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Spending hours updating your status? You may be a Facebook addict

BEIRUT: Ramzi uses Facebook daily, his longest session has kept him up all night and he sometimes spends hours looking at friends’ walls with no specific purpose.

“Sometimes I go searching for hours, and when I find something interesting I continue searching,” says the 23-year-old college student, who uses Facebook for every kind of social interaction, including learning about girls he likes, meeting new people, planning events and following the news. At times, his friends and family have accused him of preferring Facebook to them. Ramzi acknowledges he “might be” addicted to the site.

There’s no medical definition for Facebook addiction, but many psychologists and social media experts are beginning to use FAD (Facebook Addiction Disorder) to describe the behavior of people who compulsively use the social networking site to document their lives, closely follow those of their friends, play games and chat.

“It’s ambient awareness. People can know about what others are doing without much effort,” says Ayman Itani, media professor at the Lebanese American University. “And people get satisfaction from the engagement.”

In small doses, the activity is harmless. But the site – designed to draw people in with its user-friendly organized way of finding friends, interests and news and constant updates on everything – appears to be doing just that, sometimes to the detriment of its users.

As early as 2005, when the 1-year-old site had reached 5 million members, college students were referring to the “Facebook trance,” wherein users who were logged in could be seen in a quasi hypnotic state as they dug deeper into the pages.

It is unclear which groups are most hooked on the world’s most popular social network, as experts emphasize that most addicts are likely in denial.

But studies largely point to young people, still at a critical stage in their development in which they are learning social skills through sports and other activities.

“Excessive social media habits take away time from these critical activities and make them not only more media dependent but also susceptible to various diseases, like obesity, and exposes them to risky activities, like cyber bullying or worse meeting dangerous people online who may take advantage of their naivety,” says Jad Melki, professor of journalism and media studies at the American University of Beirut.

Last year, AUB conducted a joint study with the University of Maryland to determine the extent of social-media dependency among college students. The participants were asked to abstain from all forms of media for 24 hours and then report on their experiences.

“One of the concerning findings was that youngsters reported feeling helpless, lonely, and anxious,” says Melki. “Many couldn't function normally without their media tools, especially their Facebook and mobile phones, which they mainly used for texting – a form of social media networking.”

Toward the end of the 24-hour experiment, one participant wrote: “Texting and IM-ing my friends gives me a constant feeling of comfort. When I did not have those two luxuries, I felt quite alone and secluded from my life. Although I go to a school with thousands of students, the fact that I was not able to communicate with anyone via technology was almost unbearable.”

Another used literal terms of addiction, writing, “Although I started the day feeling good, I noticed my mood started to change around noon. I started to feel isolated and lonely. I received several phone calls that I could not answer,” wrote the student. “By 2 p.m. I began to feel the urgent need to check my email, and even thought of a million ideas of why I had to. I felt like a person on a deserted island … I noticed physically, that I began to fidget as if I was addicted to my iPod and other media devices, and maybe I am.”

This study shows not only how easily people can get hooked on social media. It also shows how technology and social networking sites, particularly Facebook, have become such an integral part of their lives that it would be difficult to leave them, even if they wanted to.

“It’s a matter of life balance,” says Itani, who uses social networking regularly to keep up with his work and friends, and admits that he’s had to be disciplined about limiting the time he spends on Facebook.

“Everyone has to balance their time between work, hobbies, health, family and friends. When one thing takes more time at the expense of others, then the balance is out of sync,” notes Itani.

But what about people who use Facebook for work?

“That’s where denial comes in,” says Itani. “If someone says, ‘Oh, but I use it to update work stuff,’ they’ll always find an article to read or a friend to chat with. That’s when they need to acknowledge: I need to work more, go to the gym or spend more time with my family.”

Ramzi agrees.

“I have to say I’ve lost a lot of hours from my life on Facebook. I want to use it less.”

 

Facts about Facebook addiction

- The average Facebook user spends one hour a day on the site.

- There is no official medical term for Facebook addiction, but many psychologists regularly use the term FAD, or Facebook addiction disorder.

- There are more than 500 Facebook addiction groups on the social networking site, where members discuss their affliction.

- The word Facebook now appears in one in five divorce cases in the United States, according to Loyola University.

- A study done by Oxygene Media last year found that 21 percent of women age 18-34 check Facebook in the middle of the night, 63 percent use Facebook as a networking tool, 42 percent think it’s okay to post photos of themselves intoxicated, 79 percent are fine with kissing in photos, 58 percent use Facebook to keep tabs on “frenemies” and 50 percent are fine with being Facebook friends with complete strangers.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 09, 2011, on page 12.
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