As you may have seen from my recent posts I have been in a constant battle to reduce my internet usage, despite working online. As a society I think we are only just beginning to realise some of the problems that the internet is causing to our mental wellbeing. One thing I haven’t seen much written about, but is certainly the catalyst for a lot of my own attempts at digital minimalism, is the anxiety caused by being constantly connected to others (from a distance).
I’ve always been a worrier. Part of me likes being a worrier. Worrying has always allowed me to plan ahead. It is worrying that means I save money for a rainy day. It is worrying that means I am always learning new things to keep me employable in a fast changing world. It is worrying that ensures I never miss a flight. Anxiety is a very useful primal driver, but it can also be completely debilitating when you have too much of it. It is also worrying that means I have a hard time shutting off work, even when I’m on holiday. It is worrying that means I rarely treat myself to a luxury. It is worrying that means I can’t relax when I am working away from home, a long way away from my wife.
The internet can cause anxiety for lots of reasons but one way I see very little being written about is the cost of being always a few seconds away from each other, digitally. Right now if I needed to tell my wife (who is at work) something I could send her a text, message her on Facebook, ping her on Skype, send her an email or if all else fails, the old fashioned method of calling her phone. As such we often send each other quick messages throughout the day. It’s lovely to stay in touch all day, but it also creates an expectancy, or maybe even a dependency.
There was a time where I would send a text message to somebody and not expect an immediate answer, sometimes when I would eventually get the reply I would forget I sent the initial message. Now, knowing how close we all are to technology all the time, I get a little anxious if I don’t get a reply within the first 2-3 minutes. If it has been a few hours I can get really nervous. I know I’m prone to worrying more than most, but I’ve seen this in others too who I would not think were naturally anxious, and it is quite common to see people send a message on Facebook, then text you to see if you got it (or ask why you haven’t replied).
The thing I have found has really fostered this sense of connectivity expectation is the plethora of technology that effectively lets you snoop on others without asking to. ‘Read receipts’ on text messages for example, I would prefer not to know when somebody has read my message (If anyone knows how to remove them from an iPhone please let me know). If I don’t get a reply after a ‘read’ is confirmed I wonder why, if I don’t get ‘read’ update at all I worry why the person is not checking their phone. Facebook is even worse, as the IM bar on the side it tells you when your closest friends were last on logged on. Again, I’d rather not know, because if I see that my wife has not checked in all day, I worry (she is a constant Facebook-er). Thankfully you can now hide that bar, which I do.
Maybe the worst of all offenders for connectivity expectation is the Find a Friend app, which lets you see where a friend is via Google Map. I used to use this for when my wife was leaving work, so when she was ten minutes away I would start cooking the evening meal. However, this ultimately encouraged me to check up constantly and in the instances where the app could not find her I would panic. The silliest moment of all was when the app wasn’t working and it made it look like she was in the middle of a large lake, which naturally did not do my anxiety much good. I eventually deleted that app because, like many of the others, it was turning me into an inadvertent stalker.
For thousands of year we have lived in close knit communities, it is only in the last few generations that we find ourselves in this unusual paradox of being alone more often, but connected all the time (What author Sherry Turkle calls Alone, Together). This constant yearning to be connected to everyone all the time probably highlights that we should be spending more actual time together. I love the fact that I can chat with my wife any time of day no matter where we are in the world, I just wish could do it without having her every movement also documented.
As I’ve already mentioned I have taken a number of steps to minimise my Internet usage in large part to prevent this anxiety. The Freedom.to app limits my social media usage anyway, I have hidden the Instant Messenger bar on Facebook, I have deleted the Find a Friend app and now I just need a reliable way of preventing myself from seeing ‘read’ receipts on SMS. This has all really helped, but the sad thing is it means I also often think twice about sending messages in the first place, just to avoid the potential anxiety of a late reply.
This problem is only going to get worse as we are fast heading to a post-privacy world. It would not surprise me if we soon lived in a world where we are almost constantly aware of each other’s movements (we already seem intent on broadcasting everything we do online). In particular I could see parents (understandably) demanding to have full knowledge where their children are at all times.
Maybe knowing where a loved one is 100% of the time would actually extinguish this anxiety that I complain about, but I fear it will simply ill prepare us for the things we should genuinely be worried about and make us panic at the things our parents wouldn’t even think twice about (as I already do).
If you are interested in the psychology of why we are so easily offended these days, I’m writing a book about it. You can get a free copy of an early draft chapter by joining the mailing list below: