The dangers of being always on

PR people love Twitter. Some of them love it so much even sleep cannot stop them checking it, but what are the long-term consequences of being surgically attached to your smartphone? Claire Murphy reports.

Always on: What are the dangers?
Always on: What are the dangers?

Think you’re busy? Try Jill Tipping’s schedule.

The freelance PR works for clients including ex- rugby player-turned Strictly Come Dancing star Ben Cohen, who attracts a substantial amount of social media attention every Saturday night.

Tipping replies personally to messages from some of his near- 500,000 Facebook fans ("Many of them know me now – they’ll say ‘oh yes, you’re Jill, you look after Ben’") and juggles nine Twitter accounts on her phone.

This brings a particularly heightened version of the always on cliché to Tipping’s life. "It just never stops," she says of the stream of social media on which she keeps tabs. "I don’t want to miss anything, so I look at everything.

"I watch TV in the evenings with my iPhone on the arm of the sofa and I’m constantly watching for the notifications out of the corner of my eye. I have been known to have a quick look in the middle of the night. It definitely affects my sleep.

"I can think of only a handful of weekends during the past five years when I’ve managed to truly switch off and that was only because I was in a part of Cornwall where there was no wifi. I love the job, but I can’t be doing this in five years’ time – my work-life balance is way out of balance."

Tipping is far from alone in wondering how to manage the demands of the boiling pot that is social media. Although everyone in PR recognises the huge benefits that monitoring and reacting to social media can bring, the past few years have also brought about a stealthy change in the way that the modern PR professional is expected to work. 

On alert

For many agency staff, the implicit expectation is often that if you are awake, you’re on alert for social media notifications about clients. "It’s drilled into us that you have to be reactive [to social media]," says Rebecca Annable, account manager at Lansons Communications.

And if you are not in client reactive mode, you are worrying about whether you have fed your own followers anything retweetable recently. "I do believe that there is constant effort involved in staying current and interesting in the eyes of your followers," says Andrea Willoughby, junior account executive at Holyrood PR, who worked on social media for the Assembly Rooms during the Edinburgh Fringe.

"If you decide to be off-duty, you resign yourself to the fact that you’ll be missing a trick by neglecting breaking news and trending topics. I’ve often felt guilty for switching my computer or phone off, even after hours on end at my desk, because that meant missing out in some shape or form."

Not that most PR folk, especially those in their twenties who arguably handle the bulk of the social media monitoring, are complaining. This is the generation that grew up with social media, juggling homework with Bebo and MSN Messenger, then Facebook and Twitter with college essays.

Many concede that it takes some work to remain focused on a proactive task such as writing a report while monitoring social media. But there is also a widespread acknowledgement that this is the reality of modern PR.

Some even believe that dipping into social media aids their ability to complete tasks. "I like that I can break off something quickly before going back to it again," says Deborah Reid, consultant at Six Degrees. "It does break my concentration, but I tend to go from one thing to the other very quickly, and I like working that way.

So a quick break from writing an article might be searching Reddit, Mashable, FT or somewhere for some great content to tweet. Sort of like ‘mini-breaks’."

For many, keeping tabs on their clients on social media is entwined with their personal social media activity – it feels like a short leap to check on their client’s brand if they are on Facebook or Twitter anyway.

"The first thing I do in the morning and last thing at night is check social channels, specifically Twitter," says James Mulrennan, head of social media at Bell Pottinger Wired. "I constantly have Twitter running, both as a second screen and on my phone, so switching off is generally a luxury reserved for holidays."

But this blurring of the boundaries raises an interesting question for agency management.

If staff are effectively working throughout evenings and weekends, might this be a large amount of hidden over-servicing?

Phil Szomszor, head of business and digital at Firefly, points to the difficulty of measuring exactly how much monitoring people are doing out of hours, as distinct from their personal social media use. However, he believes the issue is far from a new one: "When I started as a tech PR in 2000, just pre-social media, I would be happy to take the trade magazines home in the evenings to learn more about my trade.

Nowadays, the high performers are likely to be on Twitter doing something similar. It’s still a choice, but the way we work and play has changed so much and this is just another example."

Memory overload

Aside from the extent to which the job of PR is now an 18-hours-a-day one, there is evidence that use of social media is actually altering the physical structures of our brains. In his book, The Shallows, exploring how the internet is changing how we think, read and remember, author Nicholas Carr quotes UCLA professor of psychiatry and biobehavioural sciences Gary Small: "Many of us are developing neural circuitry that is customised for rapid and incisive spurts of directed attention."

Brilliant, you might think. That is exactly what I need to keep tabs on Twitter. And yes, says Small, the net does exercise our minds in a manner similar to doing short crossword puzzles. But what regular web use does is overload our ‘working’ or short-term memory, which interferes with our ability to indulge in deeper, more analy-tical thinking.

Put simply, every time your eyes flick over that HootSuite notification, or across a hyperlink, you have to make a decision whether to click on it. All those tiny decisions are the cognitive processing equivalent of grazing on tapas so much that you lose any appetite for a full three-course meal.

"The web improves our visual-spatial intelligence," says UCLA developmental psychologist Patricia Greenfield. "But it impairs critical thinking, imagination and reflection."

If heavy internet use in general can produce this kind of effect, it begs the question of what constant social media monitoring is doing to our brains. Many know anecdotally how addictive it is to want to check Twitter repeatedly when you have tweeted something you suspect will be popular, or when you wonder how a developing story involving a client is playing out.

Is it more than just a desire to do a good job? Is there actually something addictive in the sense of connectedness that immersing yourself in social media brings?  

"The internet delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli – repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive – that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuit functions," adds Carr. "It also provides a high-speed system for delivering responses and rewards – positive reinforcements in psychological terms – that encourage the repetition of physical and mental actions.

It turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment."

Nourishment could be in the form of the ever-pleasing retweet/like. It could also be the lack of a negative post about your client’s brand – i.e. the drive to check is rooted in the need to be reassured that no-one has posted anything that could cause trouble.

Are PR folk in danger of developing a form of hypervigilance? This is a psychological symptom associated with anxiety disorders, typified by a constant scanning of the environment for threats.

A research study by a team of psychologists from Swansea University last year found that high internet users can experience a pronounced decrease in mood following net use. This, the authors concluded, was likely to then lead to users quickly re-engaging in some web surfing in an attempt to improve their low mood, prompting a classic addictive cycle.

Professor Phil Reed, one of the authors of the study, recommends that people should become "internet aware" in the same way that they become "alcohol aware", in terms of the psychological and social dangers to them of internet overuse. He believes the effects of social media monitoring is an area ripe for research.

On a more practical note, Simon Collister, ex-director of We Are Social and now senior lecturer in PR and social media at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London, says part of the solution can lie in becoming more specific in the search terms you use and being more explicit with clients and the public about the ‘opening hours’ of monitoring that you are realistically, and profitably, able to offer.

He also recommends using management platforms for monitoring, not just the Twitter-specific systems such as HootSuite and TweetDeck*.

Finally, perhaps it is worth bearing in mind the words of Plato, writing in Phaedrus in 4BC, who reported people’s fears that the advent of the written word in a crazy new invention called a book might cause the ruin of the human memory. Didn’t turn out too bad after all. 

Further reading

More on symptoms of hypervigilance

The Swansea/Milan research

The website of UCLA memory expert Dr Gary Small

Writer Nicholas Carr's blog

*Read Simon Collister's CIPR report on the various platforms on offer at

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in