If you were to scroll through my text messages at this very moment, you’d see that I’m probably involved in about six different group chats. They range in size and purpose. Some are to plan holiday menus and travel plans. Others are between my parents and my brothers, so my mom can tell us all at the same time to text my Aunt Karen for her birthday. And one or two are with my closest friends, who I text for advice on a fairly regular basis.
I’m comfortable with these, but for the most part, I think that text message group threads should die a quick and painful death. They are pretty much everything I hate about the digital age wrapped up in one perfectly complete package.
They are a completely unnecessary form of hyper-connection.
At first blush, group text chats seem like an easy way to coordinate with large groups of people. And they should be. We exist now in a post-Facebook events world, in a world where you might not have everyone’s email to coordinate a long weekend away. If you need a yes or no answer from a lot of people, why send multiple texts when you can just organize everyone into one spot? I get it. I truly do. And if we only used group text messages for this purpose, I’d probably be okay with them.
But somewhere along the way, group messages transformed into the anxiety-fueling Frankensteins they are today. They’ve become bloated with too many participants. I’ve been in group chats where there are seven, eight, nine, even 10 folks, and they’re actual hellscapes. I don’t know when we decided that group threads were akin to Twitter, where everyone had to share a meme or a funny joke that had absolutely nothing to do with the topic at hand, but this is an impulse that needs to be buried. Cool, Sharon. I’m happy you finally were able to wrap your arms around the “I’m going to tell my kids this was…” meme, but I’m really just wondering if you’re bringing a dessert to this dinner party.
Having too many people in a group chat seems to be the kiss of death for these forms of communication. Anyone who has ever checked their phone after an hour away to see that they’ve got 100 notifications in a group chat knows that there is a particular anxiety that comes with being so far behind in these kinds of chats.
I’m not alone in these anxieties, it turns out. Ask anyone of your friends (or anyone on Twitter, like I did) and you’ll be hit with a torrent of opinions that align with mine.
“They’re the worst,” says Jordan Guskind, 30. “Anything over four people is madness, and normally for a trip or get-together, which should be an email.” Guskind hits on an important point here — it’s the scale of the group chats. Usually, with five people or under, you get a typical volley of texts back and forth. It never feels out of control, and you’re pretty much able to keep up.
Over five people, though? The wheels fall off. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a group chat and put my phone down to do something, only to hear it buzzing every 15 seconds with a new text message. It’s maddening. Guskind recalls the horror of chats that are too large with this one harrowing tale. “I was recently put into a 20-plus person ‘networking chat,’ which asked the initial chat members to add people and ‘grow the network,’” she says. “I almost lost my mind and immediately left because it gave me so much anxiety.”
But where, exactly, does that anxiety come from? According to Andrew Moore-Crispin, director of content at Ting Mobile, a carrier that allows users to only pay for the services they want in order to cut down on unnecessary cellphone time, the answer doesn’t just have to do with the chats themselves. It has to do with our phones in general. “I think you only need to have a cellphone to understand how burdened we can feel by them,” Moore-Crispin says. “They come with us everywhere we go, and studies have shown that the slightest ping or ring can spike our anxiety levels.” A recent study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health showed a definite correlation between mobile phone addiction and depression and anxiety.
“Speaking from experience, I have a few group chats that I’ve left on read, because just seeing the notification stresses me out,” Moore-Crispin says. “Knowing that someone has pinged in that thread is enough to make me anxious. I immediately feel like I have to answer that text immediately.”
Another reason that group chats cause myself and others anxiety? The fact that people don’t always use them for what they’re intended for. “I’m in like 10 group chats between friends, family, and work and they’re all on silent,” says Lexi Dell’Ermo, 28. “I know it’s an easier form of communication when you’re trying to reach more people at once, but there’s nothing worse than when you say something and no one responds, or when people fight in a group chat.”
More often than not, I find that people I’m in group chats where people will have conversations among themselves that have nothing to do with me or what the chat is about. In most of the chats I’m in now, people know better and will take side conversations out of thread. A perfect example? In the Friendsgiving group chat I’m a part of, I asked a question about travel. The person who owns the house texted me on my own asking if I’d arrive to the house early to accept the grocery delivery. Once we established a plan, we dipped back into the group chat to let everyone know. It was a much easier way to handle the situation, and the rest of the chat was appreciative of not coming back to 6,000 notifications.
It’s those crazy notifications that are another aspect of the anxiety. Group chats offer a crazy ultimatum: You want to put them on silent so that your phone isn’t constantly buzzing, but putting them on silent means you run the risk of racking up hundreds of notifications. “There’s nothing worse than feeling like you need to catch up on 100 messages,” Dell’Ermo says. She and many people I asked about this tend to just ignore what they’ve missed at that point, which generates even mores stress.
These, of course, are worst-case scenarios of the group chat — although they are also the only kinds of scenarios I’ve had with these kinds of texts. But I was also curious about whether or not a large group chat that wasn’t simply dedicated to making plans was ever a good thing.
Erica Williams, 23, says that she’s in a group chat with about a dozen of her friends from college. This sounds like a nightmare scenario to me, but according to her, it’s actually beneficial. “It’s the only way any of us are able to stay in touch,” she says. “I can ask them for advice, or I can let them know what’s going on in my life without having to send 12 different text messages.” Does her phone buzz constantly? Sure. But in the post-college world that she and her friends find themselves in, it helps Williams and her pals to feel a bit less alone.
So maybe we don’t have to get rid of group chats completely. But are there ways to mitigate the anxiety that comes with them? According to Moore-Crispin, the answer is yes. He suggests turning off notifications for these group threads, and only using them for specific things, like making plans or asking a single question. Also, don’t be afraid to be the person to draw the boundaries. If people aren’t using the thread correctly, and are carrying on a one-on-one conversation, ask them to move it off-thread.
Also, remember this — you don’t have to answer every single text message that comes your way. You can also suggest using email if that’s more manageable for you. Or, if you truly need to talk something out, a phone call would also suffice.
“Truly, I wish people would just call me,” Dell’Ermo says. That brings up an interestingly positive thing that group chats may have done for us. By making texting so unbearable, they may have inadvertently thrust us back into the open arms of actual phone calls.
If you ask me, answering a call is much less annoying than replying to you in a group thread.