Monday 26 September 2016

How to tell if your social media habit's an addiction

The likes of Facebook and Twitter are a great way to connect. But it also screws us up a little, says Adrian Weckler

Published 18/10/2015 | 02:30

The likes of Facebook and Twitter are a great way to connect. But it also screws us up a little, says Adrian Weckler
The likes of Facebook and Twitter are a great way to connect. But it also screws us up a little, says Adrian Weckler

So you think you're addicted to social media? Think again.

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Many of us think that checking our phones every 20 minutes for a 'like' or a 'favourite' is a problem. But we don't know the half of it. In Ireland, there are tens of thousands of people who now spend up to 12 hours a day on social media streams.

Recently, I got to meet a few of them. John Grennan is a 25-year-old trainee chef at Athlone's Institute of Technology. He's married with a four-year-old daughter. And he spends eight hours a day on personal social media streams.

"I literally live and breathe Facebook and Snapchat," he said. "I get on it the minute I'm out of bed and I stay on it until the time I fall asleep."

This extends, he says, to communications with his wife.

"We might be sitting in the same room and I'll text her or send her a Facebook message instead of physically speaking. It sometimes causes problems."

It's not just with his wife that Grennan's social media fixation faces challenges.

"When I'm on Facebook, Lola [Grennan's daughter] says 'Daddy, what are you doing?' When Lola's around and I'm on social media, 90pc of the time I feel guilty."

Grennan isn't alone. Orla O'Neill is a 40-year-old married production operator from Moate in Offaly who "cannot" go a day without spending hours on Facebook.

"I have it under my pillow," said O'Neill. "I know it's a bad thing. I keep trying to put it on the floor or somewhere else."

O'Neill "has no life outside of Facebook" according to her sister, Sharon. "You talk to her and she doesn't even hear you. She doesn't realise how bad she is. Orla is an addict."

To talk about social media and 'addiction' in the same sentence can be misleading. Coping with a chronic addiction to alcohol, gambling or drugs is I think a discussion that belongs in a different genre to any comparison with logging in to Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

Nevertheless, issues are starting to emerge that are being exacerbated by our fixation with social media.

Self-esteem and concentration are two elements most under review.

"Because of social media, I've lost my concentration levels," said Saoirse Ormonde, a 16-year-old transition year student from Cappoquin in Waterford. "I'm not able to sit down and look at a book or revise for an hour straight. After 10 minutes, I'll look at my phone. I feel like it's affected my grades."

Ormonde is caught at a stage in her life when issues of self-esteem are at their formative height. Like any normal teen, she takes dozens of selfie shots every day.

"If I don't get a 'like' in a minute, I'll delete a photo within 15 minutes of it being up," she said. "Instagram mostly is where you get the good and bad comments on your appearance."

However, Ormonde also believes that her use of social media contributes positively to self-esteem issues.

"A lot of the way I am is because of social media," she said. "It has made me a lot more confident in myself. But it has made me conscious about a lot of things, too."

Ormonde's testimony captures the complex nature that many of us have with social media services such as Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram. We know that we're missing out on some things. But we're fascinated and entertained by our five-inch phone screens.

In fact we're so entertained that we want to be part of the broadcast. This is where social media's other charge - narcissicism - comes in. Selfies and pouting 'duck lips' are all over the internet.

But is it fair to blame it all on Instagram and Snapchat?

Some studies think so. Psychologists have even put a name on the consistent habit of posting non-stop selfies on social media. They call it a "dark triad". It consists of narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. The more people change their profile picture, say a series of US studies, the more likely they are to report narcissistic traits.

But it's not just about uploading selfies.

More subtle effects, such as posting images portraying enviable circumstances or houses or children, are no less narcissistic. And narcissism is rewarded to a degree: teenage girls posting photos of themselves on Instagram attract dozens - or hundreds - of 'likes' and compliments. What's difficult to establish is where the line is drawn between where narcissism ends and self-esteem, confidence or simple joy begins.

For example, is a Facebook photo of a happy family on holiday narcissistic or healthy sharing? Ask two experts and you will get two answers.

(Even when it's not narcissism, 'sharing' on social media can be inadvertently hurtful. But it's sometimes difficult to know when a general line of decency is crossed. Should a new mother forego posting images of her newborn because a certain percentage of her peers online cannot have children? Should she only post one and then no more?)

Most people like having a platform to share their lives with friends and family. Parents like updating their pages with pictures or videos of their children's progress. Grandparents like seeing this. And young people like posting and viewing images of nights out.

So grim warnings of being a bad person by posting things online increasingly fall on deaf ears. Mindfulness, though, is a different issue.

"When I go to a concert, I miss out on stuff all the time," said O'Neill. "Instead, I'll record things and take photos. And when I'm videoing I can't sing because I don't want my voice to interrupt the recording."

Over a billion photos and videos are uploaded from phones every day. But often those photos represent moments we missed. How many people ever see a famous person they've queued up to meet anymore? Instead, they watch it all through their phone's screen as they hold it above their head. Sharing a video or a snap of a moment now trumps being in the moment.

But is much of criticism around the effects of social media on our lives just middle-aged begrudgery and wistfulness?

Maybe not. One US teenager famously gave up her social media accounts for 50 days.

"Despite missing all of my messages, never have I ever felt so whole as I did during my experiment of giving up social media and my smartphone for 50 days," said Eishna Ranganathan.

"I experienced a golden, stressless state of mind due to heightened gratitude for everything: drinking tea, watching Friends, being unconcerned about that half-hazed phone screen reflection, getting five-star-quality sleep. As a result, I reached a natural high point in my life.

"But my favourite change occurred in the social sense. The bonds I shared with my friends deepened as a result of not texting and not liking their profile picture updates. Nothing changed, just how we communicated did. I didn't feel alone. Without the phone, there was no unsaid expectations to text. A lack of messages didn't upset me. After all, I didn't need people's on-screen presence to feel connected."

Mobile phone companies used to show that Irish people were the biggest texters and talkers in the mobile phone world. Now it seems we've transferred over to social media.

Is there something addictive and compulsive about it? Yes. We have an insatiable appetite to observe and connect. We fear missing out on things. A great many of us crave validation, 'likes' and flattering comments. We want to be noticed.

Are we getting a handle on it? Very slowly. While many social media users have learned the art of moderation, some are still hurtling down the rabbit hole.

Adrian Weckler presents 'Screen Slaves' at 10pm on TV3 tomorrow night

Sunday Independent

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