How I’m overcoming my toxic dependency on Facebook

Washington Post, October 10, 2014

As the summer wound down, I found a letter from my son’s headmaster under some junk on my desk. He was asking the kids to be sure to read two books over the summer. Oops, I thought. This was one I should have read immediately. Even though we bug my son to read, find him books that seem perfect for his taste — usually about dystopian, post-apocalyptic societies — he doesn’t manage to get through too many. There are distractions. Particularly the Internet and social media. Research abounds about Internet use and the young, their drop in reading and their reduced, choppy attention spans.

Of course, social change has always made people worry. I’m sure mothers in the Golden Age of Pericles bemoaned how the world was going to Hades in a handbasket. New technologies make us fear that a precious piece of culture will be lost. Now with the entrenchment of Facebook, people panic about the fate of reading itself.

But are we adults modeling better behavior? I realized that I read less now that I’m so plugged in to social media. In fact, I skipped a bunch of book-group meetings because I didn’t have the time or energy to read. At least this is what I told myself. The truth is that I was on my laptop, clicking so often from e-book to Facebook that I couldn’t stay with a story thread.

I might disparage millennials for their Internet addictions, but it had become hard for me to turn off Facebook. I lost touch with some friends, but that was easy to ignore because I had more than a thousand other “friends” to think about. And I was really thinking about them. I knew about their vacations, their illnesses, their dogs.

I did not realize just how debilitating my behavior was, though, until this summer. Slowly I became aware of a pervasive anxiety. I felt disengaged from my life, floating outside looking in. Old symptoms of depression, which I had been managing pretty well, began to return, especially when I was scrolling down my Facebook page. The pivotal moment came when I started railing about a woman for her huge number of “likes,” no matter how inane her posts. I was actually jealous. “I know I sound crazy,” I said to my husband, meaning, We both know I’m not.

To my surprise, he murmured, “Yeah, you do sound crazy.”

It was a punch in the gut. But I had to admit to myself that for me, Facebook was toxic, a truly ugly dependency.

Help came from where I least expected it: my teenage son. He suggested I get an app called, ironically, SelfControl. This software (for Mac) limits your access to designated Web sites for whatever period of time you want.

The first day, I set it to lock me out of Facebook for three hours. I actually felt scared. What had I done? What if there was something I really wanted to say in those 180 minutes? Pathetic, I know.

I waited out the three hours in brooding silence. I felt kind of empty, like when you start a diet. Without the blue-and-white screen, I had to turn to other ways to fill my time — which is difficult because I am a writer, always online. I went to my favorite coffee place and wrote among the other laptop people — strangers, but real people who breathed, coughed, talked to each other. I wrote for six hours that day.

My life suddenly pressed a lot closer. At first my small constellation of activity was hard to get used to. A week into it, and I still had withdrawal pains, vague needles of worry that I would be left behind — that I was leaving the human race. But after a while, I could see I was only leaving a rat race. I expanded my SelfControl hours.

Still, I have to take it a day at a time. Lately I have allowed myself to get back on Facebook more, and I even post sometimes. I hope to be able to employ a portion-control approach rather than go cold turkey. I fill the pockets of empty space with writing, seeing friends and — oh, yeah! — reading. I got through September’s book-group selection and just started October’s. Neither is very good, but I try to finish them, even though we talk about the books for only about 20 minutes of our two-hour meetings. We are really there to connect and catch up.

It’s not all that different from what people do on Facebook. Yet it is a world apart. There are no photos. No petitions or ice buckets. And no “likes.” We all just like books. And each other.