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SocietyDecember 4, 2017

Social media, a broken friendship and mental health

social media facebook twitter instagram mental health

The intricacies of social media were exacerbating her anxiety, eventually culminating in the loss of a close friendship. So she decided to go on a social media detox.

I needed to detox from social media long before I had the willpower to do it.

I thought: no need to self-flagellate about my social media habit. I reassured myself that social media activates the same part of the brain as cocaine, and is known to be addictive.

There were so many reasons to stay online. What if I missed important news? Facebook was how I found out about who was having babies, who had moved overseas, and who was getting married. Once, I even found out a friend had died after his profile picture was changed to a photo of his headstone, six months after his death. Twitter was where I watched things unfold, and where else would I see memes and other funny stuff? Of course, I couldn’t remove myself from social media. I was active in Facebook groups and it was how people contacted me. It was my social lifeline.

Yet a social media detox was something I needed to do because, quite simply, it made me anxious.

The links between mental health and social media have been studied at length. While the academic jury is still out on whether social media use increases feelings of dislocation and loneliness or just underlines these tendencies in people who already suffer from these issues, the American Academy of Pediatrics has nonetheless warned that Facebook could contribute to feeling depressed.

I get why that is. When times are tough, you don’t always want to hear how other people are #soblessed or #feelingloved. When you’re sitting at home eating peanut butter with a spoon after being sent to dumpsville by your boyfriend, you don’t want to see pictures of someone’s wedding. People are so shiny and perfect online. Your own raw self can never compare with someone’s perfectly filtered photograph.

My particular issue though was anxiety. An issue which – exacerbated by social media – caused me to lose a close friend.

Why did social media trigger my anxiety so badly?

Firstly, when people sent me messages, I felt like I needed to reply right away, regardless of whether or not I had time. It felt rude not to, especially if they’d seen that I’d seen the message. This was bad for my mental health, bad for my parenting, and bad for my cooking since once I got caught in a conversation and burnt the pasta sauce.

Secondly, I never quite knew when conversations were finished. Most of the time, I didn’t care. But every now and then, I’d be having an in-depth conversation about something significant – like talking to someone about their problems – and would be sitting at my computer, fully engaged in the topic, fingers at the ready and then… nothing. Just that sinking feeling of still be halfway way through a conversation when the other person was done. I’m usually rational about this, but sometimes, especially in situations where the other person had got in touch to specifically discuss an issue, it would leave me feeling daft, used and a bit lame.

Thirdly, the little green dot. The one that tells you someone is online and not responding to your message. Like the above, I didn’t care 99% of the time. But every now and then, there’d be messages that I’d send where I’d see that people have seen it but didn’t respond. It would send my anxiety into overdrive.

My decision to detox came after all three of these things came together.

I received a message from a close friend with an update on a situation that I knew would have upset them. At the time, I was out with someone else enjoying a drink and a catch-up. I’d been feeling a little anxious all day for various reasons but had been keeping it in check. When my phone beeped twice, I saw the messages on the lock screen. The person I was with in real life was talking, but my mind fractured in half, listening to the person that I was with but also thinking about what my other friend had sent. As soon as I got home, I booted up my computer so I could send a proper, considered response.

During our conversation, I gave my friend’s problem my full attention. I wanted to help. I had things to say. I cared. And then, they walked away from the conversation, right after I had said something particularly well-thought out. I was tired and at a low ebb, so my social anxiety kicked in. Had I said the wrong thing? Were they mad? Rational me knows that it probably wasn’t even a thing, but I wasn’t rational. I had caught the anxiety bug that I had been fighting off all day and was surfing every jittery, nervous, hyper-aware wave.

Eventually, I got a response; a throwaway comment that hit one of my sensitive spots like a knife through the heart. My friend should have known better to say what they said in the first place, but I shot back, to my shame, with a message that I would never have sent in the cold light of day, let alone said in person. It dripped with melodrama and absolutes and should never have left my fingers. My friend saw the message, but didn’t respond. Ditto the messages over the following days that I saw as olive branches, but they later described as ferocious. I imagine the truth sits somewhere in between, given how anxious it made me feel as their little green dot taunted me: they were online, but not responding. My mind was not clear. As everyone who understands anxiety knows, the more anxious you feel, the more you need affirmation. The less affirmation you get, the more anxious you become. This was someone I was used to hear from multiple times a day, so the lack of response was even more obvious. I was in a right spin.

This wasn’t my friend’s problem, though. Or Facebook’s problem. It was my problem, and it was time to step away.

Like giving up any other addiction, detoxing from social media was tough. I hadn’t realised how often I checked it until I couldn’t anymore – I would pick up my phone to look while standing at a checkout, waiting for the bus, sitting in bed, even while talking to people. I spent the first day feeling out of kilter and worrying about how many messages I was missing. I’d told my friends and sent out my email address, but still. I even reactivated my account to check on day two, but after someone saw me online and gave me a ribbing for breaking my detox, I was more careful not to do that again. I became concerned that something big had happened that everyone in the world knew about except me.

After a few days, though, it hit me: I only missed social media when I was feeling listless. The other times I wasn’t using it, it was making me more productive. I did more writing and I read more. I would be home and realise I didn’t even know where my phone was at that moment. I felt liberated. I was a better parent. I was less anxious and felt more in control.

While I had given out my email address, I would only check this when I was in a position to reply. And when I was feeling listless, staring into space wasn’t so bad. I didn’t realize how much I’d been formulating status updates in my head until there was no point. I hadn’t heard from a lot of people, but I didn’t care.

There were aspects of social media that I did miss, though. I’d underestimated how much Facebook was a launch pad for other internet surfing – clicking on articles friends had ‘liked’, looking at memes, and seeing funny shares. I missed my Facebook groups and the sense of community I’d found there. For all my angst about the conversation that had ended my friendship, I missed the other low-key banter conversations I was used to having. I didn’t miss reading about the minutiae of people’s lives, but I missed the real news. I liked emailing friends while I was detoxing from social media, but I missed the passive perusing of updates from people I don’t know well enough to send an email to. I realised if it wasn’t for Facebook, I wouldn’t be in touch with these people at all.

And what of my friend whose messages sparked my detox in the first place?

The episode was too damaging to our friendship and we’ve barely been in touch since. They were too angry about my initial message and I was too hurt about not being given the benefit of the doubt about mine and then being ignored for days on end. I don’t know if we’ll ever be friends again; sometimes, when certain things are broken, they can’t be fixed. I certainly won’t be the person to reach out – I don’t want to be called ferocious again. I don’t ever want to feel the way I felt when I sent the message that said ‘I’m sorry’, knew it had been read, knew that the person was online, and received no response. I don’t want to risk it for my own mental health.

But, I’ve learnt my lesson. I’m back on Facebook now but will better manage my use and not shoot from the hip. I’ll be more aware of managing my own anxiety and what the triggers are. I won’t use social media after 9.30pm when I’m tired, I won’t worry when people walk away from conversations, and I’ll turn off alerts when I’m with people in real life so I won’t see messages as they arrive and be distracted.

And if my friend ever does get back in touch, I’ll make sure we reconnect in real life first rather than via a piece of plastic.

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