Social networking sites prove the thief of time

By Yang Yang ( China Daily ) Updated: 2013-11-14 07:19:45

Social networking sites prove the thief of time

[Song Chen/China Daily]

Overuse brings problems for young adults and teenagers, Yang Yang reports.

After yet another late night spent browsing the Internet, Tracy Zheng, a 30-year-old PhD student at Nanjing University, swore to stop wasting time she could hardly spare.

"I had a lot of books and papers to read, but instead I wasted my time online." She said she spends about five hours a day reading micro blogs, Lily BBS - a site for students at her university - and other sites.

At most, she spends eight to nine hours online, switching from one service to another. "Sometimes when I was reading academic papers on my computer I would stop for a rest and read other things online. But I would continue doing that for a couple of hours without thinking.

"I had a lot of reading plans, but I just couldn't get anything done," she said. "The problem was that what I got from those websites was just mostly campus gossip. Sometimes I became very frustrated and anxious."

Zheng said she tends to put off important activities until a deadline looms, and feels the social networking services have worsened this tendency.

The services are a direct descendant of basic e-mail, which evolved into Bulletin Board Systems, then Facebook or its Chinese equivalent Renren, on to Twitter or Weibo, through to MySpace or QQ space and a wide range of other sites.

Facebook has more than 1 billion registered users across the globe, and one-half of them sign in every day. Twitter boasts 550 million active registered users, while Renren has 280 million. Weibo has more than 500 million and WeChat, which has been growing rapidly since it started in January 2011, now has more than 500 million users.

Chinese Internet users spent more time on social media sites than their counterparts in Japan and the United States, an average of 46 minutes per day, compared with seven in Japan and 37 in the US, according to a 2012 report by McKinsey & Co.

Rationing online time

However, things may be changing. Procrastinators on, one of the leading social networking services favored by well-educated young Chinese, have formed support groups to fight the problem. Group members pledge to reduce their daily browsing time to five hours. They share their experiences and handy tips, such as the StayFocusd application.

By inputting "bad" websites into StayFocusd and setting a specified time period, users ration the amount of time they spend viewing those sites. Similar software includes SelfRestraint for Windows, Anti-Social and SelfControl for Apple devices.

However, the problem is being exacerbated by the widespread use of smartphones, which, once the relevant apps are installed, are even more convenient for visiting social media sites. Even if they can't get online via a computer, users can check in through their phones. Research conducted in the US found that some heavy users check Facebook via their smartphones every 15 minutes or even less and some even check if they wake during the night.

The overuse of social media has become a problem for young adults and teenagers. Although to some extent the sites can help people to build up social networks and feel less isolated, the researchers found that social media can also make people less happy. Excessive use can even point to psychological problems, such as anxiety, mania and narcissism.

Judith Wright, author of The Soft Addiction Solution, included "endlessly surfing the Internet" in her definition of "soft addictions". They "are those seemingly harmless habits like over-shopping, overeating, watching too much TV, procrastinating - that actually keep us from the life we want. They cost us money, rob us of time, numb us from our feelings, mute our consciousness, and drain our energy," she wrote.

According to Wright, the deeper cause of soft addiction is that people who are stressed out are trying to comfort themselves and constantly visiting these sites can provide reassurance and rewards, such as positive comments from friends about photos they have posted. The addiction becomes a problem when it begins to bother the addicts instead of soothing them, according to Wright.

After a serious of fruitless, unproductive evenings, Zheng realized that she needed to address her problem. "At the beginning, it was fun to read friends' or schoolmates' information online. However, later I realized that I wasted a lot time doing so, which bothered me a lot because it didn't leave enough time to read all the books and essays in the time allocated. Every night, I promised myself I would quit the next day and focus on my essays, but the next day I repeated the previous day. So I stopped working in my dormitory and instead went to the library, where you can't just idle away time checking the social media. Things are becoming much better now."

Zhu Yanshao, a researcher at the Institute of Psychology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said, "Some social media addicts feel anxious when they can't use their computers, cellphones or tablets to access the social media. Once they are able to, they will unconsciously click on social network services and waste their time there, resulting in inefficiency in study and work".

In addition to the negative influence on work and study, for some people overuse of social media can have a disastrous effect on real-life communications.

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