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'Defriending' Facebook

When social networking starts to get in the way of real life, some teens are deciding to log off

By Katie Hafner


Facebook has 350 million members worldwide who, collectively, spend 10 billion minutes there every day, checking in with friends, writing on people's walls, clicking through photos, and generally keeping up with who's doing what at any given moment. Make that 9.9 billion and change.

Recently, Halley Lamberson, 17, and Monica Reed, 16, juniors at San Francisco University High School, made a pact to help each other resist the lure of the login. "We decided we spent way too much time obsessing over Facebook, and it would be better if we took a break from it," Halley says.

The two friends now allow themselves to log on to Facebook on the first Saturday of every month—and that's it.

They are among the many teens who are recognizing the huge distraction Facebook presents—the hours it consumes, to say nothing of the toll it takes during exams and college applications.

In fact, while "Internet addiction" is not really an official medical diagnosis, spending excessive time online is a growing problem worldwide, not only with social networks but also with gaming and other online activities. As many as 1 in 8 Americans suffer from problematic Internet use, according to researchers at Stanford University in California. The numbers are higher in some Asian countries, especially for teens: Up to 30 percent of South Koreans under 18, for instance, are at risk of Internet addiction, according to researchers at Hanyang University in Seoul.

Tough To Deactivate

Treatment centers for Internet addiction have sprung up not only in Asia but in the U.S. as well. They range from military-style boot camps to residential treatment centers similar to those used for drug and alcohol addiction.

When it comes to staying off Facebook, some teens, like Monica and Halley, are forming support groups. Others deactivate their accounts or ask someone they trust to change their password and keep control of it until they feel ready to have it back.

Facebook, launched in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg, then a 19-year-old sophomore at Harvard, won't say how many users have deactivated service. But Kimberly Young, a psychologist who is the director of the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery in Bradford, Pennsylvania, says she's spoken with dozens of teens trying to break the Facebook habit.

"It's like an eating disorder," says Young. "You can't eliminate food. You just have to make better choices about what you eat." She adds, "And what you do online."

At its worst, Facebook addiction can lead to a loss of perspective about what's important, or even to a loss of a person's sense of self, according to Sherry Turkle, director of the Initiative on Technology and Self at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Turkle recalls that one 18-year-old working on a college application was burned out from trying to live up to his own online descriptions of himself. "Facebook wasn't merely a distraction," Turkle says, "but it was really confusing him about who he was."

The student opted to spend his senior year off Facebook.

But the service doesn't make it easy to leave for long. Deactivating an account requires checking off one of six reasons: "I spend too much time using Facebook," is one. "This is temporary. I'll be back," is another.

It's easy to reactivate an account by entering the old login and password. And Facebook's new live-feed format can make it particularly hard to stay away.

"You're getting a feed of everything everyone is doing and saying," says Rachel Simmons, an educator. "You're literally watching the social landscape on the screen, and if you're obsessed with your position in that landscape, it's very hard to look away."

That addictive quality has led some teens to find a partner to help them quit. Monica says that when she was sick for several days, she broke down and went on Facebook. Then she felt guilty and had to figure out what to tell Halley. "At first I lied," Monica says. "But we're such good friends she could read my facial expression, so I fessed up."

The Offline Life

After several failed efforts at self-regulation, Neeka Salmasi, 15, a sophomore at Greenhills School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, finally asked her sister, Negin, 25, to change her Facebook password every Sunday night and give it back to her the following Friday night.

Neeka's grades quickly improved. Still better, she says, is that her mother no longer visits her room "every half an hour to see if I was on Facebook or doing homework."

"It was really annoying," she says.

Halley and Monica expect their Facebook break to continue at least through the rest of the school year. They're enjoying a social life lived largely offline.

"Actually," she says, "I don't think either one of us wants it to end."


(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, March 15, 2010)