The Problem With Being “Extremely Online”

The Problem With Being “Extremely Online”

“It’s so weird that he has zero social media,” she said with exasperation, “It’s just kind of shady, don’t you think?” My friend was complaining about the new guy she was dating.

She didn’t admit it explicitly, but she seemed convinced his Facebook absence meant he was hiding a girlfriend, or perhaps a wife and kids. Yet he’d already told her he didn’t like social media because it was distracting and fake. It was a perfectly reasonable opinion.

I said, “Well, do you like him?” She said, “Yes! He’s nice and handsome and funny.” I urged her to stop worrying so much about it and stop creating problems that weren’t there.

There are surely examples of men hiding things from social media, but her position struck me as a paranoia emerging from chronic onlineness, also called being “extremely online”. It happens when people believe internet culture, and the stories they see online are of high importance to everyone.

You see symptoms of the extremely online in every waiting room in America. Look around and, usually, 90% of the room is looking down at their phone. I saw a starker example when Pokémon Go exploded eight years ago. Hordes of “Pokémon Zombies” swept through our local parks and, sometimes, into traffic with tragic consequences. The game required people to look at their phone and follow digital paths in the real world to find new Pokémons. You saw dead-faced people with screens held up as they walked in winding and sporadic slow paths through parks, streets, and sidewalks.

The other issue is that fanaticism tends to drive online discourse and cause small groups to overrepresent their views, and disinformation to proliferate with ease. It’s never more evident than with social media tricking the ostensibly best newspapers, including the New York Times, to falsely report a hospital being bombed by Israel, leading to a rare editors note being published. But not before the world caught on fire for 12 hours.

The Depp v Heard trial spilled celebrity evangelists into my social media feed, despite me not caring about either actor or their movies. I saw person after person in my feed talking about Amber Heard like she was the devil incarnate. You’d have thought she defrauded these people. These evangelists forget they are several orders of separation from these celebrities and that the celebrities will never know their name. I’ve seen otherwise rational people convinced that Nazis run Ukraine (despite the president being Jewish). All because of repeated exposure to disinformation.

An extremely online person begins grounding their reality in an internet mirage. If you start believing things the rest of the world doesn’t and you lack hard evidence, you might be too online. If you’re hung up on a celebrity defamation trial, it might be time for a break.

My struggles with it

I write online for a living and spend hours and hours in the same room reading articles and writing. I’m at the tip of the internet spear, and see high-intensity users in my comment sections.

Yet I’m also at the mercy of this same behavior. My terminal onlineness flares up if my smartphone breaks. I feel panicky, like I need to defuse a bomb, even though I do most of my communication through Facebook messenger and email.

It’s not healthy: Excessive screen time is linked to decreased social and emotional intelligence, attention problems, and decreased energy. And it isn’t easy to quit once you get on the sauce. I used a blackberry until late 2013. At that point, we were several generations deep into smartphones. I went all the way up to a Galaxy S4 and my screen time dramatically went up. It was insidious as I didn’t even notice it happening.

Are you extremely online?

Here’s a quick test. How hard is it for you to sit for 15–20 minutes, and read a magazine, or do something without looking at a screen. That will tell you how bad the problem is. And spoiler alert: many people struggle. One in four people have canceled and then resubscribed to the same streaming service in the past year.

The amount of time sink wrought by social media blows my mind. One solution is to practice a digital detox. As it sounds, it involves slowly easing your use of social media, smart phones, and screens. There are several apps that track your daily time. I recommend you log it and see if you can cut it in half, or try going a day or week without non-work screens.

Beware of the temptation to be extremely online when you are unemployed. The dopamine hits feel like relief against the despair of unemployment. I find that the best solution is to focus on things that move you away from unemployment, rather than checking Facebook likes. Even if you don’t get a call from an employer, the act of submitting five applications gives you a healthier source of dopamine and a sense of progress.

How did we get here?

I grew up on the primitive internet of the early 90s. It was before the corporate goons came in and SEO optimized every piece of content. It was before every person with a keyboard was trying to monetize every square inch of the web. Content was just content. It wasn’t gamified to oblivion to make our brains turn upside down. What I’m saying is that your screen is getting more addictive than ever, even movies and shows move faster, with camera angles snapping to a new angle every two seconds.

The internet isn’t out to destroy us. Just beware of companies, bad actors and advertisers seeking to gamify your attention and warp the truth. If you must be chronically online, use it to learn and foster connections with friends. My partner does a monthly zoom call with her friends, dubbed wine night. They all listen to an album beforehand and then talk about it. Then, they catch up about life. That is technology at its best.

Pay attention to that little tug, that feeling, “You need to check you phone.” If it comes often, and without good reason, that’s a sign you’re on the sauce.

My grandmother spent hours reading each night, and plowed through library books and it brought her so much joy. I was on the same path, but in recent years, I’ve found myself struggling to finish books. The breakdown happened right alongside the arrival of this screen-centric life and I’m working to reverse this trend.

My hope is that we realize what we see in our feeds isn’t what people in everyday life think about. They live in a place where the sun shines and the wind blows, and where people play by a different set of rules and don’t recognize obscure memes and internet lingo. Challenge yourself to a digital detox. Cut down your screen time and use it more productively.

I’m a former financial analyst turned writer out of sunny Tampa, Florida. I began writing eight years ago on the side and fell in love with the craft. My goal is to provide non-fiction story-driven content to help us live better and maximize our potential.

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