With hindsight, I know how unhealthy it was, but, at the time, an online group became my entire life.
This may seem like an extremely unlikely blog piece to read: I am for all intents and purposes one of the most unlikely people you might expect to confess to having serious problems with an online group.
I am well-educated, did not grow up facing any real disadvantage bar that which comes with my gender and race, and my work is in the field of counterextremism and online safety.
However, not so long ago my life was exactly that: every waking moment—and some moments when I should have been sleeping—was spent in an online ‘support group’ talking with people I had never met in my life.
Luckily, nothing sinister came from this group, but I want to nevertheless tell my story to both emphasise how any of us could find ourselves in a similar position, where the result could be more dangerous, and show how unhealthy spending so much time online is in any case.
As with, I suspect, many other people, I had always assumed that I would never join any kind of online group and had no idea why anyone would want to spend so much time talking with strangers.
That is, until COVID-19 happened.
I finished my degree with good grades, but I graduated during a pandemic and economic recession.
I had been making good progress on my mental health, but then I found myself with far too much spare time to overthink everything and being confined indoors, alone, in London.
I was lucky in that I was eventually able to temporarily move back in with my parents during an easing in restrictions, but this brought with it its own set of issues and my mental health had already fully nosedived.
Feeling unable to turn to anyone for support, despite not being physically alone, I felt more isolated than ever.
After an incident at home that triggered a meltdown, I posted anonymously on social media about how I had mentally reached rock bottom just as a way to get my emotions out. This led to someone sending me a private message inviting me to an online support group centred around mental health and wellbeing.
For some reason, even though I wouldn’t usually have done so, I decided to click on the link and join the fledgling group. Soon, I found myself being a part of something bigger with people who only knew about the personal issues that I chose to disclose, and I found myself enjoying the self-confidence and respect that seemed to come from helping to run the group.
This spiralled from spending a few minutes here and there talking to people online to spending every minute of my spare time in this group—and often even staying up so that I didn’t feel left out, which didn’t help my mental state.
This spiralled from having an escape from my personal problems to having no motivation or desire to do anything other than exist in this world.
This spiralled from finding a source of support to being consumed by the ‘purpose’ of helping others and focusing on the negatives in my life so that I had something to talk about.
Ironically, I began to realise how unhealthy and unsustainable this existence was when my mental health once more hit rock bottom, but, whilst I took some time out of this support group, I still couldn’t bring myself to leave completely.
By sheer coincidence, some of my personal issues began to resolve themselves and people came into my life who seemed to automatically make things better without trying. When I mentioned my online life to these people, they didn’t push me, but it was clear they had their reservations.
And I began to have my own.
I began to recognise what I valued in life and how I believed I deserved to be treated. As much as I felt like I had a purpose in this online world and was making a difference, I knew even subconsciously that I was not being treated as I should have been treated.
I began to recognise just how unhealthy spending so much time online and adopting or expressing certain views for the sole purpose of fitting in was.
Luckily for me, I didn’t have any lasting repercussions after I left this group for good—and deleted the app so that I would have no temptation to go back.
Many of the people in that group were good people, but some people weren’t, and I’m sure I’m not the only person who was much too personally invested.
Now, I am a mostly healthy and happy individual working on online safety, but I know all too well how easy it can be to develop unhealthy internet habits, even if they are not technically dangerous.
I am fine, but it could have ended very differently in another world.
By working to counter extremism among communities, JAN Trust seeks to protect vulnerable people against online harms and raise awareness of the signs of radicalisation so that we can spot when internet use is taking a dangerous turn.
We may not all be vulnerable people, but we are all vulnerable to a moment of weakness or manipulation.