even if you and I are having a Facebook chat, assume it’s public.”

Can you really ever opt out?

After leaving social media, I found at times it was hard to live without it. Because almost everyone communicates via Facebook and Twitter, it was definitely more difficult to connect with my friends and keep up to date on what social gatherings were going on.

You may be able to sustain a social existence without social media accounts if you have yet to experience these sites, but Sharp doesn’t believe it’s possible to leave the social media sphere once you’ve entered it.

“It’s kind of like fight club — once you’re in, you’re in,” he said. “You know people who’ll be like, ‘Oh, I’m done with Facebook,’ and they’ll deactivate and two weeks later they’re back on. It just kind of pulls you back in and I think it’s because of that social aspect. You do feel that if you’re not on something like Facebook, you’re missing out.”

McCurdy disagrees . He believes you can choose to opt out, no matter how difficult it may seem.

“You can choose not to have a Facebook account, not to have a Twitter account, not to be on LinkedIn,” he said. “You can make a conscious decision not to be involved. You can choose to have a Facebook page almost as a bookmark but don’t use it.”

Many people might be surprised to learn that certain social media sites actually store your personal information or posts you’ve made even after you’ve completely deleted an account, suggesting that when it comes to privacy, you can’t truly leave.

“Some of the things you do on Facebook aren’t stored in your account, like posting to a group or sending someone a message (where your friend may still have a message you sent, even after you delete your account),” Facebook’s data use policy states. “That information remains after you delete your account.”

Though people may try to completely erase their web footprints, there will always be remnants and past posts floating around for the world to see.

If social media stresses you out, go easy 

Despite my negative feelings toward social media, I came back. Living in the information age, I know it’s an important way people connect with one another and that’s mostly why I hit the reactivate button. Social media is, in many cases, essential to staying in touch with loved ones and discovering career and other opportunities.

Sharp says it’s important to find balance if you’re engaging with online networks.

“I know I said once you’re in, you’re in, but at the same time you can minimize the time you spend on social media,” he said. “Don’t spend too much time creeping people on Facebook, or your hashtags on Twitter.”

McCurdy, who says he doesn’t know anyone lacking negative feelings toward social media, also cites moderation as being integral to managing your sanity while using online networks.

“I think it’s useful to be connected and to maintain connections, but to also at times (disconnect),” he said. “Go for a walk, leave your phone, go to a concert, but keep your phone in your pocket; experience life. There are benefits without a doubt to these networks but you must experience life without it at times.”

Going for so long without being logged in was a relief in many ways, but unfortunately, since so many people see more benefits of social media than drawbacks, it looks like Zuckerberg and company will have the last laugh.