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Your Facebook Addiction Maybe Real

An internal Facebook study revealed that a significant percentage of its users find the platform addictive, negatively affecting their sleep, work, parenting, and personal relationships. 

The discussions around the negative impact of Facebook and other similar tech products have been around for a while now. Dissents within tech and experts outside have been vocal about potentially harmful and addictive use of social network platforms. Now internal research of Facebook leaked to WSJ confirms that reality. 

Facebook's internal research found that 1 in 8 of its users shows the "compulsive use of the platform," which negatively affects their sleep, work, parenting, and/or relationships. 

The report validates the long-held belief about the potential negative impact of the incessant use of the social networking platform. The study said roughly 360 million Facebook users may have an "internet addiction," per a Wall Street Journal report

The WSJ report writes: “These patterns of what the company calls problematic use mirror what is popularly known as internet addiction. They were perceived by users to be worse on Facebook than any other major social media platform, which all seek to keep users coming back, the documents show.”

Controlling problematic use

A Facebook team focused on user well-being offered a range of suggestions to curb addictive behavior on the platform such as implementing optional features to encourage breaks and reduce the number of notifications. Facebook has already implemented some of the suggestions. The company said in a statement:

“We have a role to play, which is why we’ve built tools and controls to help people manage when and how they use our services. Furthermore, we have a dedicated team working across our platforms to better understand these issues and ensure people are using our apps in ways that are meaningful to them.”

Facebook, now Meta Platforms Inc, said that it is working on plans to control problematic use of the platform and tackle other issues including body image and mental health challenges.

Nevertheless, Facebook maintains that "problematic use does not equal addiction," and that users are ultimately responsible for their behavior online. Moreover, the company contends that addictive behavior is not limited to Facebook, but also applies to other forms of technology, including television, smartphones, and other social media platforms.  

Facebook shut down its research team in late 2019.

A whistleblower leaked thousands of internal Facebook documents to US Congress and media outlets last month. It led to the Wall Street Journal's Facebook Files series, causing a major crisis for the company.

Designing for engagement 

One of the key metrics social media platforms and a majority of tech products use is engagement and time spent on the platform. The excessive focus on user engagement and time spent has led to programming and design practices that focus on designing addictive products where people come back regularly and spend large amounts of time. This is not Facebook alone, companies like TikTok, Netflix use similar design tactics that make people binge-watch shows on its platform. 

Like most other social network platforms, Facebook makes its money on advertising. The company raked in $84.2 billion in ad dollars in 2020. Its ad sales rely on the platform's ability to keep people engaged. Social media platforms have a proven strategy for achieving this, many experts suggest, by hacking people’s psychological vulnerabilities. 

Many users look for social validation on these platforms in the form of likes and comments. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn use deep-seated human needs for external validation, recognition, and social approval to keep them coming back and spending even greater amounts of time. Likes, comments, and emojis such as love, anger on these platforms offer people approval, relevance, and validation. 

Since engagement took the center stage as a metric, in many instances, the companies allowed content that draws extreme reactions from users to spread regardless of their impact including their potentially harmful nature. 

The internet is the medium of extremes. Extreme views often get the most engagement. Since engagement is the key metric, often the impact of certain content gets overlooked for the sake of engagement. 

Since many users take engagement as social approval, they share more extreme views launching a downward spiral of negative use of the platform. 

In 2016, Facebook created five new reactions aka emojis to express love, laughter, sadness, surprise, and anger under Facebook posts. A Washington Post report writes Facebook’s ranking algorithm treated emoji reactions as five times more valuable. 

The potential addictive nature of Facebook, other social media platforms, and tech products has been in discussion for a long time now. There is now an entire generation of technologists who are writing and talking about the potential negative impact of various tech products and product design approaches and how to deal with them. 

Psychologists have been writing about Facebook addiction since 2014

The recent revelation, however, shed light on the extent of the problem and the length of time Facebook knew about it, and its actions after the findings. 

Mohammad Ruhul Kader is a Dhaka-based entrepreneur and writer. He founded Future Startup, a digital publication covering the startup and technology scene in Dhaka with an ambition to transform Bangladesh through entrepreneurship and innovation. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, and society. He is the author of Rethinking Failure. His writings have been published in almost all major national dailies in Bangladesh including DT, FE, etc. Prior to FS, he worked for a local conglomerate where he helped start a social enterprise. Ruhul is a 2022 winner of Emergent Ventures, a fellowship and grant program from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He can be reached at ruhul@futurestartup.com

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