In the last decade, many of us have taken for granted the rate at which social media has exploded – what with Twitter casually amassing 284 million monthly users, and Facebook reaching a cool 1.23 billion. But turns out we’re not all in love with timelines and newsfeeds. In fact, while you get people turning their nose up at Facebook (‘I just can’t be bothered updating my status, I just stay on it for the messaging), or joining Twitter only to tweet once a year (‘What’s the point of Twitter?!’), there are people for whom this new connectivity is not just concerning – it’s debilitatingly scary.
‘I find the whole thing fucking terrifying,’ Kerry says, proving my point as succinctly as one could have imagined. ‘When Facebook came out, I was at uni and was one of the last people in my college to sign up. Mainly because everyone kept taking the piss out of me, but I remember staring at my profile and feeling this ball of nerves in my mouth.’
Remember when Facebook profiles were one page, and simple, and everyone would add their favourite quotes, meaning you had to scroll down for ages before you reached their wall? It took Kerry a full eight hours to complete the bio section. ‘I compared it with other people’s because I remember being scared I’d put something silly, or not write enough, or write too much. Then I stared at it every day and if someone tagged me in a photo I’d get very anxious,’ she adds. ‘The thought that everyone was looking at it, and at me, and how stupid I looked and how boring my hair is and how my quotes weren’t fun. Writing on people’s walls was a nightmare – I’d put messages that were too short and people would take the piss out of me for that.’ Feeling like she couldn’t win, Kerry barely used Facebook, unless it was for private messaging, and then deleted her account the moment she left university.
She’s not the only one to feel the fear of online profiles. It’s not easy getting girls with a crippling fear of seeing their name indelibly marked on the internet to talk – but after a sworn oath of anonymity, Anna (who works in the entertainment industry, and so is expected to be fluent in all things social meed) admits that she’s fairly sure she’s got some sort of phobia. ‘I’ve recently set up a theatre group and have to tweet from the account, but each tweet takes me hours to do, and then I just want to delete them anyway,’ she says. ‘I’m still on social media – I’ve got a Facebook account, but it’s completely locked to everyone because the thought of someone having the freedom to write on my wall makes me feel nearly physically sick. I go hot. To be honest, I didn’t know that social media phobia is a thing, but if it is, then I’ve probably got it.’
Social media phobia is a barely researched, poorly reported on phenomenon where the victim has an intense fear of social media – it’s almost like scopophobia, a fear of being looked at or seen, but a bit more localised. ‘Basically, it’s another form of the condition known as social phobia,’ Graham Jones, an internet psychologist, tells The Debrief. ‘People had this before the internet, where they wouldn’t have liked going out to certain things, or joining certain groups or societies. It’s a deep concern about their self image, how they are perceived and the lack of control social media implies is just overwhelming.’
As with other phobias such as spiders, heights or buttons, it causes actual physical reactions. ‘It’s all to do with the hormonal changes that happen in the brain that then change the way it functions, leading to a physical reaction. It’s related back to the fight-or-flight reaction; they’re sensing a danger and their body is preparing them for severe danger,’ Graham explains. ‘Even though it’s not actually a real physical fear, when you’re in fight-or-flight mode, that doesn’t make any difference.’
This sounds familiar to Anna, who scrolls through her timeline in a state of nearly abject horror. ‘I feel embarrassed for the people who put up pictures and share links, it’s so incredibly vain. Why does anyone give a shit about your new hair or the fact you went out the other night?’ she says. Has she ever shared a link on a friend’s wall? ‘No... because I could just email or message it. Because why would anyone want to see that?’ I suggest that, maybe, other people would enjoy the link, too, and an abrupt, ‘Yeah and they might not,’ response is quite telling. It’s not a disgust with the social media platform itself, it’s a completely inward-facing worry.
‘If I detag a picture of myself on Facebook, I know that the picture is still there – it’s just not on my profile,’ says Graham. ‘Many people would just laugh it off, or forget about it. Some people can’t, because they are so worried about what the reaction will mean to them, and they’re so focused on the their own self image and what other people think of them that these things become a problem.’
Kerry agrees: ‘It’s the fact that, if I write something, it could be wrong. And the fact that people will think I’m an idiot for writing it. I sort of wish I could just like Twitter and Facebook, but I can’t.’ Anna is continuing the battle with Twitter, for the sake of her company, but it’s not easy for her. ‘Sometimes I get dragged into conversations, and I can’t reply. I have to turn my phone off and do something else. I don’t understand how other people can be so unaware of the dangers and stupid enough to put all of themselves out there.’
In terms of actual socialising, surprisingly, it doesn’t seem to seem to affect them too much – Anna has Facebook for messaging, and any invites, and Kerry just uses the traditional method. ‘I just text and call people – my friends know that I’m not on Facebook and it doesn’t really come up now I’m not a student. I don’t think people are using it as much anyway, a lot of people have told me they've gone off it.’
Yeah but not quite in the same way as those who are genuinely afraid of it – while Facebook might be pissing a fair few of us off, lots of us are migrating to instagram, or really getting going on Twitter – as the social media world grows at a ridiculous rate, people like Kerry and Anna are going to be left behind. If you know someone who nearly voms at the mere mention of a retweet, then it’s about tackling the bigger problems because, as Graham explains, it’s not the actual social media platform that’s worrying them.
‘People can be treated by aversion therapy, so you give people the thing they are frightened of and expose it to them under controlled conditions. With Twitter, there’s no point sitting on your own trying to do it – it’s best to do it with a friend on the sofa,’ he says. ‘Then you’re sharing the experience and you’re not alone.’ Also, then you’ve got a friend on the network who you know has your back – so if you make a mistake, they’ll be a second pair of eyes – and as your confidence grows, you’ll feel better. Maybe. ‘The other thing is seeking professional help, and the kind of therapy that works with this is cognitive behavioural therapy. It helps people to learn how they can change their behaviour and rather than worrying about the problem, they learn how to react to the situation.’
Aside from that, they can always just boycott social media forever. Or move somewhere where it’s not so all-pervading. ‘I’d probably move to the moon if it meant I didn't have to see Twitter everywhere, or have people talking it about it constantly,’ Anna says. ‘It makes you feel a bit like a failure for not liking it.’
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.