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February 24, 2014

My love affair, and break-up, with Facebook

By Jessica Reynolds
The Daily Star

---- — (Jessica Reynolds is a Daily Star reporter.)

Hi, my name is Jessica, I’m 24 years old and I’m a recovering Facebook-aholic. In fact, I’ve been Facebook-free for more than three months.

I’m guessing I don’t need to tell you what Facebook is. Even my nearly 90-year-old grandmother has at least a general understanding (no, she doesn’t have an account). But just in case you haven’t heard of it, I’ll give you a brief introduction.

Facebook is a social media website for which people can sign up, free of charge. It can be used to track down old friends and keep in touch with them, connect with new friends, spread the word about an important upcoming event, share photos and even raise awareness of local causes. No doubt, it can be a useful tool. We had some good times. But once the honeymoon period was over, I was able to realize that, for me, the negatives far outweigh the positives.

That’s why I hopped off the runaway Facebook train. For me, deactivating it has been in the works for a long time. And I’m here to tell my Facebook-obsessed peers, and anyone else who’s listening, that the world will, in fact, keep turning if you choose to do the same.

If you asked me four years ago what I thought of Facebook, I would’ve replied, “I’m a little obsessed,” and then frantically logged on to check for any little, red notifications that meant someone had written to me or accepted my friend request. As a freshman in college, my peers and I were all on a level playing field; we didn’t know anyone and there were no cliques or in-crowds. It was intimidating, but Facebook was the link that connected us.

I vividly remember “Facebook-stalking” my roommate-to-be before we moved in. I looked at her pictures, her likes and dislikes, including movies, music and books. I was comforted knowing she too liked the band Taking Back Sunday and 1980s movies. She was pretty and fun, from what I could see on her page.

Things ended up going great for the two of us; we had a nice year living together and remained friends throughout college. Facebook helped me make a judgment, albeit shallow, and it turned out to be accurate. The website had helped ease my mind and arm me with things to talk about during the post-move-in awkwardness.

Any time I met new people on campus, I would rush to the nearest computer to “friend” them. I remember the thrill of a cute guy accepting my online friend request, and the even greater excitement of being the one whose friendship was requested. I knew I was in deep, checking it incessantly any time I was online and taking a new picture of myself each week to post on my profile. But I wasn’t overly concerned.

For me, Facebook wasn’t new. I was in 10th grade when I found out about it, and signed up mostly because my older sister did. She was a freshman in college and I wanted to keep in touch with her while she was away. It also didn’t hurt that she told me about how all of her new college friends were getting accounts. I figured anything that cool should be on my radar, too.

Fast-forward three years and hundreds of posts later, and Facebook was bigger than ever. For some of my college friends, it was enchanting. It opened up a whole new world of friendship-making and quickly became a method of procrastination, even for me. One of my friends, let’s call him Bill, became so enthralled with the site that his grades began to slip. He eventually was forced to drop out, and we all knew what had been the underlying problem.

As technology progressed and we grew into upperclassmen, some of my friends even logged in during class on their smart phones. We often joked that two people were not officially friends until they were friends on Facebook. Although I’m not so sure it was completely a joke.

Over the course of my four years at college, I racked up more than 2,000 pictures and almost 500 friends. Birthday posts, silly late-night messages, pictures of fun adventures ... all of it was captured in an on-going scrapbook of sorts, ready for me to look back on and reminisce about whenever I wanted.

When graduation hit, I didn’t want to admit I would have to leave that life behind. Facebook had been a major part of my college experience, so I kept it to stay in touch with friends. Many of my friends felt the same way.

Some of my peers who were education majors had changed their Facebook names during our senior year to appear more professional for future student-teaching placements or jobs, replacing their last name with their middle name or spelling it in a unique way. This was after we were all warned by our academic advisers that employers check your profile before your resume is even glanced at. I still don’t know if that rumor is true (maybe I should ask my editor).

But I do know of a couple of different young professionals who got themselves into trouble after posting drunk pictures of themselves or inappropriate statuses regarding their workplace.

The first person in my world who got rid of Facebook was one of my roommates, Sami. She was an education major and had a modified profile name for years but finally decided to bite the bullet after we graduated. I missed her presence online, and it required more of an effort to contact her, but I cared enough about her to make it work: texting, calling or emailing occasionally to catch up. Wouldn’t people do the same for me if I chose to leave? The thought crossed my mind, but I wasn’t ready yet.

And then something happened. I started to notice that whenever I logged on Facebook, I logged off feeling depressed. I didn’t have a “career” job yet, I had gained a little weight, my boyfriend was busy playing twister with teenage girls, and all my close friends had moved away. But it seemed like everyone else in the world, or at least all of my Facebook friends, were doing big, earth-shattering things all the time. It was hard not to compare myself to the owner of every profile I came across.

“Wow, she has an awesome job!” I would think. “Those two hang out all the time and are so close!” “That looks so fun!” “She’s traveling around the world!” “They had a party and didn’t invite me?” 

These thoughts would creep inside me and slowly morph into “She’s prettier than me … They have more friends than I do … I’m worthless!” 

My confidence would consistently plummet every time I logged on. It was toxic.

This might seem overly dramatic to you, but it’s a feeling that a recent study showed is actually extremely common among Facebook users my age. It has frequently been referred to as FOMO, or “fear of missing out.” The Public Library of Science did a study last year that shows that the more people use Facebook, the worse they feel and the more unhappy they are with their lives in general.

The study was conducted by Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan, and Philippe Verduyn, of Leuven University in Belgium. More than 82 young people were asked to complete a questionnaire on their smart phones five times a day, answering inquiries regarding their daily Facebook usage and how they felt from minute-to-minute. Participants who frequently used Facebook actually felt worse and were less satisfied with their lives over time.

Yes, it’s a waste of time. Sure, maybe it’s affecting our generation’s ability to effectively communicate. But research that proves Facebook actually affects your opinion of yourself and overall outlook on life? That’s startling and something that shouldn’t be ignored.

I finally made the decision to leave Facebook after the aforementioned neglectful boyfriend broke up with me. Pictures and posts portraying a newly single, happy and “free” guy saddened and frustrated me and felt like complete betrayal, especially when mutual friends spent time with him as if nothing happened. I didn’t understand how he could be over the serious relationship so quickly and, frankly, I didn’t want to see him going on as if I never existed. It was too hurtful. To protect myself, I broke up with Facebook and never looked back.

So here I am, three months later, still Facebook-less. And I’m here to tell you, it feels good. My friends frequently tell me they wish they could get rid of it, too, but they don’t feel like they can, almost like an addiction they just can’t shake. Why does Facebook have such an intense hold over us?

Researchers from Germany recently discovered that Facebook use is actually linked to physiological activity in the reward center of the brain, the nucleus accumbens. Published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, it is the first study detailing how Facebook affects us physically.

After analyzing the Facebook use of 31 participants and using MRI technology, researchers learned that any time someone used Facebook and received personal positive feedback, like the kind a person would get from seeing a complimentary comment on a picture or the “liking” of a status, the nucleus accumbens would respond with pleasure and it would register as a reward, the same way it does when a person gains money, food or has sex, researchers said.

The subsequent gain in reputation that occurs is addicting and something the researchers dubbed “Facebook fame.” When a participant saw another person receiving positive feedback on Facebook, he or she did not show nearly as much brain activity in this area. The more Facebook fame a person received, the more he or she logged on to the site.

The lead author of the study, Dar Meshi, a postdoctoral researcher at the Freie Universität in Germany, said it best:

“As human beings, we evolved to care about our reputation. In today’s world, one way we are able to manage our reputation is by using social media websites like Facebook.”

Facebook allows us to create a fake reality in which we perpetually look perfect (we can de-tag any pictures of ourselves we don’t like), have only the best of times (we usually only post about the most attractive and fun aspects of our lives), and have hundreds of friends. It’s all extremely superficial.

I don’t know about you, but I look horrible when I roll out of bed in the morning, I’m certainly not always a bundle of laughs and I probably have 10 friends I can really trust … certainly not 500. Facebook allows us to present an idealized version of ourselves to the world, which is, most often, not completely accurate.

In my research, I read about dozens of other studies done that show that Facebook use increases feelings of loneliness, jealousy, sadness and inadequacy, and even makes it harder to sleep or relax.

And get this.

A study published in the Psychological Science journal and led by Dr. Wilhelm Hofmann of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, found that resisting the urge to check social media websites such as Facebook is more difficult than turning down a drink. Alcohol and tobacco prompted much lower levels of desire among the 250 participants.

Another study done with almost 1,000 university students, interviewed at 12 campuses in 10 countries, showed that students who turned off their cell phones and avoided the Internet for an entire day were left experiencing symptoms similar to those a drug addict would suffer from when trying to go cold turkey.

Almost four in five students experienced substantial mental and physical distress, such as panic, confusion, extreme feelings of isolation, cravings and anxiety attacks. One student compared his cravings to those of a crack cocaine addict. Researchers called this “information withdrawal syndrome.”

So how on earth am I still alive? People my age ask me how I’m doing it, and the truth is, I’m not really sure. I have a great job and a needy puppy, both of which I love and both of which keep me busy. When I come home from work after a long day, I play with my dog, watch a movie, call my college friends, spend time with family, read a magazine or book, check out Pinterest for crafts and sewing projects, look at fashion and music blogs online, or watch a classic musical, (Sing this with me: I’m gonna wash that Facebook right outta my hair!)

It’s liberating and refreshing not to feel bound to Facebook or dependent upon it. I’m only one of three people I personally know who have chosen to completely remove themselves from the whole situation, but I think more people should give it a whirl. I am, in no way, putting down anyone who frequently uses Facebook. That would be hypocritical; I used to be just like you. It was just the right time for me. 

When I hear someone say “I could never do it” I shrug and think, “Yes, you could.” 

Believe it or not, I have never been tempted to log back on. I just don’t need it anymore.

Am I proud that I released myself from the evil clutches of Facebook? Yeah, I kind of am. I’m happy that I don’t base my worth anymore on whether someone posted on my wall or wrote back to me or accepted my friend request. I’m happy I don’t have to compare my life with the lives of my 500 “friends,” most of whom I haven’t talked to in years. And I’m happy that when I say I like something, it means I actually enjoy it and not just that I clicked on a little, blue thumbs-up sign.

A friend recently suggested it’s selfish of me to be Facebook-free because he could no longer easily contact me. Maybe I am selfish for trying to be kind to myself. But having an album completely dedicated to pictures of myself just feels a little narcissistic and immature to me now. Am I growing up?

Maybe. But don’t worry, I haven’t completely digitally detoxed. I still have my iPad, my cell phone, my laptop. Maybe next, I’ll try to rid myself of those too … but first I have to check Pinterest.

"And then something happened. I started to notice that whenever I logged on Facebook, I logged off feeling depressed."