Voices: I didn’t realise the dangers of being ‘very online’ – until now

Has Twitter become a darker place over the last decade? It certainly feels like it  (iStock/The Independent)
Has Twitter become a darker place over the last decade? It certainly feels like it (iStock/The Independent)

We humans are built for attachment. Our innate need to connect with others is evolutionary – it’s about feeling safe, valued and part of a social group. While we may vary in terms of attachment styles, sociability and cognition, our brains are evolved for social processing and are “highly choreographed through relationships”.

Evolution probably hadn’t considered the advent of social media, though. And being a “very online” person for the last 15 years began to feel like it was essentially warping my brain.

Even before the apparent decline of Twitter following the takeover by Elon Musk, the platform was making me feel uneasy. I’ve previously written about feeling pressure to provide free content, to rack up likes and retweets, to perform for a social media site that gave back more hate and vitriol than meaningful discussion or a sense of connection. Being a “heavy user” of Twitter led to feelings of intense anxiety and unhappiness, and the sugar high of a viral tweet was always followed by the crushing lows of abuse or poorly received content.

Journalists are expected to use the platform as a professional tool, but when we spend time agonising over what share and how it is received, and then have to deal with vicious trolling and abuse, it can feel like an extra burden on top of the jobs we are paid to do.

This sense of burnout leads some to – quite understandably – eschew social media altogether. I was tempted, sure, but too hesitant to make a clean break from something that’s been such a big part of my life for so long.

I was born in the early 1990s – many moons ago, according to my bad back and general levels of exhaustion – and social media exploded into my life as a teenager, along with adolescent hormones and Tatu’s faux lesbian music video for “All the Things She Said”.

My friends and I had our first phones in secondary school – I was a late adopter, receiving a hand-me-down device at 16 – but the majority of my peers had “brick” phones with no internet capacity by the time they were 12 or 13.

We topped our early devices up with £5 or £10-worth of credit – landlines or MSN messenger were the most popular choices for meandering after-school conversations, and we’d cut down our texts to the barest bones of abbreviation to get as much information as possible for the price of a single message.

We were the MySpace generation, using early coding skills to customise our profiles, agonising over who would make our “top six” friends and rushing back from school to message people we’d been talking to all day via dial-up internet. Facebook became popular while I was doing my A-levels, and by university, it had taken over completely.

Being able to show yourself to others in a way of your choosing is very seductive. It’s creativity, reinvention, control of the narrative; it’s curating an image in order to feel beautiful and desirable, popular and fun. There’s also the way the brain provides us with a dopamine hit when we receive positive responses on social media – when we are followed and liked and retweeted and shared. It activates our brain’s “reward pathways”, which is why we often find ourselves reaching to check on our socials, even though we might not really want or need to.

I quickly adopted Instagram at 20 and Twitter at 21, posting on both as though they were my personal diaries in a pretty heedless and impulsive way. It has taken years for me to really examine the impact of opening myself up to online abuse by strangers and the cost of building that all-important “personal brand”.

Social media is still part of my life. It’s one facet of my job as a commissioning editor at The Independent. I manage the Voices Twitter account five days a week, and now use my own Twitter largely to promote my work and the work of The Independent more broadly, and share content that fits with my own values.

It no longer feels as necessary to offer up as much of my life on a public profile, compared to when I was freelancing or hoping to “break into” journalism, and personal content tends to go mainly on my private Instagram account, where I have far fewer followers.

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WhatsApp is probably my connection platform of choice these days – although I’m not completely on board with voice notes, they’re still the devil – and I try to prioritise IRL relationships that feel mutually supportive and meaningful.

Twitter is work, and in my own time, in a place of rest, the app doesn’t get opened. I also guard my mental health by actually making use of Twitter’s controls on which replies I see. I used to think that curating my mentions this way was somehow “cowardly” but it’s been a gift for my wellbeing.

And this is not in any way to deny the importance of some of the contacts I’ve been able to make through social media. There has been immense value in connecting with a wider network of socialists, LGBT+ folk, amazing writers and creatives, and other like-minded individuals. There are people I found on Twitter who I now count as lifelong friends – and are part of my “inner circle”, away from the daily chaos inferno of the platform.

I’m yet to join that pottery class or community gardening group (I know, what a nerd) that I’ve been considering for at least a year now. The shift to in-person connection-making can feel quite daunting, but maybe it won’t forever.

Has Twitter become a darker place over the last decade? It certainly feels like it. Did I ever owe the platform my every thought, my restful hours, my mental health? Definitely not.

Our series – Generation Gap – explores how different generations stay connected. See the rest of the series here