A few days ago, I thought it might be a great time to conduct an experiment--to go off Facebook for a week. Just like that. Without leaving any note on Facebook.
My hypothesis was that I would not miss anything by staying away from Facebook. After all, if there was anything important, then friends--the real ones, that is--will email or text or even call me. If the real friends wonder about my absence, then they will email or text or even call me inquiring if I am ok.
What I did not expect was this: Facebook got worried that I was not logging in. After a couple of days, the Facebook algorithm started bugging me with emails like this:
It is understandable that Facebook will care--the business model is based not merely on the number of users but on the time that users spend on Facebook. What if quite a few more users behave like me and do not login for a few days? That's not a user behavior that will work for the shareholders.
It is not merely Facebook. A good chunk of the internet seems to be based on us wasting time.
The insidious, distracting suck of the Internet has become seemingly inescapable. Calling us from our pockets, lurking behind work documents, it’s merely a click away. Studies have shown that each day we spend, on average, five and a half hours on digital media, and glance at our phones 221 times.
And just like the tobacco industry that went after the human fascination for an addictive nicotine, the highly qualified programmers systematically write apps for us to waste our time:
Meanwhile, the developers of websites and phone apps all exploit human behavioral tendencies, designing their products and sites in ways that attract our gaze – and retain it.
Yep, they systematically cultivate this addictive behavior:
Content on the net isn’t only designed to grab our attention; some of it is specifically built to keep us coming back for more: notifications when someone replies to a posts, or power rankings based on up-votes. These cues trigger the reward system in our brains because they’ve become associated with the potent reinforcer of social approval.
Not surprisingly, Internet use is often framed in the language of addiction.
What might one then do, right? Let me tell you how I have now worked it out with Facebook--I do not login unless I have something to post there that will appeal to my real friends. Like when I posted this photograph of flowers from the friend:
Then, in a manner of veni, vidi, vici, I exit Facebook before its sirens can trap me there for a long stay. Which is the kind of an approach that researchers also suggest--"the best trick is to commit ourselves to a different course of action in advance – with force, if necessary."
The key is that self-control and resisting temptation are not the same thing. Odysseus had one, but not the other.
Instead, good self-control was characterized by the ability to avoid temptations in the first place. We often think of self-control as the ability to white-knuckle our way through temptation, but studies such as this one indicate that self-control can also be as simple as planning ahead to avoid those traps.
The next time you need to get something done, consider precommitting to avoiding the Internet altogether. Like Odysseus, realize that if you find yourself facing temptation directly, the battle may already be lost.
If only I can make sure that students in high schools and colleges--at least those in my classes--will read all these and think this through. But then I cannot even get them to pay attention to what I say--while standing right in front of them! Maybe I am not addictive ;)