Text anxiety: why too many messages make us want to throw our phones at the wall

‘As the pressure to be online and always available continues to grow in our society, in-person interactions provide far more authentic communication than digital ones.’
‘As the pressure to be online and always available continues to grow in our society, in-person interactions provide far more authentic communication than digital ones.’ Photograph: XiaoYun Li/Getty Images

The average American has 47 unread text messages and 1,602 unopened emails. No wonder it sometimes all gets too much

When Senait Lara, a 28-year-old video producer in Los Angeles, was confronted by her friends about her lack of communication in their group chat, the accusations were as follows: she only caught up every few days; when she did, it was barely an interaction – Lara spent time “hearting” messages instead of responding with words; and sometimes she would never respond at all. Lara did not deny it. She knew she sometimes preferred to throw her phone in a corner and completely avoid it rather than deal with the onslaught of requests.

It wasn’t until Lara addressed her behaviour in therapy that she realized she felt anxious from texting because of her tendency to please those around her. As her therapist described, people-pleasers are less likely to have boundaries around communication, which smartphones barely provide. “I never understood why I would be so difficult to communicate with, but then I realized it was all online,” she said.

In person, Lara felt comfortable talking with people, but when communication came down to a text message, an email, or a direct message, she wanted to tap out.

While social media and messaging apps claim to keep us more connected to each other, many younger users are finding themselves exhausted from receiving constant notifications, balancing numerous exchanges at once, and carrying conversations that can last all day – and sometimes over the course of a week. The after-effect? Delayed responses, forgetting to get back to someone entirely, and a need for frequent phone breaks. In fact, a 2020 study exploring the effects of information overload and online conversation dynamics found that “over-exposure to information can suppress the likelihood of response by overloading users, contrary to analogies to biologically-inspired viral spread”.

It makes sense that millennials are feeling extremely overloaded. While social media use has increased among older adults, they are less likely to use multiple social media platforms, or to highly engage in them, making them less susceptible to technological burnout. Instead, studies show that older generations use social media platformsto keep up with family and to compensate for missed in-person interactions, rather than branding themselves or seeking opportunities, which results in less time and less engagement. Some avoid social media platforms completely because of technological disadvantagesor fear of security breaches.

Millennials, on the other hand – people born between the early 1980s and mid-1990s – have been described as the burnout generation. It’s a generation that has matured in a technological world that allows for work, information, and communication to follow them everywhere.

Throw in the increase we have seen in ways to communicate since the pandemic and you have gridlock. People are overwhelmed. From Zoom meetings and FaceTime dates to Slack blurring the lines between work and casual chat, connecting online has grown rapidly since 2019. There was a 61% increase in social media engagement during the first wave of the pandemic, and that wasn’t just for the love of it: 73% of users expressed a negative sentiment towards social media in the past year.

With vaccination rollouts and pandemic precautions easing, there is some relief on the horizon, but people are feeling burned out from spending much of 2020 online.

The average American has 47 unread text messages and 1,602 unopened emails. And yet, the average phone screen time for American adults is 4.2 hours per day – more than ever before. This suggests people are spending more time on their phones, and still have less time to complete conversations.

Now people are faced with social media apps like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook which encourage interaction through likes and shares; instant messaging apps like WhatsApp, Snapchat, and Messenger, which encourage long threads of conversation and group chats; and the traditional forms of communication like email and text messaging. The resulting number of conversations is almost unbelievable: the average person checks their phone 262 times a day, a major increase from the 80 times a day average in 2016.

The frequent digital contact leaves people feeling overwhelmed and unable to participate at all. Like ghosting a date – common on dating apps, where it’s the norm to have many conversations going at once – people stop responding to acquaintances, loved ones and friends.

Emily Balcetis, an associate professor of psychology at New York University, recommends creating communication boundaries to manage the onslaught. This might include investing in an old-school alarm clock to have by your bedside so you can leave your phone charging in another room, or having cut-off times for email communication.

Switching off around bedtime hours, she says, means “you can give your brain a break before you fall asleep and have a gentler start to the day.”

On email, people increasingly feel obliged to be constantly responsive, especially when all sorts of assumptions are made based on your email etiquette – like how much of a “competitive edge” one has. Balcetis suggests deciding on a reasonable window of time to check on and respond to emails, and using email signatures to flag in-office hours and days you don’t check emails.

Smartphones have quickly transformed into handheld storage units for our conversations, thoughts,music and everything else. That shift to feeling constantly attached to our phones as if they were a limb, relates to the burnout, says Balcetis.

Now there’s an app for everything, and with most apps come push notifications and ways to connect with other users, even when communication isn’t the leading purpose of the app.

All these people are asking me for so many things and think that they know me

Take Glow for example, a period and fertility tracker app. The app, which functions as a calendar, also encourages users to join group chats to compare experiences with its community of over 15 million women. Everything from fitness apps like Strava to recipe apps like BigOven encourage people to do the same.

We could all just opt out of push notifications, but an unspoken obligation remains: to always be available as long as your phone is within reach.

Ultimately, it boils down to belonging, which Balcetis says is an inherent need for humans. People have a sense of fomo – a fear of missing out – when they are not engaged. The term was originally popularized to reference anxiety about missing social events, but with smartphones acting as our society’s primary mode of communication, this has extended to being online.

It speaks to why Lara’s friends felt rejected by her lacklustre responses: they sent a distorted message to her friends, that she was not invested in their relationships. According to Balcetis, the negativity dominance effect – our brain’s natural tendency to intensify perceived negativity or threats – results in this assumption. “Any sort of negative feedback, which can take the form of just non-responsiveness; people not putting a heart on something; or somebody not responding quickly enough, is going to loom large in our mind’s eye and have a disproportionate impact on our wellbeing,” Balcetis explained.

Once Lara was able to accept her uncomfortable relationship with her phone, she started to tell her friends that she steps away from it at times, which has led to some friendships weakening – but others fared better.

As smartphones have become essential devices, adaptions are constantly made to help users connect faster, and more frequently. In 2016, Apple launched Tapbacks, or emoji reactions for messages. Instead of responding with a written text, people can now place a heart, a thumbs up, a thumbs down, a ‘“haha!”, a double exclamation point, or a question mark on a text message. Similarly, Instagram this year implemented sticker reactions to Stories. The update allows users to react to a story with laughing, surprised, heart eyes, teary-eyed, clap, fire, celebration or the 100 emoji.

These features allow users to respond to someone’s post or message in less than a second. It also means opening communication with people we wouldn’t hold conversations with in person, blurring the lines between who is a friend and who is just an acquaintance.

Kirsten Chen, a 24-year-old creative editor in New York, describes the outreach from people she isn’t close to, mostly frivolous connections on social media, as annoying and entitled.

“All of these people are asking me for so many things and think that they know me on this level where they get access to me,” she says. The constant communication also makes her feel guilty: “I would like to help as many people as I can, and be a good friend or acquaintance, but I don’t have the bandwidth to deal with all y’all,” she explains.

Chen’s response rate is reflective of who is most relevant to her. If the message isn’t urgent, but comes from someone she talks to frequently, she might respond in six to 10 hours. And if the message is from someone she isn’t interested in or is about something she doesn’t care about, it could be a few days or a week before she offers a response. Even with this method, she’s recently racked up 12,460 unopened emails, 182 unread texts, and an unmeasurable number of Instagram DMs.

To some people, the sight of multiple unread notifications can trigger feelings of anxiety. Kevin Schoenblum, a 25-year-old UR designer in Washington, mass deletes emails and text messages once a week to avoid the red unread bubble on their phone screen.

Sometimes it results in missing messages. “The idea that I owe a response to someone or that someone’s waiting to hear back from me creates this cycle of guilt and shame and stress,” they said. Fortunately, those who are close to Schoenblum are aware of their communication habits and don’t expect immediacy in response time unless it’s urgent.

Recently diagnosed with ADHD, Schoenblum says the diagnosis gave them more understanding as to why notifications do not hold their attention as much as seeing someone’s face and hearing their voice.

As the pressure to be online and always available continues to grow in our society, in-person interactions provide far more authentic communication than digital ones. From body language and tone of voice to eye contact and all the other social cues that exist in real life that aren’t available in a text message, it’s far easier to be present when you’re face-to-face.

As Balcetis notes: “At the end of the day, I think what we’re looking for is not more ways to stay connected, but higher quality ways to be connected.”

All Rights Reserved for Brianna Holt 

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