Social Media Anxiety Is Real, And This Is What It Feels Like

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 

I’ll be honest: I stopped researching this essay so I could Instagram. I realized I hadn’t ‘grammed in several days; pics had piled up. I wanted to show everyone how cute my kids were in their Sunday outfits, how funny my dog looked in a hat, how sweet my husband had been to make me a cake.

Everyone else’s families and lives always look so adorable. I want to show everyone that my little part of the world is just as cute, just as funny, just as sweet. Then when that little heart pops up, they tell me that it is.

Then there’s Facebook, where I second-guess everything I post. Is my tone coming off right? Did I go too far, say too much? If I’m away from Facebook for more than three hours, I open the app in terror. What happened while I was gone? Did I miss any important news? Did relatives go ballistic over stupid memes? Did friends misinterpret my post and blow up the comment section? If Facebook dings, my heart drops and I answer, otherwise I’ll worry incessantly.

These are all classic symptoms, according to several sources, of internet addiction and social media anxiety.

Internet addiction, specifically social media addiction, has a set of well-known clinical symptoms, and according to the Huffington Post, many clinicians have dubbed it as an “anxiety-producing factor.” We get addicted to liking or reading comments. We anticipate what’s going to be on the site before they open it, a situation which provokes anxiety and often physical symptoms, like shaky hands and sweaty palms. We may want to avoid social media at all costs, but feel that we have to get on it anyway or suffer dire social consequences.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America lists a bunch of other symptoms of social media anxiety. We might interrupt conversations to check your social media accounts, cover up how much time we spend on social media, or withdraw from friends and family in the real world. I don’t know many people who don’t interrupt conversations to use social media, but when we’re lying about how much time we spend on Facebook — to others or even to ourselves — and leaving family and friends in the lurch to hop on Facebook, we might have a problem. Like when you sit in the car with your husband and you don’t talk to him because you’re busy Instagramming. Like I did yesterday morning.

Then there’s the heavy-hitting symptoms of social media anxiety. You may have tried to quit social media one or more times before without success (so you know you have a problem — and you can’t fix it). You lose interest in other activities, including work or school, and those things suffer while you check your Facebook or Twitter or Instagram account.

You’ve experienced withdrawal symptoms when you can’t get to social media, which you spend upwards of six hours a day on — and you get seriously nervous when you can’t check your notifications right away. Your phone is with you 24/7. And all of this has a negative impact on your personal, social, and professional life. Basically, you’re so plugged into the virtual world you can’t live in the real one.

Even though many of us didn’t grow up with social media, much less social media addiction, our kids are — and the consequences can be dire. Even as an adult, I still suffer many of the social media anxiety triggers for teens: I get upset when I see events I’m not invited to. I feel pressure to “post positive and attractive comments” about myself. I feel pressure to get likes and reactions to my posts. I freak out when people post things about me that I can’t control.

Fortunately, there are some fixes for those of us who suffer from social media anxiety. For instance, you can limit your feed to only those things that make you feel positive, rather than negative (though, if you’re like me, you’ll still brood about what’s out there). Many people have had success taking the apps off their phones and keeping them on their desktops only, so they’re forced to limit their interaction with them.

Experts also recommend seeking professional advice if you feel that social media is impacting your life in a negative way. “The minute you understand it’s impacting an area of your life — so if you’re not able to go to work, not able to socialize — my advice would be to go and speak to someone about it,” says Amanda Lambros, Clinical Fellow in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Curtin University.

UK’s Metro says that for those of us who can’t take a break, taking one single day off might be “enough to convince” us to do more about our social media addiction. We also need to examine out digital habits. Do we put ourselves down in hopes that the Internet will build us back up and reassure us? (e.g. “My hair looks awful!”, while we wait for someone to say, “No it doesn’t!”). News flash: the Internet does not work this way. We also need to rid ourselves of people who are bad influences and affect us negatively.

But most of all, Metro recommends, we need to make time for real friendships. They’re more important than any clicks or likes we get. And the Internet can’t reach out and give you a hug, or offer to bring you chicken soup. The Internet can do a lot of things, but it cannot offer real human warmth and connection. Which is what we’re all looking for: warmth, love, and validation.

We will find it in real people. So we need to do whatever it takes to get us back into the world of real friends. Our lives will thank us. And so will our loved ones.

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