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Facebook Rats

February 15, 2017 | by Emuna Braverman

Stop pressing the lever.

“Mindlessly checking Facebook makes you an awful lot like a lab rat habitually pressing a lever hoping for a pellet.” Ouch! This quote in a recent Wall Street Journal article gave me pause.

You may recall from your Psych 101 classes that this is an example of intermittent reinforcement – the rat doesn’t get a pellet every time but it does sometimes; because of this, rats continue to “hope” for the pellet and will never stop pushing the lever. The comparison certainly hits home.

We are constantly checking our Facebook page, Instagram account or emails, hoping that maybe this time we’ll find something exciting!

This is not a new phenomenon. In the “olden” days, we used to check our mailboxes with the same hope. But it was a once-a-day occurrence. If there was no inheritance from a long-lost uncle or love letter from a secret admirer, we didn’t keep checking over and over again. We had to wait until the next day until the mail was actually delivered. There was no lever to push.

But now we can push the lever non-stop all day – and all night. And for what? And at what cost?

One night our family went out for dinner. It was a chance to spend some time together. There was a table on either side of us, one with a married couple and one with two men. All four people spent the whole evening (I am not exaggerating) on their phones, looking up only briefly to give the waiter their orders.

I find it hard to believe that they were getting the gratification they desired, that “pellet” or zing from an email or post that was so crucial it couldn’t wait until they finished their meal.

How do we battle this troubling phenomenon? As with everything, awareness is only the first step. Then come strategy, tools, planning. How do we break out of this rut?

The WSJ article suggests (and this is not rocket science) that we set boundaries. Way before the word internet crossed our lips, we had a “no phone rule” at our dinner table. And I don’t mean cell phones (yes I’m old!). I mean that we wouldn’t answer the house phone during dinner. This was our family time and everyone and everything else could wait.

We extended this rule to cell phones and try to strictly uphold it (although we have indulged the compulsion of some of our children to take pictures of their dinners – should I be flattered? – and snap chat them to their friends!). Dinner time is our chance to talk to the people who are actually in the room with us. Others can wait.

It’s polite, it deepens our family relationships and it also helps break the addiction. We don’t have to be on our phone nonstop. The world (and our friendships) can survive for that half hour.

One of my more social children recently discovered an app for her phone called “house party”. It’s Face Time on steroids. All of your friends can join along with the friends of anyone else who has joined. After a few weeks of screaming into the phone for hours straight just in order to be heard, my daughter decided that it was just too much – the whole world did not have to be included and she didn’t have to check in every few minutes to see who had just joined. Frankly it was exhausting – for all of us.

Pushing that lever, checking those emails and Facebook pages will almost always lead to disappointment because ultimately our validation and inspiration has to be generated internally, based on recognizing our inner selves, our souls, and the true potential the Almighty planted within us. I’m going to work on that idea as soon as I accept that new friend…

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