Facebook addiction and ‘disconnect anxiety’ among college students

Rampant Facebook use has led to privacy desensitization.

We rarely put ourselves in the position, but if and when we are not able to connect online, 68 percent of us experience disconnect anxiety, and college students are particularly at risk.

Staying connected on Facebook seems to be of particular import, as that’s the first thing 48 percent of us do upon waking each morning.

Most of us never see the extent to which disconnect anxiety can go, but we are seeing it more and more at The Center for Counseling and Health Resources.

Treatment of disconnect anxiety includes taking patients’ connectivity devices and locking them up in a safe. Patients exhibit symptoms not unlike withdrawal from other addictions, such as trembling, sweating, and trouble breathing, as their minds and, in turn, their bodies panic at the reality of their worst fears realized – disconnection.

College students, according to research, are among the most susceptible to disconnect anxiety.

When living at home, teenagers likley have some limits on their internet use, as parents increasingly recognize the negative impact of technology. The constant compulsion to stay connected to their friends – via texting and Facebook in particular – distracts teenagers from real relationships with family and friends, as well as other offline activities essential to balanced living. Most parents can and should take necessary steps to circumvent this.

But when they move away to college, teenagers are off to the races! With no parents there monitoring their internet use, college students’ only limitations are those they set for themselves.

In my book #Hooked: The Pitfalls of Media, Technology, and Social Networking, I touch on a number of reasons why the compulsion and “need” to stay connected is a dangerous one. For college students addicted to Facebook, the following factors seem particularly relevant:

1) The stress factor. College students are expert multi-taskers. They have to be. Between the demands of their studies and the expectations on their social lives, there’s always something more to do and somewhere else to be. So the stress factor is a given – that constant need to “show up,” as it were (i.e., succeed). Factoring into that the need to “show up” on Facebook only compounds stress.

They not only have to live up to the expectations of teachers, parents, and real-world friends, but their Facebook friends too, who have come to expect their witty posts and insightful comments, not just now and then but all day long!

2) Looking for the next hit. Historically, it’s alcohol and drugs that have concerned parents of teenagers going off to college. Granted, alcohol and drug addiction continue to be real, serious threats to our young people, as these types of recreational behavior are considered by many to be “normal” college behavior.

However, looking for the next “hit” on Facebook is universally accepted.

In other words, college students may face a number of negative reactions from peers and teachers for excessive alcohol and drug use. The obsessive checking of Facebook though – for the high that comes with knowing how many people liked their last post, for example – that’s something that can easily go unchecked indefinitely.

3) Identification with online persona. Serving as the transition from childhood into adulthood, the college years are pivotal in the development of who our young people become. It’s often a confusing time, as college students explore and experiment with all sorts of new identities.

Unfortunately, this challenge may be further confused by the perceived connection to, and dependence on, college students’ online personas. Much of the angst associated with disconnect anxiety is the fear that if we do not log on and post our thoughts and experiences, their import is somehow minimized. We’ve come to depend on Facebook friends for public validation.

The irony, of course, is that what we’re posting represents just a slice of who we really are. We share only what we want people to believe about us. For college students shaping the character they will carry into adulthood, this often means learning to hide their true selves.

4) Replacing real-world friends with Facebook friends. The friends we make in college are often the friends we have for life. There, more than anywhere, we make important discoveries about ourselves, our interests, and our convictions, and we naturally gravitate toward like-minded people. However, considerable effort should be made to find and cultivate these real-world relationships – a devotion of time increasingly allotted to Facebook friendships.

Now, this is not to discount the value of the connections we are making with our Facebook friends. Certainly, there is value to using this and other social networks as a tool for keeping up with, and engaging with, people we otherwise may not see or talk to on a regular basis.

The problem lies in confusing the value of Facebook relationships with real-world relationships, as no amount of posting and commenting snippets of life here and there can contribute toward any sort of substantial relationship.

College students who suffer from social anxiety are especially at-risk of this, as it may feel far more preferential to stay in the dorm room “hanging out” with friends online than actually going out to meet and engage with people face-to-face.

5) Privacy desensitization. The need to connect has evolved into over-sharing of epidemic proportions. This is troubling when considered within the context of college students who we are preparing to go out into the workforce and become responsible members of society.

While there is validity to sharing parts of our lives on Facebook, there is an implied imperative to keeping some things private – not only to protect the privacy of our own lives, but also the privacy of others who may be included in, or affected by, our posts.

Beyond the social implications of this, there is safety to be considered as well. From the content we’re sharing in our updates, to the personal information we’re sharing with Facebook and other social networks, there are any number of opportunities for sharing too much and, in turn, becoming the target of unwelcome activity, from a “harmless” solicitation to identity theft.

All of that said, I would be remiss not to admit my own family’s experience with disconnect anxiety. It was, in fact, my realization that we had among the four of us 18 devices for connecting online that inspired me to write #Hooked. In it I talk about tech detox, which essentially involves a deliberate, daily setting of boundaries around internet use.

It’s still a few years before my two boys head off to college, and who knows if Facebook will carry as much import by then. But social networking is here to stay, and as a society we have a responsibility to ensure disconnect anxiety among our young people is not allowed to tip the scales in favor of living virtually over living in the real world.

Gregory Jantz, founder, The Center for Counseling and Health Resources, and author of Hooked: The Pitfalls of Media, Technology, and Social Networking

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