My addiction started with curiosity. Don’t they all?
In 2008, a close friend told me about Facebook, and my first thought was “that’s juvenile.” But as I was pregnant with my second child and living in a new town where my adult interactions were limited to sing-alongs moderated by a clown puppet, I wasn’t exactly one to judge. One peek couldn’t hurt, I thought, so I did, during my toddler’s naptime.
Before she awoke, I’d put up my profile.
The next week I received a friend request from an ex. He’d moved out West and become a psychiatrist, a fitting profession for the biggest mind warp I’d ever dated. His profile picture revealed a pretty wife and a new baby, so why was he friending me? “Thanks, but I’ll pass,” I responded. I began to see the entertainment value of Facebook.
My second child was born on Facebook. My oldest started preschool, Obama was elected, I had a third baby, and the Iraq war drew to a close. My mother-in-law joined Facebook. A woman posted a derogative article about C-sections and I argued with her. I made peace with an old friend I’d had a painful falling-out with. Sandy Hook split my heart open and I posted “F*** the NRA.”
My dad’s best friend told him I said the F-word on Facebook. A woman posted something about Obama taking away her guns and I argued with her. I formed a private group of fellow terrified mothers, and we comforted each other. I stopped arguing with people on Facebook.
I unfriended a fellow school mom because her boyfriend’s profile picture showed a swastika on his forehead. I saw her the next week at the grocery store and avoided eye contact.
My aunt joined Facebook, as did my entire high school graduating class. I looked at their families and said how lovely, congratulations, I’m sorry for your loss.
Back then I was a full-time mother in need of adult conversation, and Facebook filled a void. Then my kids reached school-age, and I needed to tackle writing projects I’d put off. Alone at my computer, I couldn’t resist Facebook’s siren song. I’ll just peek at my messages, I’d think, and there would almost always be a message. “Can you believe what my neighbor commented?” “What time is the swimming event again?” “OMG, look at this! ” and on and on.
What was insidious about those moments was not what was happening, but what wasn’t - namely, my work. An hour later, I’d repeat the cycle: another message here, a funny article there. The increments of time were tiny grains of sand in the hourglass. They added up.
In the business world, the term “opportunity cost” refers to the losses inherent in each action we take, the benefits we could have gained had we made an alternative choice. I began to look at the eight years I spent on Facebook in terms of its opportunity cost. Yes, I’d reunited with college friends and gained a community that had buoyed me through some dark days as a stay-at-home-mom. But what had I given up? Could I have finished writing that biography, learned to play the guitar my father gave me, joined more real-life communities?
Women, I’ve noticed, are especially susceptible to Facebook’s charms, maybe because we’re wired - or socialized - for interpersonal connection. Facebook was my Hindu goddess Kali, who creates and destroys in equal measure. The sounding board and community it provided me with obliterated other activities. My husband and I used to discuss our days over the dishes at night. Gradually, he took on the task solo while I checked messages on my phone.
A former literature major, I once devoured a novel a week. Now my book pile taunted me, unread, from my nightstand. I grew absent around my children. “If you’re playing on Facebook, I get screen time too,” my five-year-old would say. It was a fair point.
The genius of Facebook is that it provides roots in a rootless world, a virtual way to unite the friendly faces from each stage of our lives.
It’s no revelation that communities aren’t what they used to be, that colleges and jobs toss us haphazardly across the country, away from our family and friends. The genius of Facebook is that it provides roots in a rootless world, a virtual way to unite the friendly faces from each stage of our lives.
They’re lovely extras in our Truman Show, but they’re not free. You’re paying for them with your time and attention. Take that hilarious woman from your college Medieval Lit class. She brings a convivial warmth to your Facebook life, but in the time you spent commiserating with her over bra shopping with your tween, your real-life tween was trying to tell you something important about her day that you ignored.
Or at least I did.
I’m not suggesting that we all deactivate our Facebook accounts. Even if we wanted to, it’s an invaluable marketing and networking tool that many people need for their work, including me. But if we can’t quit Facebook completely, we owe it to ourselves to take a hard look at its opportunity cost.
Consciously or not, we make a choice to give something up every time we log onto Facebook. What that something is might surprise you.
Every year for the past three years, I’ve taken a three-month detox from Facebook. I’m amazed during these breaks how easily my life regains its former architecture, but I can’t stay away forever. Recently, I fell back into my old distracted cycle, my same stalled productivity. My college friends included me on a lively thread about summer plans and work/life balance. This group of mothers had enriched so many lonely days I’d had as a new mom, and I wanted to stay and play. But there was an article to write, a child’s homework question to answer, and a life to be lived offline.
I now know there are steps I can take to change how I think, to find the true me again. That is why I am going to take better care of myself this year. In fact, that’s the only resolution I care to make. For both my own health, and as an important example to my kids, this year, I'm resolving to practice a kindness that starts from within.