Friday 24 November 2017

Mummy's new little helper - could you be addicted to social media?

The modern mum doesn't need a glass of wine to help her zone out - instead she just reaches for her Facebook fix

A Facebook fix now helps many mothers to zone out. Photo: Getty Images.
A Facebook fix now helps many mothers to zone out. Photo: Getty Images.
Hooked: Mum-of-three Kate Gunn is an avid social media user. Photo: Steve Humphreys.

Kate Gunn

The first thing that I do when I wake up each morning is reach for my phone. Am I a high-powered stock broker who needs to check the latest share prices? Or a reporter who needs to leap on to the top story of the day? No. I'm a stay-at-home mum who needs to feed her Facebook addiction.

A quick morning check of what everyone's been up to on Facebook since I last looked the previous night is most definitely a habit I'm finding hard to break. In fact, it's such a part of my daily routine now that I do it without even thinking. I did try that 'no phones in the bedroom' rule once, but I ended up not being able to sleep without it beside me - which I'm sure is the opposite of the aim of the exercise. I told myself that my inability to relax without it was because I might need to call someone if the house got broken into in the middle of the night; I was protecting my children by having my phone there on the bedside table. But we all know that the real truth is that I'm a mum who is a social media addict.

And I'm not the only one. Whilst many mothers spend much of their time trying to keep their children away from screens, the truth is that most of us have a worse habit than they do. Research released this month by the National Anti-Bullying Centre at Dublin City University showed that fewer than one in five parents keep a watchful eye on their children's social media use. Could this be because we are too busy keeping up with our own status updates? With 55pc of parents being active on Facebook it's certainly a possibility.

For mothers' downtime these days it's less a case of reaching for the sauvignon blanc and more a case of switching on the screen.

From personal experience I know that half-hearted attempts to get my own children away from their screens are often met with: "Well why are you always on yours?"

When at home I almost always have either the laptop open, the iPad out or the iPhone in hand. I obsessively flick between Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. When my children moan at me I tell them that "Mummy's working" - which, like the phone by the bed excuse, I convince myself is the truth.

I'm ashamed to say that once my then five-year-old son got so frustrated by my distracted face in phone demeanour that he shouted out - "Mummy's a dick!….a dick!…addicted to her phone!" (I must admit to being partially relieved with how that sentence finished though.)

Like most people of my generation, Facebook was my first foray into social media. I first joined in 2008 when I spent hours posting photos of my delicious new babies. At one point I even had two personal accounts and one business Facebook page to update - I may have been a little over-excited. I soon joined Instagram, Twitter, StumbleUpon, Pinterest and Google+ among others, but Facebook will always be my first and favourite. I use it to keep up to date with best friends' lives in Australia, read articles, see what fitness events are coming up, and support up-and-coming businesses. And that's before we even get into talking about private groups - they bring the addiction to a whole new level.

A quick poll of friends backs up my own experience.

Kathy, mum to three boys, freely admits to being a bit of an addict: "Facebook is the first thing I look at in the morning and the last thing before I go to bed at night…and I daren't count how many times during the day. I suffer from FOMO (fear of missing out) so it's my source of what all is happening locally; it's how I secure my spot in the gym class; it's my source of news stories; how I keep up to date with fashion and beauty trends and even what's going on in my son's classroom. With a hubby who often works late, a seven-year-old who is only interested in his own technology in the evening and two incomprehensible smallies, Facebook is my best friend in the evening. I think I may need an intervention!"

Aoife agrees. "When I'm stuck in the house with two children under two years old on yet another miserable, grey Irish day, I desperately need a bit of adult interaction. These days I use Facebook for so much more than a mindless scroll through my feed, though - like many I'm part of a number of private groups, from other local mums to extended breastfeeding support to old school friends. I can get support, advice or simply a place to rant in privacy and safety. It's not an exaggeration to say that it makes all the difference to my mental health."

Meanwhile for Clodagh, Facebook is more than a frivolous addiction. "For special needs parents, Facebook is an absolute life line. It's the first place we go to for advice, support, and somewhere to chat about our crazy lives with other parents who get it."

And it's not just the mums either. Father-of-one, Christian says: "As a stay-at-home dad, Facebook is a fantastic resource to connect with other parents, both mums and dads, to check things and to get inspiration for everything from food to activities to keep a maniac 17-month-old happy."

Checking your feed every 20 seconds whilst 'watching' Peppa Pig with your toddler, sharing an embarrassing story about your child throwing apples at people in Tesco, commenting on your friend's picture of her adorable new baby, asking for advice on weaning, posting a picture of your beautiful child finally sleeping… there is a constant interaction going on with friends, family and your 'community' even though you may be stuck inside your house. And when your only mental stimulation otherwise is solving a lost hoover mystery on Teletubbies or playing peek-a-boo for the thousandth time that week - can anyone really blame us?

Whilst it may seem a harmless pastime for most, however, social media addiction has now been recognised as an official condition in the UK. And, a study last year by the University of Chicago found it can even be more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol.

Sean Harty, executive director at Addiction Counsellors of Ireland, agrees that social media addiction can be very real indeed. "It is clearly becoming a problem area of concern. Whilst there are benefits to social media in certain circumstances, in many instances there really isn't a need for it. Many mothers are now communicating by smart phones with their children in-house - telling them their dinner is ready or to tidy their bedroom. At home, in restaurants, out walking - families are not talking to each other but instead all have their heads in a screen. It's not too dramatic to say that this can indicate early signs of addiction."

Sean says that his biggest fear for the future of social media is isolation. "Instead of going out for a coffee or a glass of wine with friends, many mothers are at home communicating through Facebook and other social media outlets, and the pay-off in terms of friendships and positive emotions simply isn't the same," he says.

"It's a lonely life talking or working on a screen and managing kids and a home as well. It really is best to be out and about interacting with other parents and getting involved in mothers' groups, community groups and the like."

Whilst I don't consider myself a true addict to the point of needing an intervention, reviewing my own usage over the past week I'm somewhat startled. I've posted or liked over 50 pictures on Instagram, had 61 interactions on Facebook, and spent countless time on Twitter. And that's with strict self-imposed restrictions on my usage.

I do know that being hooked on social media sites is not really something to be proud of, but being a stay-at-home mum, or dad, can be tough - especially in the early years. Parents are often isolated, tired and in need of a much needed hit of dopamine to get them through each day. Whereas years ago mother's little helper was a jar of Valium, today mums are using a dose of Facebook to see them through those groundhog days.

Of course, as our kids grow and develop, the need for our Facebook addiction should lessen, but habits are in place by then and therefore hard to break. So whilst the kids start asking for Snapchat and Tumblr, us mums are staying with our trusted Facebook.

The most recent report by Global Web Index showed that Ireland's addiction to Facebook scored higher than that of America and the UK based on the percentage of users. Whilst comScore tells us that 41pc of 25- to 44-year-olds are on Facebook compared with only 16pc of 18- to 24-year-olds, who are predominantly using Snapchat, Tumblr and Vine.

Siobhan Freegard, founder of Netmums and Channel Mum says the internet, and Facebook in particular, has become the modern mother's local community. "Most new mothers no longer live in the town they grew up in or have the support of family just down the road, so Facebook and internet forums have become the new global village," she says.

However, Siobhan adds that for future generations of mums the online world may be changing. "The latest generation of mothers are far more focused on video than text, so now mum vloggers and YouTube are connecting mothers in new ways. The internet is constantly developing and shifting to move with the needs of its users, and mothers are a massive part of that movement."

My own children are 11, nine and seven and whilst they all have an android tablet only the 11-year-old is connected to any social sites. She has asked to join Instagram and Facebook but I have refused, but she is on Pinterest, and also Snapchat with a small and carefully selected group of friends. The judgement and looks-based pressure of the first two terrify me, so I'll be holding out for as long as possible with them.

The graph of my own social media usage would probably show a rapid rise from when I joined Facebook to what I hope was its peak a couple of years ago. I'm now down to only one Facebook account and a hard-gained knowledge of the fact that it really can take over your life.

These days I'll at least consider before I post something on my wall and will often decide that actually the world doesn't really need more of my nonsense clogging up its feeds.

So is a full digital detox on the cards? Will I be deleting the Facebook app from my phone and kicking the habit?

Well let's not get carried away…

5 signs you're  addicted to social media

Addiction counsellor Sean Harty defines addiction as "any substance or behaviour that interferes with your life".

Could Facebook or other social media sites be a problem for you? Here are some of the signs to watch out for.

1 You are spending increased amount of time on it.

You used to check on your updates the odd evening when you had the laptop out. Then you got an iPad and found yourself lost for hours each day in the lives of friends of friends. Then you got a smartphone. Since then you have been constantly connected, only stopping to sleep.

2 You have a persistent desire to cut down your use of it.

You now spend too much time on Facebook. You know you spend too much time on Facebook. You don't want to spend too much time on Facebook but you are powerless to resist it. You even tried deleting the app once, but you only lasted until 11am.

3 You stop meeting friends because you know all their news already.

Well what would you talk about?

4 Usage starts to impact your responsibilities.

You're late to pick your children up from school because you were so busy liking pictures of other people's children.

5 Withdrawal is real.

You left your phone at home. You won't be able to check your feed for another hour. What if someone comments on your cute kid video and you can't reply? Expect increased anxiety and general annoyance at everyone around you.

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