LOUISE O'NEILL: My name is Louise O’ Neill and I am a social media addict

At the time of writing this column, I have 18 days left until I can reinstall the apps on my phone.

Due to the nature of my novels, people often assume that I am vehemently opposed to social media.

It’s not difficult to see why they would think this.

My first book, Only Ever Yours, is set in a dystopian boarding school carved out of mirrors and is a commentary on how, too often, we find a sense of validation from precarious outside sources (such as Facebook or Instagram) rather than from within.

In Asking For It, the main character is the victim of a brutal sexual assault but it is the subsequent photos of the rape that are circulated on social media which is, surprisingly enough, the most traumatic aspect of the event for Emma.

However, while I may explore the negative aspects of online life in fiction, I have to admit that my reality is very different.

My name is Louise O’ Neill and I am a social media addict.

It’s not all bad, of course.

I would be the first to say that Twitter, in particular, has made me a better person; that it has introduced me to ideas about race, sexuality, gender, politics, and body image that I would likely never have been exposed to in my everyday life.

People wring their hands at how social media is turning young people into a generation of vapid, self obsessed idiots, but I regularly meet engaged, intelligent teenagers who can explain complex political ideologies to me without drawing a breath because the internet has allowed the dissemination of that type of information to become so much easier.

I’ve made friends online who have become incredibly important to me; the internet bringing people into my life that I feel privileged to know.

Even the act of taking a selfie and posting it on Instagram can feel revolutionary for someone like me; who has suffered with an eating disorder and body dysmorphia for most of my adult life.

From a professional point of view, too, social media has played an important role in creating relationships with other authors, journalists, and people working in the media who I might not have had access to living in a small town in West Cork and who proved invaluable when the time came to promote both books.

Despite all of this, it became increasingly clear to me that I needed to take a break for a variety of reasons.

I was having heart-racing levels of anxiety when I didn’t have my iPhone with me at all times.

My palms began to sweat when my battery was dwindling into single digits and there wasn’t a socket in sight. (Oh, the humanity!)

My phone was the first thing I reached for in the morning when I woke up and the last thing I looked at before I fell asleep.

I felt like I was slowly re-wiring my brain, going from someone who read at least three novels a week to finding it difficult to concentrate on anything that was longer than a 1000 word opinion-editorial.

Whenever anything happened to me, I immediately began to visualise how I would describe it on Twitter.

Most worrying of all was how it was affecting my ability to write.

I moved home to Clonakilty from New York in 2011 because I knew that I needed silence; to allow nothingness to bloom in my mind so that words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, could fill them.

In 2016, and desperately trying to finish my third novel, I had no mental space, no peace, and no pockets of silence for creativity to muscle its way into.

How could I?

I was constantly cramming my brain with other people’s thoughts, other people’s opinions; gorging myself on the minutiae of other people’s lives.

So, I decided to take a hiatus for the month of August.

I deleted the apps for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat from my phone. I followed Liz Nugent’s advice and bought a radio alarm clock so I wouldn’t need to keep my phone in my bedroom.

(This hasn’t gone well as I threw away the instruction manual by accident and I can’t seem to re-program the stupid thing. It wakes me up at 6am every morning with a crackling static noise which is a wonderfully cheery way to start of the day, as you can imagine.)

After that, I sat on my hands and prayed to St Jude for help.

I’m not going to lie to you, it’s been challenging.

I keep having pithy observations that I would share with my father — in 140 characters, obviously — only to be met with a discreet eye-roll.

(Tough crowd.)

I sent a meme to my friend, Aoife, and she replied by saying ‘awww, so cute, but everyone was talking about that two days ago?’

(Again, tough crowd.)

It’s particularly difficult on a Saturday, when my column is published, and I have no way of knowing how people are responding to it.

I thought I was better than that but no, apparently I do like the validation. I might even, God help me, need it.

At the time of writing this column, I have 18 days left until I can reinstall the apps on my phone.

(And 13 hours, two minutes, and 19 seconds, but hey, let’s not get into the semantics.)

I’m sorry to turn this into a learning opportunity, but as testing as these past few weeks have been, it has made me realise just how much time I was spending online and how much energy I was expending in maintaining that presence.

Suddenly there were all these hours in the day, and long forgotten feelings of boredom and loneliness re-surfaced.

I didn’t have anything to distract me from the uneasy mix of fears clamouring for my attention; fears about my career, my talent, my body, my relationships.

Without the noise of social media, it was just me again.

Me, alone with my thoughts.

And I realised that a part of me didn’t want to have to face that.

Maybe I still don’t.

Maybe I never will.


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