Facebook Addiction Disorder (FAD)
Michael Fenichel, Ph.D.
It is not difficult to observe the ubiquity of "Internet Addiction" as a phenomenon and/or accepted part of every day life in the Digital Age. Much less mentioned is the even more pervasive "cell phone addiction", "Crackberry addiction", "gaming addiction", or "texting addiction". Are we now at risk of seeing a vast presentation - a cultural commonality - of "Facebook Addiction Disorder"? (Or is sometimes FAD just a fad?) :-)
Some may argue that since these have become just as much a part of daily life as water coolers and word processing programs, these cannot be painted as "addictive" so much as just another daily life tool in the world of the 21st Century. However, just as "newbie" infatuation with the connectedness and immediacy of email and web surfing led to a societal concern about "Internet Addiction" or pathological Internet use, the phenomenon of social networking has left the arena of personal and group networking to a very public and constant arena which allows for strong reinforcement of exhibitionist, voyeuristic, &/or interaction-seeking behavior, often in combination. Add to the instant texting component the ability to post pictures and videos, play pop-psychology and pop-culture games and quizzes ("applications"), follow (slightly less closely than Twitter) the every move, decision, feeling, and random thought of everyone in countless networks, and also maintain a homepage/"wall" for all to see and visit, and this is the best possible recipe for significant (behavioral) addiction, as it fills a large and "normal" part of so many lives. Whether it is more of an "addiction" than say ice cream, or "staying connected", or talking, reading, gambling, or excessive online/TV/cellphone activity (to the extent it interferes with other necessary and/or "healthy" behavior), is no doubt individual. But it is only a matter of time before large numbers fall prey to the lures of a 24/7 social network with so many wonderful things to offer, a home among friends and shared applications (aka games, quizzes, personality-types "tests", awards, gifts and various "silly stuff") not to mention sharing laughs and creative feedback via photos, graphics, videos and more.
Need evidence for the pervasiveness of Facebook? If you have a Facebook account, you already know: Real and imagined friends, f2f and online acquaintances, school buddies from the past, ex-spouses, military leaders, even the President of the United States, all appreciate the power of "having a Facebook" presence. (This turns out to be much more so than with Second Life's initial promise, perhaps because of the ease of use and fading of novelty.) The amazing thing is that, like cell phones, nobody seems to notice the vast amount of time and energy - at work, at home, and now while on the move - people are devoting to Facebook. It has become a given. An article on computer hardware for photographers (Shutterbug, May 2009, p.95) advises, "If you need a PC to access your e-mail and Facebook accounts when you're on the road..." to consider specific small mobile PC's. Commercial television features closing credits inviting viewers to follow-up via Facebook or Twitter. More and more links on web pages invite "sharing" on Facebook or RSS feeds or Twitter. We're all connected, hooray! And for some the opportunities are pure ecstacy, both for the social networking component (which was at the heart of the idea in the first place, albeit targeted at students) and for the games and contests which can be more of a time sponge than any prior computer diversion known to wo/man, such as solitaire or randomly surfing the web.
One of the ironies is that the very people who might otherwise be working with people professionally to treat addictions, social isolation, etc., seem to be themselves among the most active Facebookers. Admittedly drawn from a limited sample, it is nonetheless overwhelming to see how much time is devoted to things like determining what crayon color one is, or who is the best at Bejeweled Blitz - and these are often mental health professionals who assumedly spend at least some time off of Facebook, and might be able to endure a day (or hour) or two without going through withdrawal. However, many people have so integrated Facebook as a part of normal life - "I wake up in the morning and check Facebook" has overtaken waking up, getting dressed, and finding/checking the cell phone - that it has become as much a part of the (invisible) tapestry of normal daily life as using the telephone or checking email. For better and worse. Like many Internet tools, this can be both an opportunity and challenge, and for many it is easy to strike a perfect blend. Students - who I have recently observed taking "breaks" from homework to take quizzes on what kind of element, lover, animal, serial killer, doctor or rock star one most resembles - have already integrated everything from Facebook to texting to I-phones, AIM, SMS, and Tivo into "normal daily life". But there is seemingly a new "newbie" experience among oldsters who seem to enjoy the same treats which were intended for college students and then co-opted by high school students as well.
As with all potentially "addictive"online activities, people vary in their involvement, some periodically "checking in" to stay in touch, others checking once or twice a day, as a supplement to phone and e-mail checking, and some seemingly spending quite substantial portions of time in activities which might be called creative, self-revealing, competitive, or purely social. Different age groups focus on different important activities, of course, students often sharing woes about assignments or gossip about peers, as well as creative videos and self-affirming photos or quiz results, some adults checking in occasionally or only when notified of incoming messages (to inbox or wall), still others invariably posting multiple messages every day relating to mundane daily life activities, or quiz results, or feeling states of the moment. One may wonder: Is this happening in the presence of clients? Co-workers? While supposedly conversing online with another person? At the expense of Real Life (RL), or to be more accurate, Non-Online Life?
I have reported on some of the research and theory pertaining to "Internet Addiction", and have (silently) observed what appears to be a commercially-blessed wave of cell-phone and device addiction (as distinct from social networking addiction). But Facebook Addiction Disorder (FAD) appears to me to have the most ingrained and self-reinforcing of all scenarios, reinforcing through immediacy, acclamation, intimacy, shared experience, shared creativity, and the ability to be the complete and total captain of the ship of one's Facebook home page. For some the "apps" seem to be totally compelling, for hours on end, for others Facebook is used more like email, to keep in touch with a group, sometimes serious, sometimes playful, sometimes simply sharing. But the fact of how ingrained Facebook has become culturally is one which is easy to miss, because, well, everybody's doing it! Or so it seems. The irony of who is most pathologically addicted (as opposed to homework, relationship, or work avoidant even without such a seductive companion as Facebook) is that nobody may be left to observe or treat this huge behavioral phenomenon, as everybody is too focused on Walls and apps and networks and finding old & new friends.
When is a friend a friend? When is constant behavior an addiction? Is there such a thing as too much or too little social networking? Who decides? Who asks?
Obviously much of this is rightfully engaging, and also quite healthy. Like most activities, moderation and integration are key. Those that may seriously label and treat FAD as a behavioral addiction will clearly need to use context in determining if a behavior has become demonstrably harmful to overall social, work, or (f2f) interpersonal efficacy. For many people, especially those not already invested in maintaining personal homepages, blogs, photo-sharing collections, IM-ing networks, etc., Facebook offers the perfect menu of opportunity. It may be similar to the proverbial "kid in the candy store" who cannot turn away from every temptation in sight, for hours of time supposedly spent on work, homework, housework, or relationship work, who may have a problem, if not "disorder". It is when one cannot leave the continuous activation/reinforcement of a daily (or hourly or constant) activity that one may surmise it has become a problem. For others, it's a wonderful candy store available whenever one is in the mood for sweets or hanging out with friends online or checking in - without the need to do so on a constant and urgent basis.
Look for the next stage: "How to Tell if You're a Facebook Addict". And then, can it be long before we see specialized treatments for FADs?