By Mike McMahan, LPC
For many of us, Facebook has become a regular part of our daily landscape. It has it all: friends, news, entertainment. Most of you probably are reading this link via Facebook. But it’s a habit that has been scrutinized recently, partly due to recent hand-wringing about how “fake news” influenced the recent presidential election. Facebook can also be a source of anxiety or generate negative feelings at this time of year. It is very easy to fall into “keeping up with the Joneses” when it comes to Facebook, as people post pictures of happy families, piles of Christmas and Holiday gifts and so forth. How accurately people portray themselves online is another matter, but it is undoubtedly true that some people experience feelings of depression, isolation and loneliness at this time of year, and Facebook can certainly reinforce those feelings.
And Lifehacker recently published an article about a way to break a Facebook habit, and it is well-grounded in therapeutic principles. The article suggests that the first step to breaking this habit is to examine what are your “triggers” for looking at Facebook. Is it free time? Is it during a commute? Their second step is to, in essence, interrupt this cycle. Once you have discovered the whens (and perhaps whys) of checking Facebook, their suggestion is to read a book instead. They even provide suggestions on how to increase the efficiency of this, which is hiding (or removing) the Facebook app and making the Kindle app more accessible.
As a dedicated book reader, I struggled with their assertion that you can pull up an ebook and read a chapter or two; and I even do the majority of reading on ebook. I could probably make this work with non-fiction, as I really enjoy history, which could be read this way. But I know I couldn’t do this with a novel, as one of the main things I enjoy about fiction is the way it pulls me in and transports me to another realm. That effect would be undermined by reading a paragraph or two at a time.
But the takeaway here does not have to be about just books or just Facebook, necessarily. This is a great template for breaking any negative habit. If you’re trying to break a Facebook habit and don’t want to read, maybe try a game instead, but one that doesn’t have any social media links. Or if you want to set your phone aside entirely, consider something that will have real benefits, such as exercise. And, as this is intended to be a momentary interruption, it doesn’t have to be running a mile. It could be something as simple as doing some stretches or getting up in your office and walking around. Really anything that can replace the Facebook “craving.”
It might be worthwhile to add an additional step to Lifehacker’s method of kicking Facebook. If a client came to me and said “I want to spend less time on Facebook,” I would certainly collaborate with them and discuss the above methods. But what I would also want to know is: what problems is your Facebook use causing in your life? And, how would your life improve if you spent less time on Facebook? It may be that the possible negative impacts outlined above are the reason that someone wants to quit Facebook. But I wouldn’t want to make that assumption, as it could really be any number of reasons. So once that is clarified, as the client “interrupted” Facebook, I would want to monitor whether the expected positive benefits are occurring. If the client said “I want to be more engaged with my spouse,” I would want to know whether after a week or two of interrupting this was occurring. Part of breaking negative habits is reinforcing the positives that occur when the habit is broken. If a person wanted to focus more on their spouse by interrupting Facebook and they did it, but still reported that they didn’t feel engaged, it might be time to look at whether Facebook is the problem. I would want to know “do you still want to decrease Facebook?” I would also ask “what else could be causing you to feel like you’re not spending quality time?” Goals are most easily met when the client can identify concrete benefits. In addition, focusing on successful outcomes may help you identify strengths that you can apply to other situations.
Keep in mind, too, to give yourself room to make mistakes or “slip.” If you don’t meet your goal of reducing Facebook one day, there is always the next. When people are trying to break a habit, whatever it may be, there are going to be bumps in the road. People have a tendency to catastrophize any failure or take an “all or nothing” approach. “I couldn’t do it today, so I can’t do it at all. Might as well give up.” This kind of thinking is one of the key challenges in kicking a habit.
So give yourself time, stick with it and keep interrupting. Before long, you may find yourself achieving your goal. Just think—it could be you’ll get an early start on those dreaded new year’s resolutions!
Mike McMahan, LPC, is a psychotherapist based in San Antonio, Tx.
Therapy Goes POP
Perspectives on therapy and mental health as viewed through the lens of popular culture