Opinion Piece

Confessions of a CyberPsychologist: Why I ended my obsessive social media love affair.

6 months ago, I was semi-obsessed. I often checked my phone on the sly – making sure others didn’t notice. My WhatsApp was popping through notifications telling me to ‘quickly check the latest message’. I was flicking from one social media app to another, to make sure I’d caught all the potential messages that had come through. It had gone beyond the point of the teasing flirtation and the fun of the chase… It had even gone beyond the romantic thrill of the love affair… It had progressed well beyond that… I was, after all, doing the very thing I was encouraging others to try to avoid – I’d become obsessed with seeking that mini-feeling of satisfaction and the mini-brain-infused-dopamine-hit each time others engaged with my social media or blog posts. 

Don’t get me wrong. Like any relationship, spending time on social media has plenty of benefits and can be hugely rewarding. But we often don’t realise that we are headed into an obsessive relationship until we are in it. It’s only after we start to see the warning signs, that we may come to realise we don’t quite know how to get out of it. Or it may even be that we don’t even see the warning signs but wake up one day fully entrenched in a controlling ‘virtual relationship’. 

The same process of not realising you’re heading towards the issue until you’re in it is when you find yourself over-stressed, highly anxious or in burnout. We, humans, are generally a rather optimistic lot. We tend to think we are able to cope, that we’ll be fine, that ‘just one’ won’t hurt, that we can easily stop and that it’s easily fixed. We are familiar with these narratives. We’ve heard them before. We even tell ourselves these same stories. But the further we let ourselves go down the path, the more difficult it can be to get out – until something actually breaks. 

For me, it was the sensation of being overwhelmed by life. Even though I’d turned off most notifications, the constant WhatsApp messages, the regular flipping between social media accounts to check for engagement from others, the mental distraction of what was going on online while trying to be physically present offline, the regularly ruminating about the previous or next post and what needed to be written…. There was enough going on in the real world without the online world layering all its messages on top. I know what my tech boundaries are. But I’d let them slip. Again. For too long.

Although research has shown that taking a 1-month hiatus from social media doesn’t actually work in the medium term – in the same way as doing a ‘dry January’ doesn’t change your overall drinking habits, I knew I had to do a hard break from the online world. In a confession to a good friend, I was told ‘Psychologist, heal yourself’. They were right, if I was going to be genuine in my ability to help others with social media, online addictions and gadget obsessions, I couldn’t be up to my eyeballs in the mire myself. Fighting in the ditches with clients is not the same as being overwhelmed by the sinking social media I’d found myself in. 

So, I took the decision to break up with social media and the world of blogging. It was originally only meant to be a few weeks, but those few weeks quickly turned into a few months, which eventually turned into 6 months. And that’s when I noticed things had changed. I found myself being able to focus again. Reading physical books became enjoyable. Giving myself the space to be ‘bored’, i.e. not looking at my phone every time I was in a queue or in between tasks had shifted me back to myself again. Neurological research has shown that when we are not distracting ourselves with gadgets and allow our minds to wander, a midsection of our brain kicks into gear. The researchers called this the ‘idling brain’ and referred to by Bessel van der Kolk in his book ‘The body keeps the score’ as the Mohawk region of the brain. This part of the brain is what lights up when we are self-reflecting. So, if we are constantly distracting ourselves with gadgets, we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to self-reflect. And it seems that this has an impact on anxiety levels and self-image. Which, kinda makes logical sense. 

And what we do every day changes the structure of our brains. As the saying goes ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’. There are some interesting studies on this, from the classic psychology research of the larger hippocampus (the region of the brain involved in spatial memory) found in taxi drivers and a more recent study done in China with restaurant workers who have a greater ability to use their working memory due to constantly memorising orders and the customers who made them (https://www.bps.org.uk/research-digest/your-job-can-shape-your-cognitive-abilities).

I know that I am fortunate to be able to take a time-out from social media – with limited negative impact on my work. Not everyone has that luxury. But I would suggest that we all need to semi-regularly take our relationship with gadgets, gaming (or any other form of internet use) to ‘couples counselling’ and ascertain the mental and physical health of our relationship on our own mental well-being. 

In doing so, we need to actively decide how we are going to move forward with our gadget use. Even if things stay the same, it becomes our individual choice to do so, meaning we feel slightly more in control (as it was our choice after all) of the gadgets we use every day. We each have our individual abilities to let go, change things up and put boundaries in place. 

Regarding my future relationship with social media and blogging, social media and I are back together again. But, with conditions. I’ve put a 3-monthly reminder in my diary to do a ‘tech-check’ and make sure I’m the one in control of my gadget use, not the other way around. Having an obsessive relationship with gadgets was never my intention. I feel like I’ve now got the control in the relationship, and I fully intend to keep it that way.