There are two kinds of people: those who are as dependent on Facebook as their morning coffee, and those who are not. I observed this firsthand on vacation last week. I almost completely unplugged. My traveling companions on the other hand, interspersed beach fun with checking their feeds and updating as much as several times per day, the powerful pull of the social network mimicking the ocean outside.
No wonder. Facebook commands about 1.4 billion monthly active users according to Statista, which includes grandparents, long-lost loves, former BFFs, all of whom log in faithfully to chronicle the past and present into a virtual album of digital memories. That and the fact that humans have an unquenchable thirst to belong and to present ourselves in the best possible light.
For this reason, we are loathe to leave it, even though we are creeped out by the popup ads directly related to our web searches that show how we’re handing over piles of personal data to a mega corporation for free. And despite evidence that it makes us sad, disengaged, and often angry.
Fortunately, there is a way to unfriend Facebook and it doesn’t involve abruptly quitting cold turkey. Like coming off an addiction to alcohol or drugs, science indicates that such a shift off social media and internet consumption can trigger withdrawal symptoms.
However, a small study by researchers at University of Chicago and the Chinese University of Hong Kong initially proposed that substituting one social network for another could prevent the user from going back to Facebook, much the same way a nicotine patch helps bridge the cravings from quitting smoking and helps keep the smoker from reverting to old habits.
The experiment, part of a larger project to study people’s behavior towards their favorite foods or products, was conducted among 167 undergraduate students who said they checked Facebook at least once a day. To test the researchers’ prediction, the students were required them to abstain from logging in for three days and received an online questionnaire the night following the first and second day of abstinence. They were told they could resume using Facebook after completing both. The only difference was that one group was asked to list other social networks they used during the time they were off Facebook. In this way, they were reminded that Instagram, WhatsApp, and WeChat were still available as means to connect with their friends and family.
Thirty-seven participants couldn’t go the distance at all. But when the Facebook ban was lifted, those who stayed the course who weren’t prompted to talk about other social media sites said they were looking forward to logging back in. Those who indulged elsewhere didn’t miss Facebook after not having access for three days.
The researchers pointed out that the substitute had to have the same value for the users in order for them not to crave Facebook. Indeed, Instagram provides the visuals we so often scroll through in our news feeds while the chat apps offer a means to send instant messages, just like we can on Facebook.
It may also explain why other social networks such as upstart Ello, have failed to provide a satisfying alternative to Facebook. Though the buzz surrounding Ello—which originally billed itself as the anti-Facebook—has died down even after scoring $5.5 million in funding and hiring a CMO, most people signed up for the promise of an ad-free experience, but fail to follow through on a daily basis (I’m one of them).
Certainly the sheer amount of information available on Facebook can be cause enough to blame for creating a rabbit hole so deep it’s hurting daily productivity. Nielsen’s recent report shows the average American spends about six and a half hours per month looking at Facebook on their computer and nearly eight hours per month on their smartphone. In contrast, Instagram only takes up 3 hours 40 minutes per person per month via the mobile app.
Since most workplaces discourage whipping out the smartphone to check social updates all day long, it’s likely that substituting one of these other networks for Facebook may just be the key to quitting for good.