Social media networks have changed the way individuals communicate by increasing the number of people with which a user can interact without dependency on geographic location or time. This creates access to more content from more sources with more people more often and more quickly. Facebook, which remains the leading social network, provides accounts for roughly two thirds of Americans (Perrin and Anderson, 2019), and although it facilitates more opportunities in communication, there is widespread concern about its negative impacts on user well-being (Allcott, et al., 2019). This seems to only be exacerbated by Facebook remediation, where new features and functionality are constantly released with the end goal of keeping users engaged with the platform (Sloane, 2017). This environment has changed human relationships with communication by creating a greater sense of urgency in the user to share and respond to information (Debatin, et al., 2009).
And this directly causes an increase in how much time individuals spend on social media. According to a Global Web Index survey, Americans spend an average of 2 hours and 6 minutes interacting with some type of social media platform, a trend that is expected to continue (Salim, 2019). To put it simply, American Facebook users are now constantly connected to their accounts and to each other. But does this continual connection through Facebook have a positive impact on individual communication? More than ever, there is a concern of how Facebook integrates into daily life, and if its intention of keeping people connected is causing urgent habituation habits. This paper aims to explore the ways in which this type of immediate and urgent communication negatively affects human behavior and wellbeing, and use the perspective of three areas of recent research: routine and ritualization, emotional regulation, and distraction and attentional resources.
Routinization and ritualization
Research has discovered emerging patterns in the frequency in which users engage with their Facebook account. Reports by the IDC found that the general population checks Facebook an average of 14 times daily (IDC, 2013). And in one academic study, it was observed that users checked their accounts multiple times per day, but for very short periods of time, as opposed to the expected fewer but longer sessions (Debatin, et al., 2009). The majority of users report that popular activities included reading their news feed, responding to friends’ updates, and messaging (Debatin, et al., 2009). This type of frequent account checking is leading to an “always connected” behavior that is becoming pervasive, particularly among younger adults. And this seems to be linked to the ease and convenience of being socially connected and interacting with a larger amount of people, which brings a higher level of self-gratification to an individual (IDC, 2013). Some now define this behavior as ritualized viewing, where users engage in habitual interaction with a given media platform. In this type interaction, users are no longer performing goal-directed tasks to meet a need, such as logging into Facebook in order to respond directly to an anticipated message (Rubin, 2006). Instead, they perform passive frequent tasks, which do not fulfill a goal-directed directed need, such as scrolling through news feeds. These more passive tasks do fulfill an emotional need for constant gratification, which some call the “fear of missing out (Wallen, n.d.).”
This ritualization is only exacerbated by Facebook functionality like mobile games, push notifications, video hosting, etc. that are designed intentionally to capitalize off user instant gratification loops. Everytime a user receives a Facebook “like,” game points, a message, etc., the brain produces dopamine, which results in a pleasurable sensation (Weinschenk, n.d.). Some technologists think that this type of dopamine-driven feedback exploits a vulnerability in human psychology and is actually leaving users feeling more empty (Wang, 2017). Socially, Facebook users are constantly interacting, but physically and emotionally, they are alone. Studies suggest that constant interaction with Facebook may cause users to substitute it for real-life interactions and relationships (Amatenstein, no date). One research study concluded that the more frequently users checked their Facebook accounts, the greater perceived isolation they had (Primack, et al., 2017).
There is research to suggest that interacting frequently with Facebook reduces impulse control both online and in real-life (Smith, L., 2003). Users that have large Facebook networks, and post often, receive frequent and immediate responses to their posts and messages. This provides immediate accessibility to Facebook as a vehicle for emotion release, and encourage users to post impulsively with more intentionally negative and reactional content such as ranting, venting, etc. (Ligget and Ueberall, 2016). This also has been shown to have an emotional contagion effect. In an infamous study conducted directly by Facebook, called the “Facebook Emotion Experiment,” the company intentionally manipulated user news feeds to include either more negative or positive posts. It was found that those users that saw more negative posts in their news feed, in turn, made reacted with more negative posts (Kramer, et al., 2014). In other words, not only does Facebook cause its frequent users to act more emotionally impulsive, but this behavior is also infectious to a user’s Facebook friends.
Distraction and attentional resources
The increase in the urgency and frequency of checking Facebook creates problems with human attentional resources, which distracts the individual from other tasks. Many individuals believe they may be able to multitask, but on a cognitive level, they are actually switching attention rapidly between tasks. Multitasking has been proven to harm work performance, deteriorate cognitive functioning, and even threaten human safety (Wang and Tchernev, 2012). This detriment to human productivity is only compounded when Facebook is involved. Because Facebook users show a greater habitualized behavior, it has also been shown that they have a higher incidence of multitasking (Judd, 2013). When compared to non-Facebook users, Facebook users increasingly attempted to multitask. Unfortunately, this type of Facebook multitasking has also been linked to poorer academic performance (Marone, et al., 2018), low memory recall (Friend, et al., 2013), and a decrease in self-esteem (Beuckels, et al., 2017).
Additionally, it has been proven the faster a user attends to a media distraction, the worse they will perform than compared to those that wait a couple minutes before responding (Marone, et al., 2018). This is a phenomena called continuous partial attention, coined by the ex-Apple and Microsoft consultant Linda Stone (Griffey, 2018). Continuous partial attention is not exclusive to Facebook, and extends to other similar social media platforms and devices of the Information Age. However, this phenomena is more pronounced amongst Facebook users that also use other platforms and technologies. In a study by Brandwatch, it was found that Facebook was one of the most checked social media platforms amongst users that had accounts on other platforms such as SnapChat, YouTube, Instagram, etc. (Smith, K., 2016). By urgently and constantly checking Facebook, it is impossible for individuals to fully attend to any external task. On a psychological level, the stress hormones produced during this type of behavior induces a type of addiction response, which is related to the risky behavior of checking both Facebook while attending to another important task, like driving. In short, Facebook users are becoming physically addicted to their risky multitasking behavior. And the faster the self-gratification feedback loop is fulfilled, the stronger the addiction becomes.
To say that urgent Facebook interaction has no positive effects on individual behavior or well-being would be false. The platform has done much to connect individuals for good causes such as social activism, news, and individual expression. For example, the mass disaster fundraising effort during Hurricane Sandy grew quickly due to fast and frequent socially-shared content on Facebook (Petronzio, 2012). Another example is Facebook’s functionality to create exclusive groups, which allow people to connect and grow through online communities. One of these groups is Football Without Borders, an online community that connects asylum seekers and refugees through the internal love of soccer (Waller, B., n.d.). Users are able to connect with like-minded individuals to share content and converse in a safe and private environment.
Some technology companies recognize that their products are creating an environment of constantly-connected users, and they are making an effort to help them. For example, Apple recently released its Screen Time feature, which allows users to set limits on social media usage, Facebook included (Liptak, 2019). They also pushed 3rd-party technology companies to remove features that blocked parents from setting restrictions on apps targeted to children. However, counter to this, Facebook continues to release new tools to users and brands that increase the frequency of user feedback loop, only creating more urgency for constant communication. Ultimately, the responsibility of reclaiming control over Facebook use, will at the hands of the user.
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