— Like many parents, Melynda Rushing just wanted to help her college-age daughter improve her grades.
Whereas parents of a previous generation worried about their teen children spending too much time talking on the telephone, watching television or playing video games, Rushing, a mother of six in Rock Hill, N.C., was worried about her daughter, Alyssa, spending three to four hours a day on Facebook.
So she offered Alyssa, a student at the University of South Carolina, a deal: She’d give her $300 to stay off Facebook for a month while devoting the extra time to her studies.
“It was very hard,” Alyssa told the Charlotte Observer in the middle of her Facebook fast. “It was actually a lot harder the first couple of days. I didn’t know I was truly addicted.”
After sharing their story with the media, the Rushings faced some online criticism. The article about them was quickly peppered with disparaging comments about Melynda’s parenting skills and Alyssa’s maturity.
“A college student being bribed by their own parent to stay off of Facebook? How about letting her find out the hard way herself? Let her fail, it's a hard lesson she has to learn herself that can't be taught or bought by her parents. She's an adult for crying out loud. Also, if the child was any younger, I would say beat her rear and take away any computers she has. Who's the parent here anyway?” wrote one commenter.
“I can't believe a parent is offering her kid $300 to do something she should already be doing. I bet if this young lady had to finance her own education grades would take priority over Facebook,” wrote another.
But for parents like Rushing, Facebook is a seemingly undefeatable force in their children’s lives, even if her child happens to be 20 years old. At about a half-billion users, it qualifies as its own large country. It is the subject of the No. 1 movie in the country, “The Social Network.” And for many, it’s also something of an addiction.
A survey of 1,600 women between the ages of 18 and 54 conducted last summer by the firm Lightspeed Research found that 39 percent considered themselves Facebook addicts. Among the women in the survey younger than 35, one-third reported checking their Facebook accounts first thing in the morning before they did anything else. Of those women, 21 percent admitted checking their accounts in the middle of the night.
An earlier poll last spring by the consumer electronics website Retrevo showed that about half of the 1,000 social media users they surveyed qualified as “obsessed” with Facebook.
“We're not qualified to declare a societal, social media crisis but when almost half of social media users say they check Facebook or Twitter sometime during the night or when they first wake up, you have to wonder if these people aren't suffering from some sort of addiction to social media,” Retrevo’s Andrew Eisner wrote as part of the report.
Some studies have linked time spent on the web to symptoms of depression, but it is too early for experts to conclude that addiction to Facebook truly qualifies as a clinical addiction. Seattle psychologist David Evans said that some field studies of regular social media users indicate they suffer from a feeling of being left out when they abstain.
“I don’t know if that could be called withdrawal symptoms,” said Evans who teaches digital media at the University of Washington and is the CEO of Psychster, a research firm specializing in the psychology of social media.
While Evans doubts that social media will ever be classified as a medical addiction, he does agree it has addictive qualities — for people of any age.
Mom Melynda Rushing noticed her daughter getting preoccupied with Facebook and veering from her schoolwork, prompting her to issue the challenge. “Something simple that should take three minutes, you get off on rabbit trails and before you know it 40 minutes have gone,” she told the Observer.
And she had the right to intervene to try and fix the problem, said parenting expert Lisa Hein, author of “I’m Doing the Best I Can” and host of Internet radio show “Everyday Parenting.”
“If she was so caught up in it, her mom had the right to say, ‘Hey, we’ll do this for you if you stay off Facebook for a while,’ even if she is 20,” said Hein, the mother of a 23-year-old herself. “It doesn’t matter how old they are.”
Hein added that there is a fine line between bribery and incentive. If the child has no intention or desire to change his or her behavior, Hein said, a reward is just a bribe.
Alyssa Rushing’s Facebook fast ends Oct. 19, and she tells the Observer that she isn't cheating; her roommates have even helped out by changing the password to her Facebook account. She said that she has already seen some benefits fromt the fast, turning in several class papers early.
“It’s definitely made me see I could spend my time more wisely,” said Alyssa, who currently has 916 Facebook friends. “Now that I see I can stay off it … I might not even go on every day.”