Trinity Western University English and communications double major Hannah Jenkins has changed the way she uses Facebook, but it took a media fast of three months for her to see why she should.
Each spring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Robert Doede, PhD, puts social media addiction to the test. For a 5% bonus credit his Philosophy 210 students are challenged to abstain from all social and traditional media throughout the three month semester and journal about their experiences. Only the strong succeed, giving up things like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, videogames, television and movies. Doede says that out of a typical class of 35 only about 12 seek the challenge, and by the end of the semester only four to six are still “media abstinent.”
While social media sites like Facebook provide an easy connection to significant people in our lives, Doede sees the downside of these sites first-hand. He says, “Students can’t wait to get out of class to update, find out if anyone commented on their page or sent them anything. Their spare time is being more and more devoted to keeping so-called friends apprised of their lives and satisfying their own voyeuristic interests in others’ lives, to the point that schoolwork can be surrounded by the anxieties of updating.”
21-year-old, Hannah Jenkins decided to take Doede up on his challenge. Until taking the class she, like all her peers, had been a big user of Facebook. Jenkins shares how she would spend hours non-stop playing around on Facebook and recalls that, “afterward I felt completely numb, drained and devoid of all humanity.”
Doede says that students partaking in the fast share with him in their journals that, as they abstain from media, they see a decrease in anxiety, have more time, notice their shopping habits change, and lose weight, and their grade point average generally increases. Doede also says that, “Some get bored immediately because they were so addicted to such high levels of stimuli. They were constantly checking and updating sites that it had kept their lives in perpetual motion and, therefore, they don't call upon and develop their own internal resources for entertainment."
The correlation between attention and anxiety is where Doede sees just how these sites are damaging. “Attention is something that diminishes as there are more demands on students’ time in terms of information access and our world. Our culture provides an over abundance of information access. We have so much we can’t linger on anything in particular or access anything for long because then we are losing out,” says Doede. This creates a subtle anxiety from within us as we try to be as efficient and as rapid-fire as possible in as many domains of our life as possible.”
“At first when I went off Facebook I found it really difficult,” says Jenkins. “A big feature of it was events and when you aren’t on Facebook you are disconnected from invitations. There is also a lot of anxiety around responding to people and projecting the right image of yourself. I was anxious about making sure I had the right photos up.”
In one of her entries Jenkins writes, “I think Facebook and meaningless television (which is not all television) owe a huge percentage of their success to people being dissatisfied with their lives. In our modern brilliance, we have invented ways to avoid our shortcomings instead of looking them in the eye and overcoming them. Screens are too easy, too accessible and too freeing to ignore. They offer an escape from reality but for so many people they become the reality, and the inadequacies which they were trying to escape simply mount higher.”
Since her media fast, Jenkins has made major changes to how she uses her account on Facebook. Today she doesn’t have a “wall”, she has privacy settings that allow only her to view her photos, and has deleted over 400 “friends” that she has only peripheral contact with, opting to keep those friends that she has meaningful relationships with. She still gets invited to events and her “inbox” is re-directed to her email account. For Jenkins, her three month abstinence from Facebook produced a less stressful life, and she ended up reading more instead of surfing aimlessly on the site.
Doede believes social networking sites are only going to get more sophisticated and will in fact morph into new forms of social mediation that will entice us to keep up with their increasingly inhuman pace. He says, “If we are not extremely careful in how we allow these sites to enter our lives, we will find our capacities to attend to other humans with the care and sensitivity they deserve subtly yet profoundly diminished.”
Jenkins says, “I think 100 years from now Facebook will be written up in textbooks to show how it changed the way western society communicated.”
Trinity Western University, in Langley, B.C., is an independent Christian liberal arts and sciences university enrolling approximately 4000 students. TWU offers 42 undergraduate majors, ranging from biotechnology, education, nursing, theatre and music, to psychology, communications and biblical studies. TWU's 16 graduate degree programs include counseling psychology, business, theology, linguistics, and leadership, and interdisciplinary degrees in English, philosophy and history. TWU holds Canada Research Chairs in Dead Sea Scroll Studies, Developmental Genetics and Disease, and Interpretation, Religion & Culture.
Last Updated: 2009-07-22