Under happy smiles is addiction's ugly face
New Zealand's Facebook army now totals an estimated 2.7 million users.
That's 80 per cent of the active online population in this country - streets ahead of Australia (71 per cent), Britain (68 per cent) and the United States (69 per cent).
Chances are you've already logged in to Facebook today; you might check in for regular updates while at work and just before you go to bed.
You post a status update and anxiously wait for feedback and approval, or find yourself slightly nauseated - or depressed - after reading yet another post about Jane's dreamy boyfriend who "just can't stop sending her flowers!".
Sound familiar, Facebookers?
Sara Chatwin, a registered psychologist and director of Auckland firm MindWorks, says more and more people are developing unhealthy Facebook habits to the detriment of normal, personable, face-to-face interaction.
"There are people who can't be away from it for any great length of time because they're hooked. They're hooked to news feeds and posts, they're just watching what's going on."
The anonymity of Facebook and the accessibility it gives to people's information feed the addiction, she says.
"There's not a lot of tracking [of Facebook activity], so there's not a lot of judgment so you can basically do whatever you want. It encourages stalking."
A study at York University in Toronto found people with narcissistic tendencies and low-self esteem were among the heaviest users of Facebook.
A Stanford University study found Facebook users consistently overestimated the fun their friends were having - and underestimated their negative experiences - reinforcing the human tendency to think that everyone else is happier than you are.
"Facebook doesn't present who we actually are," Ms Chatwin says. "People can engineer and manufacture the image that they want to put out there."
The social networking website is a useful business tool for disseminating information, and great for keeping in touch with friends overseas, but should not be used to create and develop relationships and friendships.
"It doesn't allow people to interact . . . you're not getting reality and you're not getting to know about that person. You're making judgments [about people] based on nonsense and unreality."
Martin Cocker, chief executive of cyber watchdog Netsafe, says internet addiction is close to being recognised as an official addiction. "We definitely see people who use social media to the detriment of other things in their life - like sports and schoolwork.
"We see it quite a bit with gaming as well, especially social gaming. Often the people who report it to us are concerned about family members or their children."
Facebook is supposed to be a social connector, but it can have the opposite effect, he says.
"There's more to meaningful relationships than telling people what you're doing, or giving something a Facebook ‘like'."
AVOID GETTING HOOKED
Kiwis spent an average of seven hours and 13 minutes on the site last month - slightly less than Australians. So how to keep your Facebook fetish at bay?
- Turn off your email alerts. Or conversely, only go into Facebook if you get an email alerting you to something meaningful, such as a message from a friend or family member or an invite to an event - not every comment on every post.
- Ask yourself what you spend your time on Facebook doing, and if it's not productive or of value to you then give it a rest. Sharing photos, or commenting on a friend's photos, or writing or responding to messages might be of value, but trawling aimlessly through your friends' profiles or your friends' friends' friends profiles does not count as valuable Facebook time.
- Got a big event like a wedding or a work presentation, or even a relatively normal event like a holiday coming up? Take a Facebook break until it's over. This will free you of Facebook distraction, let you prove to yourself you can live without out, and give you some space to assess how healthy your Facebook habit is. Let your friends know you're going offline so they won't feel snubbed and know to contact you another way.
- Pause before you post. While you might find the contents of your lunch box fascinating (do you really?) others are unlikely to be so enamoured. Inane commentary can beget inane commentary, which means you'll spend even more time reading and commenting on something that wasn't worth the bandwidth in the first place.
- Ms Chatwin recommends putting time limits in place for Facebook use, and getting a friend, partner or parent to monitor your usage to help you keep on the straight and narrow.
- Take a sneaky scalpel to your friends list. There are very few people with hundreds of Facebook friends who carry out meaningful relationships with all of them through the site, so weed out those "friends" you never contact. People won't be notified if you de-friend them and chances are many won't even notice.
- Before sending someone a message on Facebook, ask yourself if it would be better to call them or arrange a catch-up. Likewise, if you receive a message from someone, try to respond through another means.
- Tweak your Facebook settings. You can filter your news feed so you only see posts from certain friends and you can also hide or unsubscribe from posts from certain people, groups or applications - and those annoying people who post daily updates on what they're having for dinner.
- If you use the Facebook smartphone app, you can turn off notifications for a range of events, including when someone tags you in a photo, or "likes" something.
TIPS FOR PARENTS
- Facebook's rules prevent anyone younger than 13 from setting up an account - but there's nothing really to stop them. A 2011 Auckland University census of more than 20,000 pupils revealed that about 60 per cent of 12-year-olds, 40 per cent of 11-year-olds and a quarter of 10-year-olds have a profile with Facebook.
- Netsafe's Martin Cocker says parents need to accept social media is an important tool, but parents should assess whether their children spend a reasonable amount of time on such sites and, if necessary, curb their use or encourage them to do other things instead.
Sources: Sara Chatwin, Netsafe, Psychology Today, Nielsen, WikiHow, Facebook, Avoid Facebook, Fairfax.
- The Dominion Post