the reach

On social anxiety in the age of social media

Elena Scotti/FUSION

I’m one of those people who feels awkwardness as acutely as a peach would feel a cactus. And airplanes are breeding grounds for awkwardness. A group of strangers sharing a forced joke—“Suitcase wheels, am I right?”—can give me goosebumps I call cheesy bumps, because I get them when situations turn cheesy.

I’m often emotionally uncomfortable, even though I’m outgoing. I felt the former this week when I boarded my Southwest flight to visit my ailing grandfather. I looked out the window, human-canceling headphones in place. But they aren’t 100% human-proof. I heard the pilot on the loudspeaker, starting to sing.

“Allllllll myyyyy baaaags are packed, I’m ready to go…”

No no no.

“I’m standing here outside your dooooor.”

Cue the passengers’ rhythmic clapping.

Cue the cheesy bumps.

I open Instagram, look at my best friend’s baby’s feet. I swirl through Twitter, thumbing, thumbing. Time, please pass, make it stop.

The flight attendant said, “Later it will be the ladies’ turn to entertain.” The phrase hung in the air while all our minds went straight to strippers, and people tittered. I never thought I’d have to write “titter,” and I hate them for making me.

I end up posting about it on Facebook, because during awkward moments social media is where I dive for cover. I need those quick hits, that slot machine of posts circling as I thumb the screen.

Like you, probably, I’m on my phone too much, and I want to be on it less. American adults check our phones 46 times a day on average, and give Facebook 50 minutes of our time between their main site and Instagram every single day. If I continue like this for the rest of an average-length life, I will spend almost two out of my next 50 years on Facebook.

I’ve tried to get off of it. I traded my iPhone for a burner, but I’m too directionally challenged to live without Waze. I tried leaving my phone outside my office. I put all the apps in a folder called “Dickin’ Around” as an admonishment.

When I feel uncomfortable, I reach for my electronic escape hatch.

But still, when a contestant on So You Think You Can Dance starts crying about doing it all for her son, when a coworker stumbles through a typo-riddled PowerPoint presentation with his fly down, when we can all hear the pooping man in the restaurant bathroom—in short, when I feel uncomfortable—I reach for my electronic escape hatch.

Wow, it started that early, I thought, looking at a picture of myself with friends at 10 years old, the only one wearing sunglasses. Once my friends forced me to go to a dinner that was supposed to reconcile two people who didn’t like each other, as a result of gossip from the third. As soon as we walked up, the guy said to my friend, “So, I hear you don’t like me.” I lowered my sunglasses over my eyes like a hermit crab retreating into her shell.

That was before the trinity: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. I like social media—I just tweeted to Salt N Pepa and they responded, so it has its miraculous functions. But its power can consume me. When I see a group photo and find myself in the background, my head downturned to my phone, I see in that photo a person I don’t want to be. I get sucked in until something snaps me out of it, like the people I’m with laughing at something I missed. I’ll throw my phone on the couch, into the dirty laundry bin, into the back seat of the car—anywhere it can land softly and put a least a few steps between me and a mental getaway. But then a commercial for erectile dysfunction comes on, and I’m digging through the couch cushions.

In the same way my sunglasses put up a buffer, my phone creates an attention shield, dulling the effects of my surroundings. I want to be the in-the-moment kind of gal. But am I—student of mindfulness, watcher of YouTube meditation videos, owner of an inspirational forearm tattoo—being present?

“The answer is no, you’re not really present,” says Emanuel Maidenberg, a clinical professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California-Los Angeles. “Present means being fully exposed to whatever happens around you experientially, so when you’re present in more than one place, then you’re not really present in any.”

The Reach for my phone is called negative reinforcement, Maidenberg says, which is essentially doing one thing to reduce the stress of another thing. Attention is a limited resource, more limited than we pretend it is in the Multitasking States of America. It’s also a zero-sum game: When you pay attention to one thing, you rob it from another.

We argue about giving up phones entirely, using apps to cut down, and iPhone separation anxiety. For me, I feel The Reach most strongly when I can’t satisfy it. It becomes all I can think about when I’m sitting in an open mic and someone is reading a poem that manages to be both sexually explicit and racially offensive. Because going on my phone would flash a shame light on my face in the darkened room, I. Must. Tolerate. The Awkwardness.

But what about the times when I really want to be present, yet there’s that general Americanized acceptance of dipping out to a phone? I found myself in such a place a few months ago when I traveled 3,000 miles to see my mom’s brother, who is dying of cancer. He looked great, at home, that same kind smile I’ve known all my life. We hugged, drank tea with my mom, and laughed about memories 25 years old. It was fun and easy, until talks of the treatments entered our conversation, then the fact that my uncle is going to die sat at the table with us. The thing I’ve called The Void since my dad was killed in an accident when I was 17, that knowledge that at any time your most valuable relationships could be ripped from you, opened up its mouth and whispered in my ear.

“No,” I told myself. “Put down your fucking phone and be with your uncle.”

While my mom was talking to him, I found myself on Twitter trying to avoid the difficult conversation…Kim Kardashian is naked…chemo…Trump said…the doctors advised…@benguy28 commented lol…

Laughter, not the spelled out kind. I looked up. There he was, alive and smiling. No, I told myself. Put down your fucking phone and be with your uncle.

Adulthood can suck in ways I wasn’t prepared for. I wasn’t ready—not for cancer, not for accidents, not for the hard questions of ailing grandparents. But the thing that makes it easier and worth it is the beauty of the other side, the joy of connection. When I catch my friend’s kids whispering secrets to the dog, when I sit in an undisturbed conversation among 15 of my favorite people around a dinner table, when my boyfriend and I don’t pick up our phones, not just yet, on a Saturday morning and make each other laugh until hunger coaxes us from bed. All those times I don’t feel so alone with The Void, all those times I might miss if I avert my eyes.

I always want the upside without the work. I want connection without having to deal with the miscommunication. I want laughter without the hard conversations. But Maidenberg tells me that by trying to skip the awkward parts, with the “by definition anti-social behavior” of The Reach, I’ll miss the rest of it.

“By being an anti-social behavior, the consequences [of phone distraction] are generally leading to more and more social isolation,” he says. “Access to online social media activities at times can become a partial replacement for actual human experiences or interactions.”

Dampening the bad can lead to dampening everything, he says. It’s even possible that by responding to anxiety with my phone, I’m teaching myself to respond to excitement with it as well, which my body can experience similarly. And it can just get worse. But it’s not too late, according to him.

“You have to make a decision, and then you have to create conditions that are most likely to help you to be able to fulfill that decision,” he said. “We develop new habits that can be more consistent with [our] values.”

If I can sit with the pilot singing on the flight home, feel my cheesy bumps, and bear strangers clapping, I’m more likely to sit and just be at a concert or a party. If I can throw my phone farther more often, then I’m more likely to not reach for it so much even when it’s closer. If I can remember that this is my life here, happening around me and not in a virtual world, then I’ll be blessed with the moments of connection with the people who matter most and really be present at those time when they most need me to just be. I hope I can find a way to live according to these values, and still keep my Waze app.