Health

Author Louise O’Neill on quitting social media: “I took an extended break in 2018 and it was life-changing”

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Louise O'Neill

In 2018, author Louise O’Neill decided to take an extended break from social media. Here, she reveals the impact it had on her health, both physical and emotional.

It was 2012 when I began tweeting in earnest. I was writing my first book, but I lived in a small town in West Cork; not London, not even Dublin. Twitter seemed like a good way to find some author friends without leaving my house. I didn’t have a filter then; I didn’t attempt to censor myself in any way. 

I tried to be funny, maybe verging on slightly outrageous, talking about men and sex, but also about important political and social issues. My book was published in 2014, and with each subsequent novel, my follower count increased. If I’m honest, watching that number grow gave me a queasy thrill. I liked that people were listening to me, that they cared about what I had to say.

I can’t remember the first time I received an abusive message on Twitter, but by 2016, I was becoming something of an activist in Ireland – I was asked to speak on the radio about sexual violence, I presented a TV documentary on rape culture, I had a weekly column in a national newspaper where I often wrote about misogyny – and the trolling intensified. 

I would hold my breath every time I opened the app, bracing myself for a barrage of angry tweets calling me a man-hater, a c*nt, an extremist. When I talked about my own experience of assault, they would call me a liar. “Who would rape you?” they jeered. I’d struggled with an eating disorder for most of my teens and early 20s and I had a massive relapse that same year; I often wonder was it prompted by fear that these men would reach for their usual arsenal of calling a woman fat and ugly in order to silence her. I felt unsafe constantly; I was jumpy and agitated. But worse, a small part of me wondered if I deserved it. Maybe I was just a person who was easy to hate.

Louise O'Neill

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My father told me to turn my phone off. It’s not real, he’d say, and I would argue that being on social media was part of my job, it was necessary. I didn’t want to admit that I was addicted to the noise. Positive or negative, every reaction gave me a jolt of adrenaline. It made me feel alive. 

At a family party or when out hiking with friends, I would be mentally composing a tweet or framing a photo, wondering how to best shape the moment into content. It reminded me of when I was a child and I played Tetris for hours; afterwards, when I closed my eyes, I would still see those technicolour blocks, twisting in their descent. I couldn’t seem to stop.

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2017 was the year I recovered from my disordered eating. I also gave up alcohol. I was in intensive therapy and examining every habit, every behaviour, looking for patterns, and I saw it in my relationship with social media, too. In 2018, I decided to take an extended break. I announced it on all channels, deleted the apps, and looked up from my phone. The first few weeks were torture. I wanted to check to see the reaction – did people miss me? And every time I had a thought or opinion, I had to sit on my hands to stop myself from reaching for my phone so I could share them. If you’ve ever detoxed from sugar or coffee or cigarettes, that’s the only way I can describe it – it was a physical yearning to scroll, scroll, scroll. But I didn’t want to be one of those people who announce they’re ‘taking some time out’ before re-appearing three days later so I gritted my teeth and waited for the cravings to subside. And they did. 

I read more, I slept better, I felt less anxious. I was able to take my time in forming an opinion about world events rather than feeling pressured into giving a hot take, lest I be considered ignorant or uncaring. It was like my brain was healing itself, letting go of the constant worry that I was in trouble, that I had said or done the wrong thing and everyone hated me. I slowed down, and I caught my breath again.

I returned to Instagram in February 2020. I’d never found it as addictive as Twitter, nor as hostile, so I was confident I’d be able to manage my usage. I handed over the reins of my Twitter account to my partner, asking him to change the password. He tweets any relevant information now, book events and pre-order links, and I’m blissfully unaware of any of it. 

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That being said, of course there are things I miss about Twitter. It’s been a powerful tool for social justice – Black Lives Matter wouldn’t exist in the same way without it, nor would #MeToo. I miss the humour and the memes. I miss how clever and sharp people could be and the sense of camaraderie when everyone was discussing the same New Yorker article or when a video goes viral. 

But then I remember how someone commented, “You can really see the extra weight!” on an article I wrote about recovering from anorexia, and I don’t miss that casual cruelty, the ease with which someone could break you and the joy they took from doing so. 

In real life, I see the kindness of people, but I also see the endless complexities of being human; how we accept those we love with all their flaws. That same nuance is stripped away online, flattened into an easily digestible fairy-tale of good and bad, wrong and right. It’s exhausting, and more than that, it’s depleting our reserves of empathy.

I’ve been asked if I would ever return to Twitter, and as a wise person once said, never say never. But will I tell you about a recurring fantasy of mine? In it, I win the EuroMillions and I buy a small island off the coast of West Cork with no wifi. I spend my days reading and writing, and my mind is very quiet. I go for a walk every afternoon, and as I stand at a cliff’s edge, marvelling at the beauty of the sky and sea before me, I think – ah, yes. This is what it means to be alive.

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For help and support with an eating disorders, visit Beat’s website or call one of their helplines

Image credits: Portraits of Louise O’Neill by Anna Groniecka