Why The Brain Can’t Resist Facebook: Digital Slavery and How to Handle Freedom

Freedom is the positive result of prosperity and progress.

But as you’ll see, excessive freedom can be ruinous to the human brain.

If you have internet access, you have the freedom to learn anything and connect with almost anyone. The internet is arguably the most powerfully enabling invention in history.

Because of the internet, your power of choice today exceeds that of any previous era in history. 

The power of the internet goes well beyond knowledge and information—there’s opportunity. You can buy or sell online. You can get job on the other side of the world by applying online. You can meet the love of your life online (not that it’s worked for me, but I’ve heard stories).

The internet turns any computer into a futuristic, magical box that can dramatically change the course of your life if you use it in a certain way. My career (writer) is as old as (r)ice, but my particular medium wasn’t even possible 20 years ago because I sell my books online

With Great Freedom Comes… Greater Stupidity?

I’ve done well to use the internet to facilitate my career, but in some other ways, it’s been a detriment to my life! But enough about my failures. What about you?

You have had the ability to learn how air conditioning works or how to throw a punch for so many years, but instead, you’ve probably looked at Facebook or funny Youtube videos 93,242 times. You could have known about the wonders of hydrochlorofluorocarbons! (Okay, point taken, but everyone should know how to throw a punch.)

Don’t get me wrong. This is not to shame anyone for choosing fun over substance. I love fun, and fun can be substantial! That’s not the issue. The issue is why, with such a vast and exciting world of knowledge and opportunity out there (online and offline)… why do most of us gravitate towards the same basic options every single day?

I know why we do (Read David Rock’s Your Brain At Work). When you combine the human brain with an avalanche of freedom (fitting analogy, as it truly is too much for us to handle), you have a problematic equation.

Unlimited Freedom + Unlimited Choices = “Not Sure, I’ll Check Facebook and See If That Gives Me Any Ideas.”

Why is it that I check Facebook so frequently instead of learning new skills, gathering information that will enrich my life, writing more books, or trying to get a date, among many other more attractive possibilities?

Simply and sadly, my brain is hooked on Facebook’s lame reward. I’m not even a power user of Facebook. I post maybe once or twice a month now. But I still read the newsfeed and check for notifications every day, usually without consciously choosing to do so.

According to my subconscious mind, Facebook is appealing because…

  1. It’s very easy to access
  2. It’s novel and new each time
  3. Because of #2, it’s mildly rewarding (the brain loves rewards of all sizes)
  4. It’s repeatable

As sophisticated as we think we are, this part of our brain simply isn’t. The subconscious mind primarily seek rewards. If we find a process that leads to a reward every time, we’re going to learn to love that process. This is not an “active” love, but more of an addictive or habitual love. Facebook can annoy the crap out of you overall, and you can still be addicted to it because it gives you a slight reward when you visit.

We Are All On Drugs?

We’re capable of getting addicted to a drug that already exist inside of us! It’s a little strange, isn’t it? You can “take a hit of dopamine” by way of food, sex, or novelty. You can’t throw this drug away, however, because it’s actually an important part of your operating system.

Dopamine addiction expresses itself through our behaviors. We say, “he’s addicted to World of Warcraft,” when really, he’s probably addicted to the dopamine he gets from playing it.

The crazy thing? There’s no problem with this system. Dopamine is not evil. It’s good and healthy to want these rewards! The desire for food, sex, progression, and novelty is the reason we’ve survived and done well as individuals and societies. Our dopamine system is the spice of life! The real problem, is how excessive freedom (when unchecked) leads to behaviors that give our dopaminergic system a critical error.

Can You Have Too Much Freedom?

I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that rich and famous people get addictions. I mean, these people are supposed to have the best lives, so how could they throw it all away on gambling, sex scandals, drugs, and the like? Well, if you think about it from the proper perspective, they’re actually the most at risk people for addictions.

People tend to think about addictions as desperate attempts to be happy, and that can be true. But very often, addiction is the result of freedom and accessibility.

Think about it. The rich and famous have the ability to pursue life’s most rewarding things. The have easy access to nearly anything. If they’re smart, they’ll look for the slow-burning rewards like love, family, work, giving, and friendship. But with a pocket full of money and a pinch of boredom, they can also say, take drugs to give their brain a reward it won’t ever forget. Given their resources and connections, they’re usually able to continue to do whatever they want for as long as they’d like.

Even if I wanted to do drugs, I wouldn’t know where to begin. I don’t have those connections or know where to find them. Even if I had those connection, I wouldn’t want to spend so much money on the drugs. But say I knew someone who knew a guy, and I had money to burn… Well then, I still wouldn’t try them, not even to prove a point about accessibility. But it would be easier!

Can you see how “having it all” counterintuitively puts you at greatest risk for losing it all to bad decisions? Read this TIME article about lottery winners ending up being miserable because of their good fortune. Were these people just idiots, or were they normal people hit with an avalanche of freedom that suffocated them? I’d say it’s the latter.

Let’s say you win $100 million dollars in the lottery. Now, you can do anything you want. You quit your job because, well, duh, who wants to work? You buy a ton of fun stuff. Weeks pass, and the euphoria begins to die down a little bit, because you realize that working actually provided you some things that money can’t buy. You sit on the beach chair in paradise feeling bored. You’ve made it. How you can be bored? So now you feel the need to kick it up a notch, and you try crazier and crazier things to keep the feeling alive. It’s all in vain, because you’re chasing the wrong thing.

If there’s one thing we all need to understand, it’s that we will never be satisfied with the basic rewards our brains desire. The only way to be satisfied with your life is to learn contentment, which is a mindset that has nothing to do with your circumstances. Many people struggle with this dynamic. If you have a problem here, freedom intensifies it.

Feeling the urge to check Facebook? Your subconscious wants a treat. Sticking around on Facebook? It wants another treat. (It will always want a treat, no matter how many times you feed it.)

The Middle Class Is Freedom Rich

Today, you can have rich amounts of freedom without rich amounts of money. With a blinking cursor in Google, the world is yours to explore. People have made millions of dollars by typing a certain phrase into google that started a chain of events. It’s a great power to wield.

But hey, if you can’t decide, Facebook is there. It won’t hurt to check—it takes like 5 seconds… and your focus… and your ambition… and your soul. Time passes, and we continue to choose the easy reward. At first, it’s innocent and acceptable. Over time, it consumes more time and energy and keeps us from doing more meaningful things. Before we understand what’s happened, our brains are willing hostages, clinging to Facebook as we’re Gollum and it is The Ring of Power. MY PRECIOUS NEWSFEED.

As the brain latches onto a new reward loop like the Facebook experience, the time between considering and doing an activity shortens. What once was a 20-second decision is now a 2-second decision. To the brain, this reward has proven reliable and the conscious mind is no longer needed to debate. Just do it and get the reward. That’s how easily we’re sucked into a miserable life of repetitive and unfulfilling digital slop.

Digital Slavery

Our minds have been rewired and enslaved by sites like Facebook and YouTube. The irony? Our slavery to easy rewards has come from our unrestricted freedom to choose them. We’ve given ourselves free reign to choose our internet destiny, and we all ended up choosing these? How is our species, full of billions of unique individuals, so predictable?

We’re predictable because we share the same brain mechanics. Unless checked by ourselves or others, we will autonomously seek the easiest, most convenient, most reliable rewards. Sites like Facebook are nothing more than the low-hanging, easily visible fruit of the internet. 

Just the other day, my friend was applying for a job, but the site timed out and he lost an hour’s worth of work. That hurt and frustrated him. That was a higher fruit, and he fell from the tree. Writing this was more difficult than Facebook, and it might have no impact, making me feel like I wasted my time. But did my friend or I really waste our time if we fall? No. We saw new parts of the tree and learned something new about ourselves and the world we live in. We expanded our minds.

We all know this already, right? I mean, most people are aware of the problem with social media and that doing other stuff is better for us. But I hope maybe I reframed the problem it in a more helpful way that gets at the core problem. I’ve seen so many anti-Facebook articles out there that act like Facebook is the problem. That’s wrong. If it isn’t Facebook, it’ll be something else. Cell phones. MySpace. YouTube. Video games. TV shows.

Facebook forced zero people to sign up and use their site. I have several friends who don’t use it, and they have yet to be arrested for it. It’s not (totally) Facebook’s fault, so let’s put down our pitchforks. It’s not our fault, either, and shame is counterproductive, so go ahead and forgive yourself for wasting all that time. What happened is the expected and natural result of giving too much freedom to a brain that likes easy and dependable rewards.

So… what do we do about it?

How Do We Handle Excessive Freedom? Limitation

Limitation is largely seen as negative, but let’s explore why that notion is completely backwards.

  • When you place your thumb on the end of a hose, you limit the area through which water can escape. What happens? You’re finally able to spray uncle Kenny with a forceful jet of water! Limitation brings greater power.
  • Create a story. Go. Did that work? With such an open-ended task, were you able to come up with something brilliant? Or was the excessive freedom actually somewhat crippling to your creative process? Okay, now try this. Create a 2-sentence story about sunshine and a football player. Here’s mine: Brutus was surrounded by defenders as the clock read 0:00, and the Wolves’ miracle season looked to be over. But then, the clouds parted, and a dazzling ray of sunlight blinded the defense, allowing Brutus to slip through and score the winning touchdown. My story was the worst, I know, but do you see how giving myself a severe limitation enabled my creative juices to flow? This is not a mistake. This is how creativity works. Limitation brings greater creativity.
  • The other night, I put my phone on airplane mode, with the self-imposed rule that I couldn’t undo it until I had worked out the next day. I got out of bed faster. I meditated. I worked out. I felt empowered, and here’s the impactful realization… I felt free. By limiting my ability to explore the many possibilities of my phone, I was able to spend my attention and energy in other areas without distraction. It was so much easier to do these high value things! Limitation brings greater freedom.

I write books because I believe in the power of the individual. My books are not about government overhaul or making large, sweeping changes in your community. I write books as if I’m talking to one person, and saying, “hey friend, you can change your life with this strategy.”

Facebook addiction is a personal problem on a mass scale that creates widespread problems. But I don’t only hurt myself by wasting my life force on unrewarding technology, I hurt others by not writing articles like this, not developing skills, and exploring how else I can contribute to the world. Things like Facebook and cell phone addiction rob us of music, books, inventions, cures for disease, love, and much more. 

Practical Advice for Facebook and Cell Phone Usage

I’ve got another question for you: What happens if you block the entire opening of the hose? An immense build-up of pressure and eventual “watersplosion.” That is to say that I said limitation and not eradication for a reason. 

Most people, when trying to deal with cell phone or Facebook addiction, try the cold turkey approach of not using either at all (for 30 days, sigh). This can be hard and even undesirable to do. Many people use cell phones and Facebook to initiate and facilitate important social and business connections. These are extremely useful tools, let’s not forget! That’s why I prefer limitation. Here are some ideas to limit yourself into greater freedom. 

Have a designated airplane mode time. Airplane mode at night and into the morning (perhaps until after your morning routine) is my personal favorite choice. It sets the precedent that your cell phone is not the most important thing, because you’re starting your day with other important things. 

Designated Facebook check and response times. It’s incredibly inefficient to check Facebook and email multiple times per day. Every time you get a notification and drop your current task to check it, you’ve lost focus and will have to try to regain it later. You’ll save a lot of time and energy by checking email and Facebook fewer times per day. Tim Ferriss calls this “batching.” You can apply the same idea to email, texts, and other notification-based services on the phone.

Decide on a Facebook time limit per day or hour. This one is simple and flexible. The upside is that you can spend your Facebook time however you wish, and limit your overall time. The downside is that (depending on how much time you give yourself) you may still interrupt your life frequently with quick Facebook checks, which is a big part of the issue for some people. Still, this option would be good for those spending hours on Facebook per day (or maybe YouTube). 

Whatever you decide, keep it simple and don’t think of it as deprivation (because it isn’t). When you limit your consumption of entertaining sites like Facebook and YouTube, the time you do spend on them will be more enjoyable!

By limiting your consumption, you are increasing your enjoyment of using these sites and eliminating the considerable downside of wasting too much time on them at the expense of richly rewarding activities (like the ones you wrote on your anti-boredom list!).

Wrap Up and Conclusion

Many people today have ultimate freedom with the internet, and many of those people disappointingly use a lot of their freedom on Facebook. This is because of how the brain’s innate reward preferences match up perfectly with Facebook’s reward structure (easy access, fast, reliable, repeatable). 

If Facebook wasn’t here, we’d find something else, so Facebook isn’t the problem. The problem is in our inability to handle excessive freedom. In fact, Facebook is one way it deals with excessive freedom. 

We can live better lives if we strategically place limitations on our time and choices. This is not deprivation. This is not a cleanse. This is not a 30-day challenge. This is smarter. This is a win win, because we’ll enjoy Facebook even more if we use it sparingly, and we’ll have a newfound freedom to pursue other things as well. 

Are you willing to limit your freedom in order to gain it?

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