Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

SocietyDecember 10, 2016

Dear Ms X: Am I addicted to Facebook? A Hello Caller therapy session special

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

When does heavy social media use become a problem? In-house therapist Ms X discusses good and bad Facebook usage, and strategies for breaking the network’s vice-like hold on your day-to-day life.

This week I talk to a reader who asked for advice on escaping the sticky grip of social media. Our caller reported that he was conscious of spending too much time away from his kids and partner trapped in the time suck of Facebook  And haven’t we all be there?

After I got his letter I decided that that I probably had more questions than answers and that a kind of email therapy session/conversation might be more useful so we launched into the following exchange:

Dear Ms. X

Lately I’ve been contemplating an extremely first world dilemma, so I thought I might consult you for some advice.

The issue is to do with social media, more specifically Facebook, and the ever increasing part it seems to play in my day to day life. Of course I am cognisant of the particular advantages that come with being hooked into this social network, such as staying in touch with my extended family overseas and allowing them to remain connected with our family life through news and photos etc (in fact this is the reason I originally opened a Facebook account), having access to a wide range of media/keeping abreast of current events, organising occasions (I am a musician who finds Facebook very helpful in this aspect), and very occasionally just having a good old vent (albeit to a virtual echo chamber where I’m more or less “preaching to the converted” though).

Oh…and GIFs and memes…could I possibly live without these?

The problem lies with what seems to have become an almost pathological compulsion to spend my otherwise valuable time clicking, scrolling and posting and otherwise wasting my life in this world.

I’ve noticed that quite often I have to ask my children or my partner to repeat what they’ve just said to me (much to their chagrin), due to the fact that I’m off in the Facebook zone.

How often have I simply been doing something passive like watching a film, only to suddenly realise it’s on pause and I’ve spent that last half hour checking FB notifications and posting inanities, probably about the film I’m (supposed to be) watching?

The desire to continually be opening this application and staring into my phone is perplexing and I’d hate for my children to decide that this is normal behavior.

For me to be at the park with them or doing any other such activities, whist not being actively “in the moment” with them – moments I’ll never get back mind you – feels like a kind of tragedy.

What is it that makes this social network so addictive? In my broader life, I despise being compelled to do anything really, so having this baffling compulsion to interact with some computerised virtual world, which is in actual fact a quite a skewed vision of life, to the detriment of my real world – it’s ludicrous, isn’t it?

So what to do? Ditch it for good? Just take a break and see what it’s like? Do a kind of “Dry July” type of thing? (But what about the GIFs and memes?!)

I’m not entirely sure that this network hasn’t insidiously downloaded itself into my universe in such a way that I can do without it now.

And so here I am Ms X, holding my virtual breath and pleading with you for a digital life jacket as I continue to sink beneath the burgeoning sea of social data…

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Hello Caller!

So, thanks for doing this. You are the first person to try a email therapy chat ( I have to work up some snappier branding for it than that but anyway..).

Could you explain firstly why you joined FB and what about it worked for you at first? – Ms. X

So seven or eight years ago I was blissfully ignorant of Facebook and the whole concept of social media. I mean, I knew it was there, I just had no interest in being a part of it. It seemed unnecessary and quite intrusive. Oh how things have changed! At the time, my partner was embracing the world of Facebook, which seemed a bit silly to me, but fairly understandable as she was from the South Island and found it a very useful way to keep in touch with her people.

Soon after that, we had our beautiful twins together and Facebook became an integral tool for sharing our  lives as new parents and the lives of our babies with the family who would probably only be able to see them in person a couple of times a year.

Tragically, just a month before the boy’s first birthday and without warning, my partner passed away suddenly in her sleep and my world changed forever.

One small part of that change was deciding to open my own Facebook page. I didn’t have the password for hers but I felt that it was important that I continue to share the lives of the twins with her family, as she had been doing prior to her passing.

At the time, that was the only reason I thought I’d ever want or need a FB page… but life continued to change.

Having wrapped up my business more or less straight away after that and committing to a temporary life as a solo, stay at home parent, it soon became clear that adult company would be more difficult to come by. It required a great deal of effort and energy for someone who was really pretty shattered, to get up and organise two babies to go out in the world and socialise.

This is where Facebook began to assume more importance in my life and took on an unexpected role as a window out of my home life and the baby bubble, into the outside world where people were going about their lives. I still wanted a part of that world I guess, and Facebook became the enabler.

Still the years have passed and life has changed still (for the better), but Facebook remains and has become such an ingrained part of my daily routine that it almost appears essential, even though I know it isn’t!

Oh Caller, I am so sorry for your loss. Words feel pretty inadequate in these situations so I won’t try to use too many right now in case I mess up.

But I am really touched by how FB was so useful for you after your partner passed away. It strikes me as being almost the ideal tool for someone in your position. You needed the outside world but in small and precise doses. And it allowed you to connect back into a social world when you were ready.

I am wondering if after what you went though you might have developed a perfectly natural reliance on Facebook. It became a stand-in for your local cafe/pub/workplace/parents group. That would seem completely understandable and frankly a more beautiful goal than what Zuckerberg ever had in mind.

So I have some questions for you. Given that you are contemplating an exit from Facebook, have you considered how you would shift the relationships you have on there into real  life? And are there some people that should just be left there..

The relationships I have on FB fall into a number of categories I suppose. The first being close friends and family, the relationships that were there before Facebook and would continue without.

Then there are absent friends and family, who are most easily reached through the FB platform. Those friendships work in real life, even if they would become very occasional interactions.

Other than that, there are a bunch of friendships I have made on Facebook, that have materialised into real world friendships, and many of those would endure without the digital aspect. That’s an unexpected blessing really!

Other friendships, for instance like those people you used to go to school with, who you lost touch with years ago – usually for good reason? We reconnect with them out of novelty I think, or perhaps it’s nostalgia? I’m not sure, but I suspect those relationships would go back to the void without Facebook, wouldn’t they?

Then there are randoms I’ve never even met. Friends of friends or whatever, who are everything from delightfully amusing, to frustratingly ignorant. It would take some actual human effort to keep in touch with such characters and that may just prove too much really. Let’s not forget all the Facebook friends deleted over the years. People whose true colours seem to come out when they feel emboldened in their own echo chambers and espouse things that are disappointing or even shocking.

I mean no one needs 500 friends do they? No one has time for that in reality. As long as our nearest and dearest are accessible, our lives are full.

I am interested in what you say about the addictive nature of FB and I think many of us can relate to the pull of it. Have you been addicted to other things? Smokes/drinks etc? I guess I am wondering if you have wrestled with an addiction to something before and what you did in that situation?

I wouldn’t say that in my life I’ve ever had any kind of hopeless addiction before. No doubt I’ve always been a bit of a hedonist, a bit of a lush, but I’ve never had any trouble cutting out certain behaviours when necessary.

For instance, in my twenties I certainly was partial to giving the old Cheech n Chongs (That is marijuana young people) a fair nudge on a daily basis, but almost without thinking about it, when the novelty (of years) finally wore off, I just stopped cold, with no problem whatsoever.

I’m pretty sure it would be the same for me with a social media ‘addiction’, were I to consider that I had such a condition. I guess one of the things that keeps one involved in certain behaviours is that you can’t be totally sure if you’ll really struggle without your hit, whether it’s worth the potential pain for uncertain gain. But I have actually taken a hiatus from Facebook once in the past, for a month or so I think, and to be honest, I don’t even recall what it was like!  It was so devoid of trauma that I don’t even really remember doing it.

Have you considered limiting methods? Like only setting aside 15 mins at a time or some of the social media blocking apps that block you for a certain time. Would something like that appeal as a potential solution? like an e-cigarette if you will.

I have considered some of those apps to limit one’s time online and on Facebook etc, but I’m one of those people for whom it’s kind of all or nothing. Much like the weed, I didn’t ween myself off, I just quit. I’m the same with the internet as with most things, I think. I’m either in or I’m out.

What way are you leaning right now?  Pull the pin and trial detox or stick it out till your head explodes during  Trumps inauguration ? (Sorry – I might be talking about myself with that last example Caller).

My feeling at the moment, for a few weeks now actually, is that there might be a period of Facebook deactivation in my near future.

I wouldn’t be able to work with just imposing certain time constraints on myself. I’m not that strong! I think I’ll just keep bumbling along, liking, posting, lol’ing etc etc, until something in me finally says “oh FFS man!”, and I’ll be out of there for a while.

No doubt I’ll revel in all the spare time, whilst still wondering in the back of my mind what the dankest memes of the day are and where Vincent Vega has found himself this week though!

But I guess being outside the network is a big decision these days isn’t it? It’s actually a more significant position to take than being involved, because let’s face it, most people have opted in and social media is a now a tie that binds the majority of us in this age. To opt out is a deliberate stance that one needs to have good personal reasons for.

Okay, I am getting you are  an all or nothing guy. I completely admire your position on not wanting to be zombie Dad, constantly on your phone rather than paying attention to your kids and also how you want to model attentiveness to them by doing it.

Actually as I was typing that I do remember having to virtually knock a book out of my mother’s hands to get her attention as a child and my own kids have complained about how attentively I listen to the news.

So I guess there is always something that can distract us and we need to decide if that distraction is an important part of caring for ourselves intellectually and emotionally so that we are better parents/partners or if we are just distracted arseholes.

Personally, I try to limit my time on social media if I feel like I am drifting into a vortex of meaningless clicks. I don’t feel like I am addicted but that it is just a dangerously easy thing to do, just like you describe it.

I am going to be really interested to see if you do exit. Obviously you will have to email and let me know because you won’t be on the FB.

I’m sure there would be benefits for me to pull the pin, as there would be for most folks. Being a generally well adjusted individual though, I’m just not sure that my reasons have reached that tipping point yet, where more harm is being done than good. Anyway…I’m off to look at cats being arseholes.

[a few days later…]

Thanks Ms. X, this has been useful in helping me crystalise the thoughts I had around this. Maybe it’s a bigger issue than I thought initially, given I had quite a bit to say when you asked.

Whatever I decide I think I just want to stop being such a zombie with my phone. I want to pay attention to the things right in front of me, which I guess is what all that mindfulness stuff is about. Maybe I will go and develop a ‘living in the present moment’ app immediately!

Got a question for Ms. X? Send an email to, ideally including key information such as your age and gender.

All messages will be kept in the strictest confidence and your name will not be published. If you wish to remain completely anonymous, consider using a free remailer service like Send Email.

Need help now?

Lifeline 0800 543 354

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OUTline (LGBT helpline) 0800 688 5463

More helplines can be found at the Mental Health Foundation’s directory. For a list of Māori mental health services, click here.

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