Face This: Facebook May Be Virtual Heroin

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Harrisburg University of Science and Technology is currently analyzing data collected from an on-campus experiment that restricted student access to social media like Facebook. For a week, social media sites were blocked and students were asked to not defeat the ban by using alternative routes of access, such as cell phones.

Related: Social Media Ban Experiment Reveals Facebook Users Display Signs of Addiction

Early assessments indicate the ban made some number of students aware they had become extraordinarily dependent on online social networking, sometimes checking Facebook compulsively -- 20-hours-a-day. While having no access to it, many were surprised to find themselves turning back to face-to-face interactions with friends on-campus.

Unfortunately, the Harrisburg experiment has little or no scientific validity because students could certainly sneak peeks at Facebook while no one was looking, but that was sort of the point. 

Sneaking access to media is a little like sneaking a drink or a cigarette. It suggests addiction.

We have always known technology can be habit-forming. Just look at the way children use television. Countless parents have learned that restricting access to TV causes their sons and daughters enough subjective distress to use it as a punishment. Telling children they’ll have “no TV” for two days will commonly bring tears, protests and promises that they will stop misbehaving.

If a university wanted to conduct a truly bold experiment, it would have to block all Web communication and then measure variables like any increase in the number of visits to health services with nonspecific complaints of distress, any increase in the number of incidents involving alcohol or violence, or any increase in cigarette sales within a certain radius of the campus.

Looking in depth at the impact of Facebook and other social networking sites on our patterns of emotion, thought and behavior would be extremely important, because school administrators across the country, even in elementary schools, are now concerned that they are noticing a reduction in their students’ comfort level with face-to-face interactions and a kind of emotional “detachment” from one another.

This shouldn’t be surprising because social networking is the ultimate “cold technology,” as described by Marshall McLuhan in his classic text, Understanding Media. Cold technologies, McLuhan explains, are ones that beckon the user to actively participate in the images on screen. They are the ones that have the potential to sap reality from everyday life and deaden the emotional responsiveness of users. They feed on -- rather than feed -- people’s capacity to “connect” in a human way, depleting it.

I have written before that I believe Facebook, Twitter and other Web activities have the potential to increase narcissism and decrease the ability to empathize with others. Calling 1,652 people your friends (and sort of believing it) will do that to you. It’s a very big lie, and telling big lies about oneself has psychological consequences. So does posting 426 photographs of yourself, without any shame that doing so is almost unspeakably -- well -- self-focused. So does tweeting your whereabouts, as though people should really care.

Maybe the Amish have it right -- at least the part about trying to safeguard humanity from technology. Psychologically speaking, as we barrel down the information Superhighway, my gut tells me we are going very wrong.

Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatry correspondent for Fox News Channel and a New York Times bestselling author. His book, “Living the Truth: Transform Your Life Through the Power of Insight and Honesty” has launched a new self-help movement including www.livingthetruth.com. Dr. Ablow can be reached at info@keithablow.com.