A good indicator of addiction is dreading no longer having access to the object of the addiction. An aspect of dependency is not knowing how to navigate the world when the object of dependency is not available.
This is why I was worried when I realized how much I was stressing about Internet access over winter break. I was spending most of my break in Panama with my family visiting my sister in the Peace Corp. I had no idea whether I would get cell service or WiFi in the rural areas we’d be visiting.
About a year ago, the comedian Louis C.K. was on Conan and brought up the topic of smart phones. “You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something,” he said. “That’s what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there. That’s being a person.”
My anxiety about not having access to the Internet reflected this — few things give me the instant gratification of clicking on a Facebook notification, seeing “likes” on Instagram or something I wrote being retweeted. I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. Psychologists have written about social media creating “dopamine loops,” or seeking rewards and then receiving the rewards, which makes you want to seek more rewards.
I’ll post something on Instagram, see that it got a number of likes, and I’ll feel better about myself for about five seconds before deciding that I should be getting more likes. I’ll then find myself spending more time on social media in order to gain more virtual approval.
A couple of nights into our trip to Panama, my family was preparing to go to my sister’s village in a rural part of the country where there wouldn’t be cell phone service or access to WiFi. I sent a Snapchat to many of my friends that said “Tomorrow we leave the land of WiFi. Pray 4 me,” featuring a black and white selfie of me looking somber. I thought this struck a good balance between humorously admitting to my anxiety about being away from the Internet, while also giving a heads up that they would be deprived of my constant stream of hilarity and wit.
But really, no prayers were needed. Those few days that we spent without WiFi were days that I felt less anxiety than I had in a while. I was more present in conversations because I wasn’t always thinking of another clever thing to say online. I read and talked to my family in our free time instead of worsening my carpal tunnel by scrolling through Twitter on my iPhone. I thought vaguely about social media, but knowing that accessing it wasn’t even an option made me able to overcome any desire to see how many notifications I was getting.
I had feared that I would feel anxious without the Internet, but the opposite was true.
I spent a large part of my summer in 2014 not using social media at all. My anxiety levels were lower, but I did feel more isolated. I hung out with a smaller group of friends, and I wasn’t as aware of what was going on in the world, which provided me with less to talk about with friends.
As such, social media is a double-edged sword in my life. It connects me to people by making communication easier, but isolates me by causing me to constantly focus on my social standing.
Learning to find the balance between the two ends of the social media seesaw is a challenge that most of us have already struggled with, and that most of us will struggle with for a long time. Unlike an alcoholic, an Internet addict can’t realistically practice total sobriety due to the Internet’s unavoidable presence in most of our lives.
Rather than totally abandoning social media, which serves as a coping mechanism for me, I need to find a healthier replacement. Writing, exercising, reading a good book and spending time with friends give me the same near-instant gratification as social media without the dopamine overload.
If nothing else, I’ll be making more of an effort to be conscious of the reasons why I’m posting something on social media. If I’m doing something that will bring me closer to people, I’ll do it, no problem. If it’s some hare-brained attempt to improve my self-esteem, well, maybe I should work out those in some other forum.
Follow Julia Comnes on Twitter (the irony isn’t lost on me) @jlcmns