It has been over three years since the Ashley Madison hacking scandal and, with social media increasingly cited as a cause for the breakdown of relationships, maybe it’s time to take a look at how and why this happens.
First, a question. Who is in bed with you right now? You may be side by side with your partner, wife, boyfriend or girlfriend, but who else is lying there between you? Your best friend? Your mum? Or perhaps it’s that guy at work who shares your love of ’90s music and has a nice smile (and even nicer arms…). Or that girl whose number you got when you were out on your own at the club last weekend? Or maybe that old schoolfriend you haven’t stopped thinking about since they got in touch last month…
Imagine if all the people you were thinking of were right here with you now. How crowded would that sofa be? Or your bed?
Whether we are in the kitchen, in the sitting room or in the car, all too often we’re not quite present with the people we are with. Instead, our thoughts are engaged with someone else – what they said to us today at work, wrote to us by email yesterday, said on Instagram this morning. Social media, and the ease with which we are able to connect with each other in a virtual space, has made it easier than ever to talk to and engage with people while we are somewhere other than right in front of them.
And, if we are honest, the thoughts and conversations aren’t always grounded in just friendship, or even reality. It has been two years since the Ashley Madison hacking scandal in which the names of 30 million people who were using the secret affairs website were published online. In that time, there have been at least three reported suicides, deaths which were a direct result of the leak. Some of those people were ‘just chatting’, too…
The role of phones and messages in stimulating the complex reward system in our brain, as well as the way in which our minds seek external validation, is complex but increasingly well documented (see note below). All too often we use social media to scaffold our self-esteem. These platforms, and the smartphones we use to access them, are powerful tools that can facilitate communication and connection, but they are also very shiny toys by which we can, if we are not aware of the danger, be distracted even further from where we are and who we are with. Psychologists have begun to worry about the effect on babies of their mothers using a phone the entire time while breastfeeding – looking away to the side, mentally and emotionally absent, never making eye contact, at the very stage in life that attachment theory has proven over and over is crucial for bonding and child development.
There is nothing inherently wrong with chatting. Or connecting. Or even flirting. But do you know why these people are in the room? Do you know why you are talking to them, and not to the person or people you are with? It’s easy to use our phones and the attentions of people outside of our day-to-day life to distract us from just that: our day-to-day life. In my novel, Appetite, the character of Naomi does exactly that, and is gradually forced to confront the reasons for her behaviour.
As Naomi comes to realise, sometimes it is about attention. It’s human nature to like a boost, to enjoy a smile from a stranger, to experience and appreciate another’s notice, but the complications come when we rely on that attention. When it becomes something we cannot do without in our life, rather than something that complements it.
And sometimes it is about the way we are able to portray ourselves – about the sense of control – control over our image, being able to finesse it, monitor our utterances, curate our publicly admitted likes and dislikes, amend them – post our own photos of ourselves, not those taken carelessly by others. But then the question to ask is, how do we want to be seen and why? Which part of ourselves are we showing to this external person or group and is it, perhaps, a part that we are reluctant to allow to be seen by those closer to us, or which we are keeping deliberately hidden? It is often easier, in a text or a chat, to be a different version of ourselves, and yet it’s essential to ask ourselves, who am I being here, and why? What do I think I will get if I am like this? Is this part of me something I should be sharing with these other people?
We don’t have to stop flirting, or connecting. But, for myself, I’ve found it helpful to pause and think about why…why is it that you are texting that guy from inside your bathroom? What things are you not saying or doing? What feelings are you trying to avoid? What change do you need but are not quite ready to make? And how could you make it more satisfyingly in your real life instead of escaping to your half-imagined, incomplete, distantly connected one?
I have found that it is possible to take back control of our attention, and that it feels good to do it. It can be done in small, habit-forming ways that really work. Be aware of how often we are on our phone and checking – do we respond to every message the moment it arrives? We can limit our phone usage and emailing to particular times of day – avoiding breakfast and dinner, for example, or keeping free a couple of hours after school every day. If this is a problem for work, we can simply explain to valued people about when they can expect us to be free and respond, so that they don’t feel anxious and have to chase, which is stressful for both parties. Let key people – for example, vulnerable family – know to CALL you if it is urgent, so that you do not feel like you have to check the importance and urgency of messages – and then just type a quick reply…and then half an hour has passed. It’s surprising how quickly we can retrain ourselves and our neurochemical reward/obligation systems simply by getting used to waiting an increasingly longer time before we respond to messages – five minutes, then ten, then twenty, then an hour… If we can learn greater awareness of our own needs and those of our partners, family, friends who are right in front of us – we can improve the relationships that affect us most.
We all lead challenging lives, we are all seeking meaning and genuine connection, and we all share fears of loneliness, ageing, loss and death, and this is not about saying otherwise. It is about asking you to think about what, in this moment, you are avoiding? That tweet, that text it is usually about something else other than the tweet or the text… What are you searching for? And is your phone screen really the best place to find it?
Here comes the science bit: reward systems and our brains
The recent peak of media interest in dopamine and the other hormones that manage and control the ways in which we respond to and seek out stimulus has been quite sensationalist or simplistic. The truth is that a whole host of factors influence how and why we seek certain things, and dopamine is just one of these. As Ben Goldacre would say: I think you will find it is a bit more complicated than that….
Dopamine has been called the ‘pleasure’ chemical and is cited as being the thing that manages and controls our pleasure but it is, in fact, part of a complex and large group of hormones and neuro-transmitters which operate in the body and are all part of the body’s central nervous system. This system is all about maintaining and creating homeostasis (regulation) but also achieving optimal functioning: homeostasis, as outlined by Antonio Damasio, means that our body and brain, together, wish to THRIVE.
The role dopamine plays in this is by encouraging us to learn, helping us to remember what helps us feel good (and thrive) and also motivating us to continue these behaviours. So, it is there as part of a system to help us thrive, and is not comparable, as the media would have you think, to being ‘addicted’ to gambling, or cheese. Those kinds of addictions are more to do with personal and social environments than dopamine.
- Ben Goldacre, Bad Science and I Think You’ll Find it is more complicated than that
- Antonio Damasio, The Strange Order of Things