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digital self

Stop the virtual world, I want to get off

Social media began as sheer pleasure, but now it's become a chore

It was the pain in my neck that brought me to the massage therapist. During our initial consultation, she asked if I had any pressing concerns.

"Pain in the neck," I said.

"Uh-huh," she said. "And you're doing this a lot?" She mimed the zombie posture that I, and every other person on the street, adopt as we stare at our phones.

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"Oh my God," I said. "I have texter's neck!" What a horrible discovery: To have a brought an affliction on myself was bad enough, but one caused by excessive self-absorption was particularly humiliating. Tennis elbow is heroic by comparison.

"Do you see this a lot?" I asked the massage therapist, hoping at least to find myself in widespread, debased company. She raised an eyebrow that said: you wouldn't believe.

My texter's neck will be of no surprise to you. Perhaps you suffer from it as well. It is not tied to texting specifically, but to the hunched, prayerful posture one assumes at the altar of the phone, as one posts, likes, scrolls, retweets.

It will also not come as a surprise that we are drowning in information, swept away on a tide of social media, fettered by our phones. If Grace Jones were to release an album today, it would probably be called Slave to the Algorithm.

The strange thing is, I hadn't thought that I was particularly addicted. Much like the alcoholic who weaves home from the dinner party saying, "Well, at least I didn't hit the Listerine," I had actually thought it was other people who had the problem. Other people who actually enjoy social media. For me, social media has largely lost any pleasure it once had: It has become a second job, a chore, a source of endless guilt for my already overflowing guilt-box.

As of this writing, I have three Facebook pages that I can't keep straight ("I think there's an imposter out there pretending to be you," a friend messaged when my professional page appeared). I am on Twitter, professionally, and Instagram, barely. I have a personal website that sits abandoned like a Soviet-era theme park.

I have joined and fled Slack, Jabber and Kerfuffle (okay, I made up one of those platforms. You'll have to guess which). I have five e-mail accounts, three of which I haven't checked in more than a year. I have forgotten my WhatsApp password. Many nice people with smiling faces want to be my LinkedIn buddy. I feel like HAL 9000 at the end of 2001 A Space Odyssey, except in this case I'm begging Dave the astronaut to unplug me.

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In his new book Irresistible: Why We Can't Stop Checking, Scrolling, Clicking and Watching, author Adam Alter downloads an app called Moment, which tells him how often he's looking at his phone. Alter, an assistant professor of marketing and psychology at New York University, guessed he might look at his phone 10 times a day, for a total of an hour.

Instead, he was shocked to find that he was picking up his phone 40 times a day, and spending three hours on it. The app's creator told him that he was an average user.

"User" has a deliberate double connotation here, because Alter's premise is that we are suffering through a collective behavioural addiction that is rapidly altering our social relations. The addictive features of social media are not an accident, but the results of painstaking effort by the platforms to get users to return and engage more intensively, to hit all the brain's pleasure buttons.

"It's hard to exaggerate how much the 'like' button changed the psychology of Facebook use," he writes. How many of our friends would "like" a post? Who would ignore it? The urge to come back and check is overwhelming – and this feedback loop led to the introduction of other reaction buttons, including sobbing and loving. All of human interaction in a half-dozen thumbnails.

I think the arc of my own social media addiction, from pleasure to misery, is tied to the "like" button. If you feel, as I do, that you're not present enough in meatspace – not thoughtful enough as a daughter or mother, not supportive enough as a friend – then social media is just another place to fail. The social grooming tasks I couldn't manage in real life multiplied beyond count online.

At first, it was enough to "like" a Facebook or Twitter post, but then I began to feel like Lucille Ball on the assembly line – always two chocolates behind, never able to keep up with my obligations.

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Whose baby did I forget to "like"? Did I accidentally "love" someone's death notice? Was I retweeting enough? Were my retweets causing people to hate me? Whose birthday had I forgotten? How many ways can you say "happy birthday, we should have a drink"?

Did my lack of Instagram "likes" mean that my life on Earth was banal and meaningless? Why did I need Instagram to tell me this, when I already knew it?

I had thought it was just me, but it turns out many of us are in the stealing-a-car-to-finance-our-next-joyless-hit phase of the addiction. When I reached out (on Facebook, of course), I heard that social media had become a drag for many, often promoting their work, and a source of irritation and shame (when they posted too much, or too boastfully). For many people, it had become a second or third job.

"I find it an absolute chore," a writer friend wrote, "and also a distraction because the minute I log into any account to post something book-related, I fall into an endless pit of clicking on links."

Those of us in the slough of midlife can afford to break the addiction – we can download an app that limits our social-media interaction, or a browser extension, such as Facebook Demetricator, which removes the thrilling (or dispiriting) numbers attached to posts. That way, you never know how many people liked your posts, or exhibited a terrible lack of taste and judgment and did not.

Young people are more entangled, and not just for social reasons. Many of them view an engaging social media presence as a vital prerequisite for a career. Potential employers will scan their profiles not just for embarrassing margarita-related incidents, but also to see who has built the most enticing online brand across multiple platforms. Whether it's authentic or not is beside the point; what matters is the effort that's gone into it.

As Natalie Coulter sees it, employers have outsourced the work that recruitment divisions used to perform. Now the potential employee's social feeds perform the selection function, and it's stressing university kids out.

"I think my students find it incredibly burdensome," says Coulter, an assistant professor of communications studies at York University in Toronto. "There's huge pressure on them to participate socially, but also constantly to be constructing an image to get them a career. They have LinkedIn profiles, they participate in blogs and Tumblrs, they have to create a social media profile that reflects a certain professionalism.

"They have this double pressure of living their lives but also feeling like they have to be building toward a career. They have that plus schoolwork, plus they all have jobs. And then there's pressure to keep up and engage socially. You're isolated if you're not participating on social media."

We are obviously in the middle of a social-digital-workplace revolution, the consequences of which we can't begin to understand. How will young people learn to juggle the many demands of their on- and offline lives? Anxiety about technology has always been tied to fear and suspicion about young people's lives – hello, television ruining our minds – and I can only hope that they will learn to cope, as their nimble cohort did in generations past. Digital Weltschmertz is an old person's game.

I do know that, for me, what began as sheer pleasure has become a chore. The friend who used to live in my pocket is now a nagging boss – and, sadly, a pain in the neck.

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