I came back to my room and collapsed on the bed, glancing bitterly at my tiny Senegalese flip phone. I didn’t have the mental energy, or thumb energy, to type out a message on the nine-digit keyboard that could only send 50 characters at one time. The only person I could connect with at that moment was me.
As I listened to music and read, the panic I experienced after getting lost in my new Senegalese neighborhood slowly melted away. I was only in my fifth day abroad, and as I adjusted to my new life I knew there were going to be some bumps along the road.
However, if I could have used a sleek, speedy iPhone to message another girl in the program I could have fallen down a rabbit hole of self-pity. I would have texted my new friend who was struggling to fit in with her host family. Connected by our phones and hidden behind our screens, we could have gone back and forth, our fingers dancing as we vented about everything and everyone that was making life here so difficult. Instead of just moving on, I could have held on bitterly to my frustrations.
But luckily that wasn’t an option. Instead of a cell phone facilitating a pity party, I had the privilege to disconnect from the constant stream of messages that invades many of our daily lives and tune into myself. When I came back from studying abroad in Senegal I tried to just use a simple American flip phone, as I was smitten with how refreshing it felt to actually be disconnected. A few weeks into my anti-smartphone protest, I realized it was just too difficult. Our lives here are built around the expectation that we can always be connected and online.
But why did I find my time spent away from constant messaging so appealing? One study in the Cognitive Therapy Research journal found that co-rumination between friends leads to an increase in depressive symptoms. Co-rumination is when one excessively discusses anxieties, problems or concerns with a focus on negative emotions. Obviously, co-rumination has been happening for as long as friends can speak in confidence, but another later study found that the frequent usage of social media, texting, and messaging apps makes it easier for friends to co-ruminate.
It is easy for friends to vent with each other because American teens are very connected, as shown by a Pew Research Center report that examined smartphone and internet usage by American teens. However, it is now nearly impossible to isolate certain forms of media that facilitate communication because everything from discussion boards to video games allow direct messages between users. But ultimately, 78% of American teens have a smartphone and 87% have access to a computer with internet. The average teen sends and receives 30 texts a day but that is only a small piece of the puzzle, as 2 in 5 teens is on snapchat, and 33% of teens have a separate messaging app, such as Whatsapp or Kik, installed on their phone. Furthermore, 24% of teens report that they use the internet “almost constantly.”
Of course, being able to reach out to friends in difficult moments can also have the exact opposite effect of co-rumination. When friends are supportive and give helpful advice, communication in the digital age is a blessing. Acknowledging social media’s relationship with co-rumination is just another part of the digital literacy puzzle.
A New York Time’s article used personal stories and research to conclude that typically girls fall prey to co-rumination more often than boys. The article also advised parents to be mindful of their children’s moods after using social media or messaging apps. Even if one is using snapchat or whatsapp to connect with a peer and work through a problem, a conversation between friends should typically leave one with an elevated mood instead of increased anxiety. Researchers’ findings about co-rumination reveal that using social media intelligently comes down to knowing when to log out versus log on.