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‘I had trained my mind to flit like a nervous sparrow’

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Essay | 14 minute read
How is intensive social media use re-training our brains, and is it really an addiction? One former social media editor reflects, beyond the moral or medical panics, on how the internet might be affecting our mental health

In 2007, Gary Small,  a UCLA professor of psychiatry, decided to compare the brains of three people who regularly used the internet and three counterparts – wherever he found them – considered to be non-internet users.

He studied their brains in an fMRI scanner, which maps the activation of neural pathways, and found that the people who frequently used the internet had more neural pathways in their prefrontal cortex, an area at the front of the brain that is associated with problem-solving. Six days later, after giving the non-web users an hour of internet time a day, he repeated the test – and amazingly, he found their brains had already rewired themselves in a similar way to their more web-savvy companions. For Professor Small, the revelation was not that the web creates more neural pathways, but that, ‘The current explosion of digital technology is not only changing the way we live and communicate, but is rapidly and profoundly altering our brains.’

I have personal experience of my brain being affected by online use. I didn’t, unfortunately, have a brain scanner to hand at the time, but I certainly noticed a detrimental effect on my ability to fully engage with and enjoy the world.

My first proper job in newspapers, nearly a decade ago, was as a national paper’s social media editor. A lot of what I did was handling its online presence. People who work in the field like outsiders to think there are dark arts involved in making stories work online. I am going to let you in on some insider knowledge about SEO and social media: anyone can do it. Most cats, with enough training, could become social media experts; they’re just too clever to indulge in a task that doesn’t directly earn them either food or belly rubs.

Here is a jargon-free explanation of what I did to make the paper’s stories ‘travel’ well. I would check the news that day to decide what stories to promote and where, see what topics were ‘trending’ nationally and globally, and then stick the paper’s relevant stories up with appropriate hashtags. Read, paste, repeat. I posted our stories on Facebook, reacted to comments and engaged with around twenty Twitter channels. I would scan Reddit and similar aggregator sites to see if our stories were doing well there. I also made sure the editor’s tweets got good uplift. And repeat again. I guess there were some of the dark arts sprinkled in, but only a little.

Sounds fun, doesn’t it? I rarely spent more than ten minutes on any one platform before switching to the next. Eight hours a day, all day long. I had two computer screens, both full of dozens of open tabs that I would methodically cycle through one after the other.

My boss was, I think, faintly horrified when he realised that my sole ambition was not to work as a web monkey forever; I couldn’t understand how anyone could feel fulfilled by what I felt were mundane and repetitive tasks (many wonderful, bright people are; I just find it puzzling). But I stuck at it, buoyed up by the occasional kind word from the editors about the features and reviews I wrote for the paper in my weekends and evenings.

A busy year went by and I began to realise that I couldn’t recall information very well, like what my friends had told me at dinner the night before, or what that interesting article was that I’d seen on whatsit, somewhere online, maybe the Guardian? What was it, now, something about motherhood? Or eating well? Teaching your children to eat well? Eating your children? I would have moments that you might associate with old age or sleep-deprived new parents, like: ‘Why have I just walked upstairs and why am I holding a ladle?’ Or: ‘Oh, crap, I was meant to meet Sophie at 10am and it’s now 10.30am and she is is very annoyed. But didn’t I see her already on Monday night? I need to check Facebook to find out. Oh look a cat and a dog hugging! Oh yes, there we are, me and Sophie, having cocktails on Monday. Anyway, what was I about to do?’

Here is my theory on it: I think that heavy social media use, combined with the fractured, piecemeal way I worked, was affecting my ability to focus. After two years in the job, a sepia hue descended on life. I realised I couldn’t focus on anything for longer than a few minutes; things I used to get deep joy from were blocked to me now: Sunday supplements, novels, even in-depth conversations. I had a boyfriend by then and had maybe moved in with him for a bit, but that’s all a bit hazy too. I had trained my mind to flit like a nervous sparrow, and that was all it could do. I could be very, very focused on something for five minutes, ten at a stretch – and then it would become vapour and I was on to the next thing.

Even household chores became subject to my disorganised mind. I’d start by hanging up the laundry, then midway through that, I’d start organising my nail polishes, then realise I was missing a phone charger and start reorganising the cable drawer, and end up in a room full of scattered, trailing objects, all testament to my inability to complete a task. My incapacity to focus for any meaningful length of time affected my happiness and well-being in ways I hadn’t expected; my relationships became shallower, my vocabulary narrowed. I was adapting myself to my job and I was doing great at that, but at a very real cost to my actual brain. There was, if not depression, a feeling of skating over the surface of things, never really bedding in. Superficiality reigned. And because I was often too distracted and tired and busy to remember to make social plans with my friends, it was also lonely.

Mine is an extreme example; it was my job to use social media constantly and that’s why the effects were so great, but even the average person checks their phone 200 times a day – that’s once every six and a half minutes. Hence this worry about ‘social media addiction’ cropping up in the news.

This month the Daily Telegraph launched a campaign to limit children’s social media use, stating that a swathe of data amassed by charities, academics and doctors has linked it to a series of harmful results, many of which build gradually over time. The news about how children’s social media use can result in lasting harm was covered across several other broadsheet papers, radio and TV, often quoting the same expert, Mark Griffiths, a Chartered Psychologist and Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction at Nottingham Trent University. He has found through his research that ‘social media addiction’ comes with all the behavioural signals that we might usually associate with chemical addictions, such as smoking or alcoholism. These include mood changes, social withdrawal, conflict and relapse.

Social media addiction is a made-up term. That is not to say it isn’t a real feeling, but that there is no strict definition of what it is and how it differs from other forms of addiction. The Diagnostic Statistical Manual or DSM (the psychologists’ bible) does not include social media addiction as a medical disorder.

When I spoke to Professor Griffiths, and asked about why we are using this term ‘addiction’ for something that is, in fact, more a habit, he conceded that ‘drugs tend to cause more physical harm [than social media use]’, which is, to my mind, not the greatest insight from an expert in the field.

But addiction, he suggested, was a valid term to describe the effect social media use is having. When I asked about my personal case, he  told me that there is a real dearth of research on social media use and attention spans. He has ‘never read a single paper on attention spans’ in relation to social media – implying there is no evidence to support or refute my theory that heavy social media use affected my ability to concentrate – but researchers have associated online social networking with depressive symptoms, anxiety and low self-esteem.

Professor Griffiths is also director of the International Gaming Research Unit, which researches gaming and gambling addiction. He notes that social media platforms use gaming strategies to create a fear of missing out, and provide rewards and badges to get people to stay online and engaged for as long as possible.

So while the DSM doesn’t have anything on social media addiction, it does include Internet Gaming Disorder as a ‘Condition for Further Study’.  This means that it is not an official disorder in the DSM, but one which may or may not become an ‘official’ disorder after more research. This is where the connection between social media and gaming comes in and allows journalists to write scary stories about how young people are being damaged.

Slot Machines in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Santi Visalli/Getty Images)

Professor Griffiths says fear of missing out is the most effective psychological hook used by social media platforms. There’s also the unpredictable reward such as a ‘like’ or new friend request – the same technique that keeps adults playing fixed odds slot machines for hours on end, or lab rats playing a game that sporadically rewards them with food.

Addiction is a pretty scary word. We associate it with smoking, drinking, early death. And yes, there are cases of children commiting suicide after being bullied online or excessive online gaming leading to death. A couple of months ago, the BBC reported a South Korean man had died during a prolonged gaming session but there hasn’t, as yet, been a death due to someone forgetting to eat or sleep because they were in a very long argument on Twitter.

My experience with my social media use was not at all life-threatening, just a bit life-dimming. And, crucially, it was reversible: I’m better now. I’ve written a book and a play; these projects take lots of long-term focus and commitment, skills I didn’t have back when I was a social media editor but which came back, like old friends, once I changed jobs.

Before we go any further, I feel full disclosure may be necessary. My mental and emotional deterioration may not have been entirely due to my heavy social media use. There were some other factors at play. First, there’s a certain mindset that comes with daily newspaper journalism; we are all deadline junkies, unable to even begin writing a piece more than a few days in advance. We wait until the fear creeps in – that’s our fuel. We consume gallons of coffee, we leave frantic emails telling people we are on deadline and need answers NOW! We think our career is definitely over because we can’t write the perfect paragraph and then in the last precious hours, we pull it together, we file. The adrenaline ebbs, we slump, exhausted and relieved, on to the pub, where we lionise ourselves to anyone who’ll listen. Then we do it all again the next day. Ask us a week later what that important story was about: we can remember the topic but possibly not the names of the people we interviewed. We are already on to the next thing.

I recently met a man who had been a war reporter and now runs a business. He exists in a cycle of panic and relief, never thinking more than a week ahead on any given project, even though he no longer has daily deadlines, and the only gunfire is metaphorical. But that fight or flight mindset actually works well and is even encouraged in newspapers. So, in mitigating evidence to my theory, there is the fact that journalism attracts people who get bored with long-term projects and are already adapted to think and work in a short-term way. Basically, we are all a little bit crazy to begin with.

Furthermore, it wasn’t just the social media use that was affecting my faulty memory and focus. I was twenty-six, I hadn’t worked in a newspaper before and I desperately wanted to succeed. I spent my evenings, weekends and holidays pitching and writing features for the paper. There was a rule that if you were on the ‘web’ side, which I was, you could only write for the paper if it was in your free time, for free. I didn’t begrudge this at the time, as I wanted to get onto the paper – that’s where the good writers were, back then.

I started being asked to do gig reviews and sometimes theatre reviews, and was soon doing them two, three or even four evenings a week. Reviews needed to be filed the next morning, before my work day began, and the nights ended late. So I didn’t sleep much. I think my caffeine addiction began, as well as a sporadic twitch in my right eye.

After speaking to Professor Griffiths, who appears to be on the ‘social media will damage our children forever’ side of the debate, I decided to find someone who might offer a counter-argument. Chia-chen Yang is an academic based at the University of Memphis, America. Her focus is on young people’s psychosocial development in the digital era. Specifically, she studies use of social media and its association with their social experience and identity.

‘Currently, too many news stories and reports focus on the negative side of social media. I understand that those stories catch more eyeballs, but they fail to present the full spectrum of the roles of social media,’ she says when I tell her about my subject of investigation. She has an issue with this idea we are ‘addicted’ to social media . ‘Addiction has a specific clinical definition,’ she says. ‘Instead, I would refer to it as compulsive or problematic use. Whatever the terminology is, it involves more than just long hours of use. It involves a sense of things being out of control. So: I want to stop using or thinking about it, but I can’t.’

Think about the rise of your heart rate,  the adrenaline push, the instinctive itch in the fingers, the automatic need to look when your phone makes that little innocuous beep-beep and you can’t help but pick it up, straight away, maybe cutting a conversation dead just to see who’s there, because the devoted attention you get from your phone is better than what’s happening in front of you in real life. This word addiction may be misused in relation to social media use, but checking your phone is a compulsion, isn’t it? Something that’s hard to ignore?

I tell Yang about my experience as a social media editor, twitchily scanning through my different social channels, feeling slightly removed from the real world, and being unable to focus deeply. ‘The detrimental effect is likely due to distraction caused by multitasking,’ she explains. This makes a lot of sense. Mentally, I was a butterfly. She points me to several research articles on social media use. They have positive and negative findings. One on Instagram use, written by her, shows Instagram interaction and Instagram browsing were both related to lower loneliness, whereas Instagram broadcasting (where you post pictures) was associated with higher loneliness.

Psychological well-being was affected not just by use of the site itself, but the predisposition of the person using it. In another study, positive Facebook posts are associated with more supportive feedback from the audience, resulting in higher self-esteem. This is the stuff that we don’t hear about in the news – that actually a post about your promotion at work, or taking your dog for a nice walk, or buying a nice new shirt will get supportive, kind, feedback online, that will make you feel good.

Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Then a sentence from another article about Facebook use hits me: ‘The younger generation might have irreversibly developed habits of scattered attention because of pervasive information and communication technologies.’ This is what the news articles have been talking about. And this is my worry too – that the experience has damaged me, that I may never regain the ability I had as younger person to memorise a script after just a couple of read-throughs or to absorb the contents of a textbook when cramming for an exam, or more than that – that I won’t ever reach my full potential as a writer because of a lack of dedication and focus.

‘I think “irreversible” is a very strong word, so I would be cautious using it, especially when that’s just the authors’ speculation,’ says Yang, reassuringly. ‘If we only talk about how terrible media are, [it hinders] the development of constructive guidelines of healthy media use . . . A balanced view is particularly important since it’s almost impossible to ask people not to use social media today.’

But will it be the same for children growing up now? I grew up with books, board games, films. That was what gave me my road map back from my butterfly mind. I started reading again, every lunchtime, for forty-five minutes. At first it was hard not to check my phone for frantic messages from the editor, but after a while, it got easier. I was able to exist outside of the pressures of work and be totally immersed, for a short time, in something outside of myself. I stopped double-screening and retrained myself to sit and watch a whole film from start to finish. It required a lot of discipline not to check my phone in the slow moments, but I managed it and I enjoyed my ability to switch off from work.

But what if I hadn’t grown up with those habits that require prolonged attention? What if instead I’d grown up with YouTube videos and Facebook? ‘Your thoughts are plausible,’ says Yang.  ‘Maybe kids today do spend less time reading and watching a whole film, or maybe they are constantly distracted by technologies when they perform those activities.’

On some level we all understand this: we don’t need research to tell us that our days are more frantic and fractured than our parents’ lives and that our children will grow up in a place that’s more hectic still. ‘Technologies allow people to multitask and to be in touch with so many people and tasks even though they can be physically present at only one place. It’s convenient but also overwhelming,’ says Yang. ‘I believe that’s part of the reason why meditation and the mindfulness training has become so popular. It helps people bring their attention back to the here and now.’

A review of recent scientific findings on social media and mental health states that several studies show the prolonged use of social networking sites, such as Facebook, may be related to signs and symptoms of depression. In addition, some authors have indicated that certain online social activities might be associated with low self-esteem, especially in children and adolescents. But yet more studies have presented opposite results in terms of positive impact of social networking on self-esteem. The true answer is: we just don’t know what possible lasting harms may exist in these new technologies, but it’s probably not all bad news, or as irreversible as the headlines suggest.

In many ways, we haven’t got much further than Professor Small’s 2007 experiment; we are rapidly adapting ourselves to work with new technology, but the costs and gains of that are unclear and certainly not as simplistic as the headlines might have us believe.

In my creative work, I’m interested in projecting slightly into the future, and the idea that the internet and social media are changing us in ways that we can barely yet fathom is an interesting one. I’ve written a novel where the world is controlled by a sort of hive mind, a malevolent internet if you will, and a play where the protagonist is a YouTube star who wants to give up her job but can’t because the job is her – her personality is the only marketable tool she has. She becomes allergic to avocados – the wellness blogger’s Ambrosia – and develops depression.

If you are an Instagram or YouTube celebrity, and at the age of, say, thirty you suddenly realise that there’s more to life than twenty-minute videos about contouring and an ass that won’t quit, where do you go from there? What’s your fallback plan? What are your transferable skills?

At the time, jobs like mine were quite rare. Now there are thousands of people employed as SEOs, community managers and social media experts. And web-reliant jobs are only going to increase. For two years, I experienced something that future generations may think of as normal – every day was filled with insubstantial digital approximations of the social world that made life a little diminished. It’s called ‘social’ media, but really it’s a poor facsimile for real human contact.

This is the future of social media use that I am worried about: immersive and all-consuming. Social media companies are only going to get better at hooking us in and keeping us connected. VR is on the brink of major mainstream use. I love new technology, and part of me delights in the idea we could all explore new possibilities from our sofas, but I also worry about what we are are giving up when social media makes it so much easier to interact in the virtual world than to make real-life plans.

Imagine a future where most jobs are based on social media interaction and where most meetings are done through Skype, where meet-ups with friends and family are replaced with FaceTime. Luckily, I took control and made an effort to retrain myself back to what, for me, was normal. But if that world was all you knew, how would you ever know you were missing out on a richer, more nuanced, more interesting and more connected life? How would you understand what normal was?

Emily Jupp is working on a play (Doing Well) and novel (OHM).