“I call social-media networking one of the greatest time-sucks of the century,” Ross says. “When you’re doing it for business and you’re doing it for pleasure, there’s an overlap, and that’s where it can get fuzzy, if one isn’t clear with his or her boundaries.”
Ross’s own experiences made it clear to her that those fuzzy boundaries can lead to obsessive behaviors and a disconnection from real life.
“I had a very difficult time for a few days a couple summers back,” she says, “when I had no access to my computer and no phone, even — no Twitter! — until the end of the day, when we could drive up the hill and take care of business. I felt like I was missing a part of myself — a lifeline. I even got the shakes. I felt disconnected from a network that I felt I ‘needed’ more than I did. Twitter was a relatively new tool for me, and, irrationally, I felt that if I didn’t check it while I was gone, I would lose some sort of rapport with my followers. I would think and sleep in 140 characters, and it was becoming obsessive.”
For the book, whose working title is “The Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Hit Send,” Ross has done 100-plus formal and informal interviews with other social-media users (40 percent are from San Diego); many have experienced this type of obsession.
“The thing is, as a work-at-home mom, I’m networking so much with others that are work-at-home, and we need that water-cooler time,” Ross says. “We don’t have that break room, so Twitter and Facebook sometimes leads to that. It’s usually a healthy time to chitchat about things that are going on, to relate and have a little chuckle.”
Dr. Mantell, whose role in the book is to write up a psychological analysis of the stories Ross has collected via her interviews, says that problems arise when social-media usage begins to replace real life.
“What I see and hear is, we go out for dinner, she’s busy texting. She can’t put it down,” he says. “It’s the seduction of that digital world. The biggest danger I see to relationships is that we’re not present. We’re in a virtual world. We’re dreaming.”
Back at the Williams home, Kevin adds his own psychological read of the situation.
“I think a lot of blogging is people who need affirmation from other people,” he says.
Seven-year-old Toots pipes in with her take on the subject. “Mommy, I think people who blog are people who don’t have lives,” she says. Then she immediately adds, “I’m just kidding.”
As funny as Toots means to be, and as subjective as Kevin’s opinion is, Dr. Mantell says that in the worst cases both statements hold true.
“It’s not the worst thing in the world to be connecting to friends via technology, but if it’s the only way you can connect, then there is indeed a problem,” he says. And those who seek validation and approval from virtual friends and followers have an “internal lack of self-esteem [that] comes from this erroneous belief that self-esteem hinges on what you think of me, not what I think of me.”
Deb says that when she first began to blog, she “started out wanting to write, and then after awhile, for sure it does become [partly about] affirmation. But I wonder if you have it in your personality that you need affirmation, or do some people also develop it when they’re interacting online?”
After contemplating this for a moment, she concludes that, for her, the need is built into her personality. “Before I was online, I was an obsessive voicemail checker.”
While Deb does maintain social relationships via tweet-ups (in-person meet-ups with Twitter friends) and does not consider herself in danger of withdrawing from what Mantell calls “the real world,” Kevin claims that his wife’s social-media usage occasionally threatens family time.
“Let’s just say, I’m the one who’s read to the kids for four or five days now.” He stands to clear the table. As if to soften the blow, he then quips, “But the longest our kids have gone without eating is only a week.”
Ross says that boundaries and schedules have been necessities in keeping her own potentially obsessive social-media behaviors at bay. Because of the nature of her work within the sphere of social media, “those boundaries always need to be redefined.”
For Deb, the reinstatement of family dinners is a recent attempt at maintaining consistent interaction with her family. It’s a first step, but not the only one she needs to take.
“I’m sensing that I’m disconnecting from certain parts of myself, and I’m wondering will I go too far and not be able to reconnect those parts,” she says.
It’s been awhile, for instance, since she last worked on the “middle-grade supernatural thriller” she’s been writing for 11 years. The writing she does do is “getting more choppy, more and more like, ‘Let’s get through this. Let’s get through this.’ It’s a by-product of all this being online, because everything is so instantaneous and quick and concise, though there’s really such beauty in not being concise.”
And though she has been in a book club since 1998, Deb hasn’t read the last six books.
“I really mourn that loss,” she says. “Reading.” Then she corrects herself, saying she still does read, “just not books.”
“What about your book?” asks Toots, who has returned to the table after helping her father clear dishes.
“Nothing,” Deb says. “I was just saying I don’t read as much as I used to.”
“That’s bad!” Toots exclaims. “I have a bunch of books.”
When I ask Deb if she’s ever set goals to limit her time on social media, she says, “This weekend, I don’t think I tweeted at all. I still checked [for comments on her blog and mentions on Twitter], though.”
So, could she go for, say, two days without checking?
“That just made my stomach hurt.” She wrings her hands. “I could, I guess. That would be extremely hard for me. It would be a goal. It would be me white-knuckling it through a weekend.”
A pause, and then she says, “I’m afraid you’ll forget me, if I do that.”