Feeling Isolated but Trapped on Twitter

One of my research topics is relatedness frustration during media use—what kinds of situations cause people to feel disconnected, excluded, and lonely when playing games or using other technology? When I think about this in the context of my own life, the situation is clear: by a wide margin, I experience relatedness frustration most on Twitter. I often have trouble distilling my thoughts until I try to write them down, so in case it’d be useful to anyone else, I thought I’d try to unpack why Twitter has this negative effect on me.

Here’s the situation. My Screen Time data show that I spent 30–45 minutes per day on Twitter most weeks. Most of this will come in the form of 3–5 minute scrolls, many times a day—when I’m making coffee, when I need a pomodoro-like break from other tasks, etc. Very often, I’ll find something useful during that brief scroll, be it a paper, news update, or simply a meme/video able to make me laugh. I may like a few tweets along the way, but I’ll almost never post anything or reply to anyone myself, for reasons I’ll discuss shortly. Later—sometimes as soon as I put the phone down, but certainly the next time I reflect upon my media behavior—I’m left with a sense of being disconnected or alienated, with a corresponding uptick in anxiety and dissatisfaction. And yet, the next day, I find myself going back and repeating the whole loop all over again.

This situation actually describes a form of mild dysregulation—difficulty managing one’s behavior such that it leads to impairment or distress. I’d probably endorse, at least to some degree, the criteria for loss of control and escapism (i.e., I have difficulty reducing my Twitter use even though I consciously want to, and I use it to escape or relieve bad moods). It’s worth noting that the validity of these criteria are disputed, including by me. But the point here is that I’m someone who researches dysregulated use of technology, and I have trouble regulating my use of technology. Maybe I should be putting this in my conflict of interest statements.

So, this begs the question, why do I keep using the site? It’s clear that there are conflicting motivations, so let’s break those down in a list of pros and cons. Some of these are less directly related to feelings of social (dis)connection, but they’re all factors in my continued use of a platform where I feel a sense of exclusion.

The benefits of using Twitter (for me)

  1. Finding useful papers and resources - It’s clear to me that I’d be several months behind the “leading edge” of research in my field if I weren’t on Twitter. As much as half the new papers I find are because a researcher I follow has tweeted about them. I use Stork for notifications of recently published work, have considered messing around with RSS feeds, might be able to scan PsyArXiv from time to time to find new work, but all of this pales in comparison to having a direct line of communication with others working in my area, and them sharing their work as soon as its available. The same is true for other learning resources; I’ve just started Richard McElreath’s Statistical Rethinking lecture series, which has been enormously valuable and something I doubt I’d have found without Twitter.

  2. Evesdropping on useful discussions - Twitter is abound with useful conversations between people trying to solve a problem. I tend to see this among the statistics community on there; just today I stumbled upon an excellent discussion of when and why singular fit warnings might occur even if the estimated variance isn’t exactly 0. At the risk of outing myself as an lurker given that I’ve never interacted with these people, I have learned loads from “listening in” on conversations with people like Brenton Wiernik, Isabella Ghement, Solomon Kurz, and others. (Not only do they have insightful solutions to complicated stats problems, they also manage to distill them into 280 characters! A degree of concision I strive for.)

  3. Filling my empty moments with stimulation because I, alongside many others from younger generations, are incapable of being alone with our thoughts for too long - Maybe we’d better not open this can of worms right now.

The cons of using Twitter (for me)

  1. Shame caused by constant confrontation with others’ announcements, celebrations, achievements, etc. As many others have described before, the constant bombardment by others’ successes on social media can be psychologically challenging. This, unfortunately, is already one of my biggest vices; I really struggle not to automatically engage in social comparison. It’s not that I have imposter syndrome in the sense of “I don’t belong in this career”—I think I do good work at a reasonable pace and have at least as much potential to succeed in academia as many of my peers—but I do absolutely have imposter syndrome in the sense of “why are you not as good as these other people”. These others, more often than not, are extremely high achievers, and as such unrealistic points of comparison. But despite knowing that rationally, this is the most salient feeling for me after seeing post after post of fellowship acceptances, high-status non-academic job hirings, extraordinarily high quality papers in high prestige journals, and so on.

  2. Not being at the cool kids’ table - Those Twitter conversations that I “eavesdrop” on take place between people that, at least to the outsider, have deep and enriching bonds with each other. Many of these have led to in-person meetups, research collaborations, job hires, and simply friendship. Many of these networks circle back on themselves, at times giving the impression that all the stats-y people on Twitter know each other, all the games-y people on Twitter know each other, all the open science people, and so forth. Not being part of these groups no doubt causes me to feel an acute sense of exclusion and loneliness. “Why don’t you simply join in the conversation then? These people aren’t actively excluding you, they just haven’t had the opportunity to interact with you yet”, you might ask, perfectly validly. The short answer is that the online interaction gives me a rather unpleasant experience of anxiety; the long answer follows in the next point.

  3. Anxiety when posting - In a perversely circular feedback loop, I generally don’t post on Twitter because it gives me anxiety; not posting, however, is likely a key factor in the relatedness frustration I ultimately experience and makes every future interaction more anxiety-inducing. At the moment, I hardly ever tweet, because doing so completely sets me on edge. It takes me ages to compose a tweet because I overanalyze every word, petrified that I’ll say something silly or worse; after it’s sent, I reluctantly but obsessively check whether it’s gotten any engagement, read way to far into whether others have liked, retweeted, etc in reply. If my tweet fails to land, then I’m trigger-happy in deleting it—I can’t help but feel embarrassed and ashamed after a zero-like tweet (incidentally, this doesn’t disappear after deleting the tweet, raising the question whether doing so is actually useful). Together, the psychologically easier option is not to post, but this has its own negative consequences: whenever I’m on Twitter, I feel like I’m missing an opportunity to put myself out there, meet people, share my research more widely, and otherwise take advantage of the network the website provides.

  4. Frequent exposure to topics I’m happier not thinking about - despite some effort to purposefully curate my feed, I’ve been unsuccessful in creating an online environment that does not include things that enrage or infuriate me. Even in chronological mode (which I do find to generally be worse—I want to see my friends’ tweets even if I’m not checking within 10 minutes of them posting), I inevitably come across climate change news, details of another school shooting, the latest ridiculous Twitch drama, or the government of every country I’ve lived in falling apart at the seams. Twitter seems inevitably to expose me to things about which I’d be much happier to live in ignorance.

  5. Automaticity - my number of daily phone pickups is high enough to scare me at times, and a large portion of those pickups, my first tap is Twitter. “Nudges” such as iOS’s screen time limits, moving the app to a new location, or installing alternative apps to replace those uses have all fallen short for me, and so I regularly find myself opening Twitter without having any conscious intention to do so. The knowledge that the app has managed to create a behavior in me that I do not self-endorse is very frustrating.

A Cursory Conclusion

To sum up, there are some (more or less) valid motivations both for me to continue using Twitter, and for me to stop using it. This connects to an research idea I’ve been mulling over for ages, which I’ll call a “motivational mismatch”. The motivational psychology literature hasn’t really investigated how motivations for doing something might be very different than motivations for not doing something. I may be very intrinsically motivated to play video games—doing it purely because I find it enjoyable—but exhibit introjected regulation for not playing video games (that is, not playing because I’ll feel a sense of pride in being more productive, or avoid a sense of guilt). When those motivations are in conflict with each other, as they very much are in the case of my Twitter use, I suspect this plays an important role in determining whether media use supports or undermines well-being, or whether people exhibit signs of dysregulation.

Even though I do think writing this out has helped me understand my internal conflict a bit, I remain no closer to addressing it. So in the meantime, here I am, feeling rather trapped using a technology whose benefits seem crucial for career progression, but whose downsides are felt much more saliently on a daily basis.

Psychology of Video Games PhD Researcher

PhD candidate interested in how video games and well-being relate, and using detailed behavioral data to unpack those relationships better. Looking to make science a little less broken.