Do We Really Need Social Media Rehab?

Complete with Instagram-filter glasses, handwritten tweet notes and Facebook “Like” stickers, there’s now a rehab “kit” for social media addicts.

Taking a break from technology can be hard, enough to make people pay hundreds of dollars just to have someone turn it off and take it away — for some, social media is even more addictive than cigarettes or alcohol. It’s probably only a matter of time before weaning oneself off of Twitter and Facebook requires a 12-step program too.

“It’s a social tick, like smokers wanting to have something in their mouth at all times,” Rhys Hillman told me. He’s one of three Bartle Bogle Hegarty advertising interns behind a new get-offline campaign called Social Rehab. They wanted to pick a topic that was “light-hearted yet serious,” said Hillman, who doesn’t think social media addiction, and the ensuing smartphone attachment, are being talked about seriously. More importantly, they say, there aren’t guidelines or etiquette for how to not be the jerk engrossed in their phone. (Guess they’ve never played the “Don’t Be A D*ck During Meals With Friends” game.)

The discourse surrounding social media and Internet addiction, given that roughly one out of every five minutes spent online is on a social network, has been increasing. The first Internet addiction rehab clinic opened a few years ago, and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (D.S.M.) committee “considered” including Internet addiction as a behavioral disorder for the first time this year. Scientists have seen similar psychological rewards to nicotine and cocaine, but research isn’t conclusive as to whether or not you can actually be addicted to technology and not just the behavior of using it.

Whether or not we’re addicted, the Social Rehab creators think it’s so difficult for some people to detach from their phones that they’re holding the first Social Rehab meetup at a bar in Singapore next week, where addicts will be bribed with discounted drinks the longer they can go without their phones. Oh and there will be social media-inspired props at the event, like a real-life poke stick.

They’re promoting the event pretty hard on Twitter and Facebook, which sort of seems like the equivalent of holding AA meetings at a bar. Hillman says they recognize the irony of advertising a social-media cleanse on social media, but they needed Facebook to create the event. What were they supposed to do, send invitations in the mail?

In addition to the meetup, they came up with a set of six rules as part of the “21st Century Cellphone Etiquette,” which are pretty much basic table manners as they apply to cell phones — “no phones on the table” and “maintain eye contact with people, not your phone,” to name a few. If these rules aren’t enough for serious addicts, they’ve got a rehab “toolkit” (currently sold out) that comes with a pair of paper Instagram-filter glasses, thumbs up “Like” stickers to physically place on people or things, a Twitter-style notepad and a Draw Something sketchpad.

When I asked Hillman if the kit was for real, he laughed and said they don’t actually expect anyone to be sporting the paper glasses in real life. “The toolkit is just a tangible metaphor for the whole project, that people are doing these social interactions but they’re really quite impersonal,” he told me. “You’re just pressing a digital button, you’re not really liking or complimenting someone.”

While observers do bemoan the practice of talking in tweets, I don’t think that conversation itself is mortally wounded; Twitter speak is more likely a passing trend. As for compulsively checking our phones, I often pull up my Twitter feed or an old Instagram photo when I’m out with a friend because I remember something I saw, something funny or sad or shocking, that I know they haven’t seen. Long-time tech exec (and author of Overconnected:The Promise and Threat of the Internet) Bill Davidow points out “there’s a great difference in using it [technology] to enhance your experience in the physical environment and living in a virtual world.”

Checking social media should never be an excuse to skip a real conversation, but I don’t think it needs to be banned from the table altogether. Like any addiction though, it’s easier for some people to overcome than others, and “only when compulsive behavior undermines our ability to function normally, does it enter the realm of obsessive-compulsive disorders,” he told me.

Obsessive-compulsive disorders, interestingly, are largely driven by fear, making FOMO seem all too real. We might not be addicted (yet), but the pervasiveness of social media does seem to be making everyone afraid, in one way or another — the fear of missing out of what’s happening on Twitter, or the fear of missing out on the conversation happening in front of you.

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