Scared to switch off in case you slip off the social radar? You’re not alone – and that’s the main problem.
Social media fatigue is nothing new. No sooner had we picked our first username than people started heralding the beginning of the backlash. Just like TV and video games before it, and probably flick books or something before them, there’s always been wariness about how quickly social networking can turn from a hobby into a compulsion.
Advice about screen breaks and not sleeping with your phone by your bed is 10-a-penny in the media right now, and most Generation Y-ers are dimly aware that there’s a world of dewy-sweet meadows and babbling brooks beyond the glow of our devices that we ought to spend more time enjoying.
Switch off! Tune in! Stop sending your pals emojis and hold them tenderly by the face instead! We hear it, we just don’t always buy it. When Gary Turk’s video poem Look Up went viral last month, you could barely hear any of its mawkish anti-digital sentiment over the tip-tap of commenters rushing to point out the irony.
Because the problem is not that digital communication isn’t valid – I’ve met enough wonderful people online to crunch that old chestnut for good – no, the problem is that for most of us social networking isn’t a hobby anymore; it’s simply how we run friendships. More portals means we’re in touch with more friends, more often, and with that comes more obligation to keep communication up to date. If it’s not addiction, then it’s something even less sexy. It’s become admin. And with admin comes stress.
A flood of new studies in recent months have linked social media to increased levels of anxiety and shown it to exacerbate mental health problems, particularly depression. But of course, you knew that already. And I’ve just wasted another precious 15 seconds reminding you about it.
Personally, I blame my social stress on a combination of politeness and FOMO – it’s the same reason I say yes to two parties on the same night on different sides of town and then spend most of the evening weeping on the District Line. I can’t bear to let people down. It takes me months to finish a book because every commute and bus stop wait is filled with replying to texts and tweets and emails, and I say that only as a very averagely popular person.
Emily, a 22-year-old writer, found that as her follower count increased, her anxiety did too. “Since I started getting more followers I get more and more replies to my tweets and I do feel a duty to reply to all of them,” she says. “If a tweet gets a large number of responses, it really does make me feel anxious. Some of it is being obsessed with checking what people are saying, which takes up a lot of headspace.”
Every so often one of those studies will arise to tell us that we can only handle a maximum of five close friends in our lives, and all the rest are just frauds or hangers-on who never remember how we take our tea. It’s easy to dismiss the idea, until you find yourself hovering outside a tube station in the bucketing rain because you’re afraid to absent yourself for 20 minutes from a hilarious Twitter gif exchange with four people you’ve only met twice, in case you appear standoffish. By now you are stand-wettish, and those measly five friends begin to look a lot more appealing.
Even without an extended circle of contacts, our umpteen digital channels mean that natural selection in real life friendships doesn’t work in the way it used to. While our parents downgraded people to occasional phone calls or Christmas cards as they changed jobs or moved away, we stay in touch with every Tom, Dot and Margaret we ever did Jägerbombs with eight years ago. My biggest worry is that all the admin can trick you into thinking you hate your friends. RELAX, you don’t hate your friends. You just hate the admin.
So how do we escape the deluge of chatter and climb back onto dry land? One option is obviously to log out permanently. My friend Kate, a digital project manager, quit Facebook at the start of 2012 – but unlike every other exile I know, she’s never come crawling back.
“Facebook started feeling like the boss of me, and I didn’t much like it,” she says. “I probably did lose contact with people, and probably didn’t get invited to some parties. I’ve definitely missed people’s birthdays. But overall I’ve found there is much less noise and brain clutter – and more time too. I feel like I own my relationship with my phone a little more.”
“I think I’m probably more conscious of who I’m in touch with – I’m happier for mostly only seeing friends rather than friendly acquaintances. I think I’m less scared of the unfollow button than I used to be, too.”
A softer option is to gradually break the habit and let yourself become a non-replier – one of those friends everyone has who casually texts back after three days of silence and never seems to feel bad about it. But don’t people hate the non-repliers? Don’t they only make the rest of us more stressed?
In my more exhausted moments, I dream of a complete social admin amnesty. A week, maybe even a month, where we all down devices and promise not to say anything about anything at all. Then after the allotted period, think how much we’d have to share! Of course, it would only work if nobody cheated – and like every pact in every sitcom ever, we know that somebody would.
Do let me know your thoughts. Just don’t expect a reply any time soon.
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