Everyone knows about the Facebook blues today, but it was the outcome of aUniversity of Michigan study released in the summer of 2013 that opened that Pandora’s box. The study showed that, rather than enhancing well-being, Facebook actually diminished happiness among users. On August 17, The Economist published an article “Facebook is bad for you: Get a Life!” Within the next month, NPR, The New Yorker, and RealClearPolitics also had their say. One writer for The Verge captured the experience of this exhaustive coverage by saying, “Another day, another ‘Facebook makes you miserable’ headline.”
So what’s changed in a year and a half? Well, these days we’re downright nonchalant about Facebook depression, but we have learned more about what specifically bums us out. A study out of the University of Missouri shows that there are “the good kind of Facebook usage and the bad kind.” This “good kind” is active; the “bad kind” is what Missouri researchers deem “surveillance usage,” which sounds like too sinister and fascist a term for what they mean—the passive browsing most of us take part in. The article concludes by suggesting that Facebook users should “just be mindful of how they’re spending their time on the site.” Problem solved, right?
To err is human: we don’t always make good on our logic to do what’s best for for us, even as adults. Take cigarettes. But the cigarette, at least in theory, has the effect of making the smoker feel better. In the case of Facebook, the cost of ‘picking up’ for a passive user is much less severe than the cost for a consistent smoker, but the effect is, well, less fun. Imagine you were told that a new type of cigarette had been invented that wouldn’t give you serious health problems, but that smoking them absentmindedly would afterwards make you feel lost, sad, and anxious—would you still want them? I can think of two types of people who might, who would shirk what’s rationally healthier for them in favor of existential angst: the traumatized and the teenage.
The relationship between the passive user and Facebook recalls what psychologists call a “trauma bond.” Patrick Carnes, whose career has been largely devoted to the study of addiction, has coined this term to describe how a person may be unwilling or feel unable to detach from someone harmful. This attachment is intense and addictive, characterized by loyalty to, at best, “that which does not work.” In his book The Betrayal Bond, Carnes says the hallmarks of these attachments are the same as other addictions: compulsivity, obsession, and “continuation of a behavior despite adverse consequences.” What this characterization of the trauma bond helps us understand is that it’s not incumbent on the harmful person or object to be manipulative—but it is certain that the addicted individual makes an irrational choice to stay bonded, or attached.
I’m not suggesting that a passive user’s relationship with Facebook is a trauma bond, only that it shares some disturbingly similar qualities. In her New Yorker piece, psychologist Maria Konnikova writes that her colleagues have argued after “a review of Facebook’s effects” that “using...can quickly become addictive...we may start to resent both others’ lives and the image of ourselves we need to...maintain.” Here we have compulsivity and continuation despite negative consequences (resentment). Konnikova quotes Samuel Gosling, a psychologist who researches social media use: “It may be that the same thing people find attractive is what they ultimately find repelling. Gosling seems to suggest that Facebook is a linear emotional experience—joining anticipating connection, then coming to resent the exposure to others’ lives—but if that were true, no one would be on Facebook anymore. It would make more sense if this line of attraction to repulsion were a circle, so that people were signing in routinely, day by day, hour by hour, attracted to and subsequently deflated by “that which does not work.”
Logging on time and again only to feel tripped up by depression jives with the example of trauma bonding that Patrick Carnes offers in Betrayal Bond: the relationship between Lucy and Charlie Brown. “Lucy Van Pelt offers to hold the football for Charlie Brown. Every time this happens, Charlie brown recognizes that this is a ploy...Charlie Brown sets aside his distrust and takes a risk again. Lucy then does what she always does—jerks the football out of the way at the last second. Charlie Brown always ends up flat on his back.” Which begs the question, if the Facebook user is Charlie Brown, and Facebook is the football, who is Lucy?
When I first started researching the Facebook crisis of faith, I happened upon a number of articles comparing Facebook to high school: “Facebook is like High School,” “Why Facebook is like a bad high school party,” “Facebook: it’s like high school all over again,” “Why Facebook Feels Feels a Lot Like High School.” All these articles draw the comparison between the self-consciousness experienced by high schoolers and the bouts of low self-esteem Facebook users feel when browse their newsfeeds and friends’ profiles, but these Facebook-like-high-school pieces also echo Angone’s description of the compulsion to show up on Facebook. He offers a couple reasons for this compulsion to attend. One reason is F.O.M.O (Fear Of Missing Out), but Angone says that, actually, having arrived at the “party” the temptation to “lurk” in the “corner” is “far too strong.” He suggests that we know, deep down, that we will lurk rather than engage meaningfully, but that we keep showing up, hoping for more successful results. This we might call our Charlie Brown optimism.
The other primary reason Angone gives for our compulsive showing up is less tangible: “Facebook,” he says, “is Love/Hate at its finest.” He compares logging on over and over to chowing down on potato chips “no matter how nauseous it makes you feel.” In “Facebook: it’s like high school all over again,” author Adrienne Erin concludes: “Punk band Bowling for Soup has a song entitled High School Never Ends. Looking at Facebook, I’m forced to agree with them. And so continues my love/hate relationship with Facebook.” Is a “love/hate” relationship just a trauma bond in friendlier terms? A rapid cycling between “love” and “hate” which we might really call false expectation and inevitable disappointment? There’s a built-in short-sightedness to the trauma bond. The same myopia is endemic to being a teenager. In 1967, the psychologist David Elkind made several conclusions about adolescent egocentrism. One of Elkind’s theories was that of the “imaginary audience,” which is “the adolescent’s assumption that his or her preoccupation with personal appearance and behavior is shared by everyone else.” He argued that “the presence of an admiring or fault-finding (imaginary) audience helps to account for the heightened self-consciousness characteristic of early adolescence.”
I think we’ve found our Lucy. When we’re adolescent or thinking in an adolescent way, we torture ourselves by imagining a relationship, a dialogue that doesn’t really exist between ourselves and “an admiring or fault-finding audience.” Lucy is of our own making: she’s the one we engage with when we passively peruse Facebook, the imagined collective voice of our Facebook friends. Thus Facebook becomes the conduit enabling our self-harm, which is somehow scarier than if there were an actual bad guy we could walk away from—Charlie Brown would be a lot less funny if Lucy was actually a ghost of his own imagining. When we engage actively with Facebook, we seem to dispel this ghost. As in a horror movie, when a flesh and blood character draws the protagonist back to reality, when we interact with our real friends on Facebook we create and capitalize on actual social capital.
Science and experience show us there’s a good way and a bad way to Facebook. When we’re Facebooking the “bad” way we’re in arrested development, locked in to our adolescent, self-destructive cycle. The prescription to “just be mindful” is too simplistic, because Facebook users can become addicted to their projection of an imagined, critical audience. We have to be willing to graduate emotionally. In other words, we could give Facebook up as no good, but would that really empower us to have healthy relationships with other social media? If we want out of our self-harm, we’re going to have to do the work to grow up, whether we stay on Facebook or no.