My name is Aoife Stuart-Madge and I’m a tweet-aholic. I came to this conclusion last week as I was standing, precariously balanced on a wobbly chair, waving my arms in the air like an air-traffic controller trying in vain to get a Wi-Fi connection.
Call me shallow, but my iPhone has become one of my most prized possessions, close to the top of my ‘Things I’d save in a fire’ list, right after my husband, and just before the 100th birthday card my granny got from the Queen of England. With one swipe, I can ‘check-in’ at that hip new hotel on Facebook (often before I have literally checked in) or catch up on what Katy Perry had for lunch on Twitter (a marmite sandwich in case anyone else is interested).
But here’s the thing, recently my relationship with my phone has plunged from healthy co-dependency into the murky depths of chronic addiction – and it’s playing havoc with my stress levels.
Take last weekend when I was out for a relaxing walk on the beach with my husband and my phone battery died. Instead of enjoying the rest of the afternoon, I had an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach that I couldn’t shake until I got home, plugged in the charger and saw the familiar and oh-so-reassuring little green light.
Had I missed any earth-shattering tweets or urgent Facebook status updates while I’d been offline? Only if you consider the constant stream of cute baby/kitten pictures that clog up my news feed to be important. So what was I so het up about?
Well, for starters, I had missed a prime opportunity for the perfect Instagram selfie (me pressing my cheek next to my husband’s, both of us looking just the right amount of windswept on a deserted beach with the sun setting behind us...). What’s more, while I’d been MIA on Twitter, someone had posted a picture of Kim Kardashian in an unflattering, billowing maxi dress, and I had a supremely re-tweetable hot air balloon gag at the ready. Trouble was by the time I spotted it, the picture was hours old, and I didn’t want it to look like it’d taken me that long to come up with my witty one-liner.
And there-in lies the crux of my addiction: I’m hooked on the rush of watching the number of little blue thumbs going up beside a post as people ‘like’ my status or the smug satisfaction that comes from getting a re-tweet.
Believe it or not, I wasn’t always such a social media junkie. In fact, until a couple of years ago, I was a proud owner of a battered no-frills, simple Nokia handset. No internet, no constant Twitter feed and no Instagram to document my life in pictures.
But as a magazine journalist, I couldn’t live in the dark ages forever. Not when the hottest social trends were starting on Facebook (where would we be without planking and the Harlem Shake?), and especially not when celebrities were unleashing their unedited thoughts into the Twittosphere without warning.
Naturally I succumbed and got a smartphone... The metamorphosis happened almost without me noticing.
It started with checking a few work emails on my phone at night or on weekends. Then I got a funny forward sent to my work email one Saturday of three cute kids singing Beyoncé’s Single Ladies in the back of a car (google ‘Single Ladies devastation’ if you haven’t seen it), and the rest is history. Bored, I posted it to Facebook and within minutes, I’d got dozens of shares and more than 78 ‘likes’. I was high on the buzz, and spent the rest of the day checking my phone for new fans of my comedy genius.
But like every addiction, there are the lows as well: like the embarrassment of realising you’ve posted a Youtube link that has already done the rounds months earlier, or the cringey feeling of having a friend request left hanging in the ether.
It’s stressful. And it seems I’m not alone. According to a recent survey by ad agency JWT, 58 per cent of people said that their social media obligations caused them stress. So why can’t we stop?
According to Dr Annie Crookes, a psychology lecturer at Heriot-Watt University’s Dubai Campus, the instant high Facebook provides can be compelling. “Social media is inherently rewarding,” explains Dr Crookes. “We derive pleasure from feeling connected to our friends and from being ‘liked’ or followed. Moreover this reward is instant. When all we have to do is press a button on our phones to get that reward, it can become compulsive and hard to resist.”
And, says Dr Crookes, wanting to be liked on Facebook is all about wanting to be a part of the in-crowd. “A big part of our self-esteem and self-identity is being part of a social group and feeling approved,” she says. “So getting a new follower on Twitter or a ‘like’ on Facebook is a sign that you belong, that you are a part of this bigger group and people are approving you. It elevates your status, which enhances your self-esteem.”
But keeping up this online front all the time can be stressful. “Having a presence on social media essentially means you are public, all the time, to everyone. You are potentially being observed and so this is stressful, as it
needs to be managed.”
Compounding this stress is the pressure to reply to every text, Tweet, email and virtual poke. Dr Crookes explains, “Our brains don’t differentiate between online communication and the real thing. This means that we feel pressure to respond to messages and Tweets, and we feel pressure to say ‘hello’ to others when we ‘see’ them online, just as we would in the real world. The problem is this conversation is happening with many different people, across various platforms, all the time.”
That might explain why Facebook is leaving me feeling particularly frazzled. One option, suggests Dr Crookes, is to go cold turkey on social media. “You need to try and break the habit by turning off all alerts so you can only access them through logging in,” she advises. “Have a schedule for when you can look at Facebook and other social media. Start with relatively frequent use, but then decrease this over time. If you get anxious about not checking, have something to distract yourself with or get up and walk about, away from the computer. And limit the number of social media platforms you use.”
Interesting advice... In fact, it’s so interesting, I’m feeling the urge to Tweet about it.