The rise of social media anxiety in midlife — and how to stop scrolling

The rise of social media anxiety in midlife — and how to stop scrolling

“There is evidence that the mere presence of your phone around can distract us from meaningful aspects of our lives in the real world.”

It’s 2.30am on a dark, cold night during Lockdown 2.0 and Harriet, a mother of two, suddenly wakes up wide-eyed. The house is quiet but she tosses and turns in the bed she shares with her husband trying to fall asleep again, but something is bothering her. She can’t resist picking up her phone from her bed. As the screen lights up between her fingers, she’s surprised and excited, albeit with a touch of shame, to see a list of Facebook notifications filling her home screen.

“I would spend at least an hour silently replying to messages and checking my feed for updates in the middle of the night,” says Harriet, a 48-year-old TV producer from London. “I was addicted day and night and it definitely didn’t help me feel happy.”

The sleepless nights and the constant phone calls; The need to scroll, like, share and comment not only affected their mental well-being but also their family and work life. “Although I took quite a lot from the talks at the beginning, it was a slippery slope. I couldn’t stop checking and scrolling on Twitter. It’s a very negative space. The noise wasn’t good,” she says.

“I have now limited myself to checking my feed once a week. It’s not healthy to actively seek out people you don’t feel good about.”

It seems that while much has been documented on the link between excessive use of social media and depression in young people, little research has been done on the impact on the lives of us late-mid-life digital adopters, who are now the second most celebrity generation on social media.

Psychologist Sally Baker, who has spent 20 years transforming the lives of negative thinkers, says: “While we weren’t born into the world of tech like Millennials were, we quickly saw the potential to connect with like-minded people in theirs droves. Our midlife is a rich seam of content for the platform.”

One quick look at your thread on Instagram and chances are your algorithm is delivering a steady stream of niche communities or influencers sharing (or sharing too much?) advice on all the midlife turmoil: menopause, grief, dressing for your changing figure, divorce, dealing with youth and dealing with redundancies. And sure, there’s an audience for it. The tens of thousands of likes on some posts are sometimes instantaneous.

A new global report in April this year found that women are now feeling more stressed than a year ago, and almost half are feeling burned out (while our 47 David Blanchflower, Bank of England economist). No wonder, then, that some of us seek these virtual communities or find a “tribe” as a coping mechanism in middle age.

Baker continues: “After two years [of social isolation] Many have lost the habit of meeting in real life, so social media has replaced that. Curating your own group means people can feel valued and heard.”

There is an abundance of platforms offering space and connection for those who may be feeling marginalized as they age.
For Anna Whitehouse (aka @mother_pukka), journalist and author of Underbelly, it was the new motherhood community on Instagram that woke her up when she was home alone with her first baby.

“When I found Instagram, I was like a moth in a flame,” reveals Whitehouse. “The world had made me redundant since I had a baby. But suddenly I could breastfeed with one hand and with the other either build a business, a friendship, a connection, and it’s free. There are women’s voices that otherwise would have been silenced by patriarchy. The movement is tremendously positive.” It is from this very corner of the internet that Whitehouse’s Flex Appeal campaign went viral.

But speaking to her motherhood community, she says: “For me, 2014 was a constant push of those buttons and sucking into the dark side of the internet: the DMs, the likes, the comments. “Are you postnatal depressed? I also!’ or ‘You had a miscarriage too?’ Suddenly, a whole new world opened up to me.” One that, now in retrospect, she says, wasn’t healthy.

“Although we weren’t born into the world of tech like Millennials were, we quickly saw the potential to connect with crowds of like-minded people. Our midlife is a rich source of content for the platform.”

“The connections I made were a bit of a poisoned chalice,” says Whitehouse. “The women who sometimes look for contacts online are actually vulnerable. For example, I saw women who were postnatal depressed or menopausal. I don’t want to demonize social media, because there are positives, but in the end I was online for up to eight hours a day, like a lot of my friends I think.”

Whitehouse warns, “As an older generation, we carry a lot more baggage with us, be it emotional, mental, physical, postpartum, menopause and everything else. When you look at these pixelated squares, the comparison culture creeps in.”

Comparing yourself to others seems inevitable on social media, according to a study led by author Dr. Bruce Hardy of Temple University found in the journal Computers in Human Behavior when they surveyed nearly 750 adults.
“In their desire to validate achievement, many middle-aged adults may look to high school peers (ie, those who had roughly the same starting line) as a point of comparison. Because most people present themselves as hyper-positive online, social comparisons are unrealistic and can affect self-esteem and mental well-being.”

The potential emotional impact of using social media should not be underestimated. dr Emma Hepburn, a clinical psychologist and author of A Modern Toolkit for Happiness: “Fatigue comes from being a passive user; not to use social media for a specific purpose. Our brains are designed to compare, but not with so much data. When we’re already depressed, sleep deprived, stressed, or overwhelmed, the impact on our cognitive and psychological functioning can lead us to fall into the attention traps of social media.

“We often fall into the trap of scrolling when we want to rest, which isn’t helpful. Feelings of Fomo also come into play. There is evidence that the mere presence of your phone around can distract us from real-world aspects of our lives that matter to us and bring us joy.”

But what’s the difference between playfully satisfying your (sometimes pointless) curiosity and serious addiction? “It’s a behavioral addiction when our phones become second selves without which we feel deprived,” says Dr. hepburn “You have difficulty moving away from your phone or social media and it negatively impacts a person’s well-being or ability to function. They could also try to hide usage.”

A new global report in April this year found women are feeling more stressed today than they were a year ago, and almost half are feeling burned out - getty

A new global report in April this year found women are feeling more stressed today than they were a year ago, and almost half are feeling burned out – getty

Fashion editor Anna Cascarina (@annacascarina) is the first to admit the tiny red heart-shaped “likes” and endorsement contribute to the high dopamine hits she gets from her phone. “My phone is always on and I can’t ignore it,” says the former fashion magazine editor who now has 74,500,000 followers. “I know I should just post and get on with my life, but I always pick up my phone to check.”

But like many others who make a living on Instagram (which, by the way, is 84 percent women juggling a career around their caring responsibilities), Anna feels pressure from advertisers to build likes, build engagement, and drive click-through rates and add-ins add to cart if they are marketing a product via an #ad or a #gift or #affiliate link. At the same time, you’re trying to “push” Instagram’s algorithms “to the top” (so that your posts are seen, and consequently liked). From this point of view, it doesn’t seem that easy to make a living as an influencer.

She adds, “One of the reasons I continue to grow my career on Instagram is that women over 40 are underrepresented in fashion content online. But the truth is that a lot of brands don’t even work with me because of my age, which makes me feel like a lost cause.”

Though some influencers like Bella Younger (aka @deliciousstella) and Jess Ann Kirby publicly struggled with exhaustion from the Instagram creator game and were at the mercy of meta (the former was seriously burned out and checked into rehab; the latter is now blogging on the benefits of mental clarity and freedom).

Likewise, some followers, like Harriet and some of her network, also choose to unfollow after feeling overwhelmed by the envious feeds and reels. Harriet says: “It’s not that I’m ashamed of what I’ve posted, it’s that I’m ashamed of the time I’ve wasted on social media! I get sucked into mini hurricanes. There is always some weirdness, drama or panic that has been manipulated to generate clicks and drive traffic. I need to remind myself that there is more to life. Give me a book every day.”

But Whitehouse admits she’s not quite in love with her just yet. “It just needs to be better managed,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a follower or an influencer, it can be a lot to process. Also, on social media, nuance gets lost and conversations can get quite combative.”

Baker concludes, “The gold standard in connection is face-to-face, in person, but social media provides a close secondary experience. What we have learned in the pandemic is that we have not missed anything; We missed the connection and being connected online is proving to be enriching for many people in midlife.”

But remember, like everything else midlife is all about moderation…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.