Why My Obsessive 24/7 Social Media Addiction Nearly Ruined My Life

Photo: Peter Snaterse / Shutterstock
woman looking at phone

It was nearly a decade ago that I transitioned into a career that involved working almost entirely in the digital space, and social media began to take over my life.

Since basically forever, the online world always held a certain siren's call. ICQ and LiveJournal, IRC, and Friendster. I illustrated my mood via cryptic AIM status messages and exhibited deep feelings of hurt when I'd put someone important to me in my MySpace Top 8 and they didn't do the same for me.

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When I dreamed about those I had crushes on, it wasn't just steamy beach encounters that I fantasized about; I imagined the moment that, post-beach encounter, we changed our Facebook statuses to "in a relationship."

I'm not sure exactly when the days of my life became that of a digital variety, but I can absolutely say that once I started to work as an online editor, it gave me the excuse I needed to rationalize being plugged in 24/7. No longer was I simply an introverted girl who spent too much time on the Internet; now, I was an incredibly focused career woman. It wasn't that I was fixated on social media, you see. I just was very involved in my work...right?

The years have gone by — too fast, as the generation before us would say — and with the invention of more sophisticated smartphones and apps I couldn't have dreamed of a decade ago, one could feasibly have all their needs met without speaking to a single soul.

We can order our groceries via FreshDirect, our dinner via Seamless, even get our hair and nails done via GlamSquad, all from the comfort of our apartment. There are days I spend so much time filling all my needs via apps and email and text messages that I find my voice a little hoarse from non-use if a real human is to call.

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As someone who works from home in a relatively small studio apartment, all these comforts are dangerous. The self-employed have an easy enough time becoming increasingly introverted, and the digital implosion made that reality explode.

Social media and the reality of my career have made me an extroverted introvert. Living on the Internet lets us create the masks we need and be who our world, friends, or job demands us to be. I can be incredibly outgoing and fun in social situations, especially social media situations, but I often grow tense and exhausted.

Sometimes, "real life" social situations for an extended period of time — say, a business trip, of which I have many — saps so much of my social energy that I come home and crave nothing more than my happy independent shell, one that allows me to be in my own space with the company of myself, and yet have access to the entire world via a few iPhone taps.

And, somewhat sadly, it's hardly ever really felt like an issue. When you're in my line of work, it becomes common for all of us to be checking our Twitter and email at dinner.

It's not a problem until you realize it's something like an addiction; that you can't comprehend what to do with yourself without it. And then, you wonder if you need to cut the chain, or if you need to step back a little to evaluate your dependence.

Recently, I was away from home for the weekend and had some computer problems. It was a fixable situation, but one I didn't have the ability to fix for a few days. It was the weekend  a holiday weekend, no less. Ultimately, it just meant I couldn't be online for a few days, which, logically, isn't that big a deal.

I wanted to see this as a much-needed break. I wanted to see this as an excuse to chill out and catch up on my Netflix. But instead, I went into a bit of a panic. Like, what was I going to do with myself?!

Ultimately, what I did with myself was enjoy a glorious cocktail and read a book. I called a few friends on the phone using actual verbal skills. But that nagging feeling of restlessness stayed with me all weekend — and that's not OK. Is my life that attached to the Internet, or was I using it as an escape from life altogether?

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Obviously, those who work predominately online cannot "quit" the Internet in the same way that we would quit other addictions like drinking, drugs, or gambling. It's not an option. But it did remind me of once upon a time when I weaned myself off caffeine to get better control over the dependency.

Maybe what I need is a "technology Shabbat" (which is a day of rest in Judaism) once a week, or more specifically, set "office hours" so I can mentally separate social Internet time from work Internet time.

Since I work for myself it feels like I can make my own hours, yet I can't remember the last time I went out for the day without my computer. Maybe it's not entirely social media dependency; maybe it's also being a workaholic.

But also, maybe perspective is necessary.

Should I be checking my Twitter as soon as I land from a long-haul flight before I even text my mom to tell her I landed? Probably not. Should I be prioritizing taking photos of my dinner over actually just enjoying the meal? Hard to say. Boundaries have to be set, but I'm not quite sure yet where the limits exist.

Social media is one of the most powerful communication tools in the universe. It's incredibly empowering and useful and can be a lifesaver in so many elements of life and work. But when do we stop being the ones in charge and letting our iPhones own us?

When does it stop being about being productive and start being about distraction? Finding the balance is what I need to start getting better at figuring out.

Aly Walansky has been an author with YourTango since 2014. Follow her on Twitter.