When I first joined Facebook it was simply about staying in touch with friends and family. We emigrated to Australia from the UK nearly 20 years ago and found it a brilliant way of staying in the loop and maintaining relationships. However over time Facebook changed. The site became extremely commercial - pushing adverts and promoted posts into our timelines. Then it evolved from a site defined by our friends and family to a site defined by the pages we followed and the groups we belonged to.
Human nature being what it is, we all join groups that are of interest to us - ones centred around communities, our special interests and also ones that reflect our views and outlook on life, society and politics. Facebook began collecting information on us from the very beginning and used this vast treasure trove of metadata to fine-tune its content algorithms. It was a feedback loop and an echo chamber that slowly but surely poisoned all reasonable discourse and helped to polarise society at precisely the time when we should have been working together to solve global problems.
Fairly early on in my use of social media, I started getting a reputation as a shit-stirrer and a troll and I can now see that the symptoms of ADHD played a part in this. I used to seek out conflict and took it as a personal point of honour when I 'won' some long-winded argument with someone who was usually a complete stranger. Didn't really matter what the subject was, who the other person was or what I thought I had accomplished - I would wade into the row and relish being as a hurtful as possible. It even got to the stage where friends would call on me as some sort of enforcer to help them out when they were being attacked in a thread or post somewhere on the site. I'm not going to lie - I quite liked the reputation.
There are several ways in which ADHD brings out the worst in us on social media. Our brains are chronically under-stimulated and getting angry is a great way of changing that. When we get angry we also produce adrenaline, a neurotransmitter closely associated with dopamine and norepinephrine. In other words we self-medicate by getting triggered and then ride that wave of negative energy for as long as we can.
Impulsiveness and recklessness are also hallmarks of ADHD which means that when a non-ADHD person might reconsider and pull back from an argument, we have no such barriers to entry and cheerfully dive straight in. ADHD is a disorder of the moment - one that mutes our ability to think ahead, to plan, to gaze into the future and to analyse what effects our current actions might have on our future selves. In the real world and online we love a fight, we enjoy a row, we like nothing better than getting stuck in and throwing punches at anyone that comes near us.
Disorders such as Oppositional Defiance Disorder are closely linked to ADHD. ODD makes you mad at the world and causes you to get angered by authority figures and those in a position of control. On Facebook this manifests itself by taking issue with the administrators of groups and pages and, inevitably, with being banned from them. The way my ADHD brain works I always took a ban as a win, another anti-success to chalk up, almost like a fighter pilot adding a Victory marking to their plane's fuselage.
All of this negativity has a number of harmful effects on us and how we are perceived. The most obvious of these harmful effects is that we have absolutely terrible reputations. We are seen as trolls and keyboard warriors and certainly not the agents of justice that we think we are. In groups of a generalised nature this can be problematic but the real problems start when the groups and pages are local and in which the other people know you in real life. I have an absolutely awful reputation locally because for years and years I've been slagging people off and starting fights in small local Facebook groups and pages.
Since people with ADHD already have chronically low self esteem it's easy to see just how poisonous all of this can be to our mental health. It took me a long time to realise just how negative an effect social media was having on my life but I didn't really understand it until I was diagnosed with ADHD and began receiving treatment for it.
Facebook is not the only source of social negativity of course. Any platform on which you can connect with others is a potential feeding ground for aggressive behaviour triggered by an echo chamber of highly polarised interests. Twitter and Instagram are just as bad as Facebook, but also aggregating sites like Reddit, web forums and bulletin boards.
The other aspect of social media that is an absolute nightmare if you have ADHD, is the addictive side of it. In many ways social media sites seem to have been designed for the express purpose of attracting and imprisoning people with the disorder. They are constructed in such a way that, should an unsuspecting ADHDer wander into their sphere of influence, they are unlikely to ever re-emerge.
There are a couple of reasons that social media is addictive, but the main one is the like/love button. Every time someone gives you a virtual thumbs-up you experience a modest dopamine hit of approval. If we make a post and it attracts some positive attention then we get the warm glow of satisfaction that only comes from finding favour with Jeff from Pinedale in Wyoming, Antonio from Castellfollit de la Roca in Spain or Aiko from Kamakura in Japan. It's absolutely crazy that a thumbs-up from some total stranger on the other side of the planet makes us feel a teeny bit better, but it does.
Those little dopamine hits of approval are unfortunately quite addicting if you have ADHD and this is compounded by the algorithms that drive social media sites. We are constantly seeking approval for our posts or comments and Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are kind enough to present us with a literally never-ending stream of them. So we enter into that zombie-like state of constant scrolling, immersed in the feed and (thanks to the ADHD) physically lacking in the motivational brain chemicals to extract ourselves. Worse still, using social media actually makes our ADHD symptoms worse.
It seems like there's no risk-free method of social media use for those of us with severe ADHD. In a 2019 study, researchers found that social media use increased ADHD symptoms but that it didn't matter how heavy that social media use was. In other words if you use it for half an hour a day, or sit on Instagram for four hours straight the same negative effect is observed. The bottom line is this - if you have ADHD then social media is a bit like crystal meth - there's no safe level of use.
Over the years I had various friends drop off social media. They would make a post saying how much they hated it, how lousy it made them feel and how awful they thought social media was. They would say that they were cancelling their accounts and that if we wanted to reach out to them we'd need to email. When I read these posts I would sigh, frown and roll my eyes. I thought these people were just being dramatic, throwing a pity-party and trying to get everyone to feel sorry for them. It's not a terribly empathetic viewpoint I realise, but I'm being honest here and I realise now that they were just ahead of their time.
There wasn't a single road to Damascus moment in my life when I suddenly realised how toxic social media was and how poisonous it was to my own well-being, instead there was a slowly revealed understanding. Over several years I gradually gained awareness of my actions and my behaviour and this was accelerated by my ADHD diagnosis and gradual appreciation of its symptoms. I always felt like I was on the side of 'right', whether it was arguing with climate-change deniers, anti-vaxxers, gun lobbyists or anyone whose political views I didn't agree with. But eventually I understood that nobody ever had their mind changed by a comment on Facebook and that all I was doing was making myself look like a twat and harming my mental well-being in the process. I laboured under the delusion that I was somehow immune to the polarising effects of content algorithms and personalised newsfeeds, but now I understand that actually I was the perfect target.
I had intended to cancel my Facebook account for several years before I actually did it. I kept making excuses such as the fact that I used it for work (true), that I had pages I managed (true) and that I would otherwise have difficulty staying in touch with friends and family (partially true). In the end I found a work-around that finally enabled me to pull the plug. I made a new empty account on Facebook (with no friends or likes) and added that as admin of the photography page. That meant I could still upload for business purposes but the echo chamber was silenced. Beautiful, beautiful silence.
It's been about five months now since I deactivated my Facebook account. I haven't taken the final step of completely deleting my account because I wasn't convinced I'd be able to stay away. But I have been staying away and I think one day soon I will delete my account completely. These sites are absolutely genius at tempting you back and you need to cut them out of your life as much as humanly possible if you are to end their control over you. To this end I removed the apps from my iPhone, deleted the shortcuts in my browser toolbar and ensured that I wasn't getting any emails at all from Facebook and the other social media sites.
Thus far my experiment has proved to be successful. I have missed out on absolutely nothing except a load of toxic behaviour and abuse. I still know what's going on in the world, friends reach out to me via messaging apps and my business pages are ticking over fine. Social media is a hostile environment for even the most level-headed and well adjusted people in society, but if you have ADHD it is unadulterated poison. Get out while you can.