Emma Rose, Associate Lecturer and Social Media expert gives her opinion on the Fear of Being Offline syndrome.
In an increasingly fractured society I think it is really dangerous to give ourselves labels, not least when it is determined by one of the not-so-scientific quizzes. The most recent one that I have seen gaining traction is ‘Do you suffer from an acute Fear of Being Offline?’ The results of which ‘self-diagnosis’ can label you as a Denier, Obsessor, Ultra or Preener. Rather than apply the label and then repeat it to ourselves and others like a badge of honour (or even as justification), we need to develop the habit of lifting the veil and trying to understand the causes rather than be satisfied with yet another label.
By pondering the new ‘condition’, or as red top papers are calling it ‘the crisis’ that is FOBO, I believe it is feasible that FOBO is merely a magnification of human behaviour rather than a cause for concern. I have to admit here to being an advocate for social media, so in my view it is merely another channel by which we communicate. It isn’t making us bad or good – it simply amplifies us – or any part of us that may be bad, good, or neutral.
So, if FOBO is a facet of what is normal that we can face whatever our age and circumstances, here’s another acronym for you to consider: APOL (I like this because it sounds like Apple).
The acronym is shorthand for four considerations when assessing reasons or likelihood for being ‘afflicted’ with this ‘modern day condition’ FOBO.
A – addiction
P – peer-pressure
O – obsession
L – loneliness
Peer pressure and Loneliness can be grouped together as there could be a tendency for these to be prevalent at different times in our life: peer-pressure for younger age groups, and loneliness for older age groups. Think of them as emerging from opposing ends of an age spectrum. I grew up in a time of payphones taking two-pence pieces, and I do not know how I would have coped with the current pressure to be online, on multiple platforms, and constantly available to friends and family.
For younger people, this peer pressure could manifest itself as ‘not wanting to miss out’. Be it on the current meme, joke, event, or mishap making the rounds via social media. Who doesn’t want to be up to date on the latest music, fashion, or Kim Kardashian tweet if any one of those is the tie that binds your social group together? Which one of us wants to feel like the only outsider in a conversation: ‘OMG, what do you mean you haven’t heard…it’s all over Facebook!’
Loneliness on the other hand (albeit felt at any age) can drive excessive behaviour online in order to feel connected, to know what is going on, or enable us to converse or interact at some basic level even if it is just to ‘like’ a friend’s photo. I am in my forties and busy with my career and home so I don’t have the social life of my twenty-something self. My daughter is away at university so the house is empty and I live in a rural village which is beautiful, but can at times be isolating. I go through periods when I can feel acutely lonely, and social media gives me a link back to my friends in various cities around the world. But rather than give myself a label to obsess about, I understand that this loneliness is natural and will pass. Whenever the feeling of loneliness stays for too long, ironically it is reaching out on social media to my friends that short-circuits it, and then once out and about socialising, my social media use diminishes.
The second grouping is Obsession and Addiction. Whereas addiction can be serious and sometimes needs an intervention from friends and family (or in more serious cases from trained professionals), this tends to be a long-standing issue and social media becomes an outlet or focus for the addiction.
Obsession on the other hand could manifest based upon circumstance, and is therefore temporary in nature. Examples include: when a couple breaks up, or when a friendship or business fails. Obsessive monitoring of the third party’s online activity by those spurned or hurt in some way can be a digital way of behaving when experiencing chaotic emotions at times of upheaval. Of course, taken to extremes, obsession can develop in to addiction and, if continuing unabated, can become unhealthy or even criminal in the form of stalking.
But the overall message here is that these are emotions and behaviours that we already experience, and are not in any way new to us as sensitive and emotional human beings. I have found this really powerful, as it is too easy to succumb to the ease of accepting a label that we are given. I don’t fear for myself, and am much more comfortable knowing that most bouts of intense behaviour online is going to pass.
There is also evidence that people are starting to self-regulate. Anecdotally I have myself taken, and seen others take, a hiatus from social media wholly or in part. We have already adapted and are less ‘carried along’ naively by these still-nascent technologies, and are more likely to recognise when our behaviours are unhealthy or driven by circumstances and emotion. We shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves, and we certainly don’t need another label.