WhatsApp Online-offline Peek-a-boo

  –Satyakam Ray

When Brian Acton and John koum co-founded WhatsApp in 2009, little did they know that the messaging app would be a hit among 2 billion users worldwide by February 2020?

It has impacted millions of active users’ social and mental well-being in India and the world. The mere conversion of the grey to the blue color tick often provides a virtual sigh of relief to the anxious message sender. A bizarre socio-psychological phenomenon involving this message exchange is worth mentioning & a subject for further elaboration: “online-offline peek-a-boo.”

When someone plays the game by going offline and then coming back online after a few moments to check the chats to avoid direct one-one conversation, the behavior comes under the purview of WhatsApp Peek-a-boo.

Have you ever sent a message to anybody and desperately waited for the person to acknowledge & reply to you? Well, the level of anxiety & apprehension resonates with many youngsters & persons approaching their mid-30s. If your anticipated person comes online by chance, the adrenaline rush in your system is quite remarkable. The decision to read, acknowledge, and reply to the chat usually lies in the sought-out person’s court. Your situation is similar to the love-stricken teenage girl who does he loves me…he loves me, not the ritual of the early 2000s!

Your receiver reads your chat and starts typing immediately, prompting you to make a quick decision. Either you stay online, start a conversation, or go offline. The latter course of action is the trademark move of online-offline peek-a-boo. You remain offline for some time, say 2-3 minutes, and then check the message. It’s almost impossible to understand the psychology behind such eccentric behavior.

Digging further into the topic: Traditionally, peek-a-boo is played with an infant. To play, one player generally hides their face and pops back into the view of the other and says peek-a-boo! Development psychologists consider peek-a-boo to demonstrate an infant’s inability to understand object permanence, an essential stage in the cognitive development of infants. Other researchers have called the game “Protoconversation” -a way to teach an infant the timing and the structure of social exchange.

WhatsApp is not so old to influence our social behavior intricacies which we acquire from childhood onwards through parents, siblings, teachers, friends, and most importantly surrounding environment. Instead, we bend the rules set by the digital platform to our comfortable perceived social etiquette. Digitally many are naïve and fail to behave responsibly in the end-to-end encryption model. The idealistic response should be a digital mirror reflection of the direct face-to-face conversation we do in real life.

Online-offline Peek-a-boo types:

Depending upon the social relationship labyrinth, ranks in the profession, and affinity in friendship, peek-a-boo can be categorized into various types.

  • Relationship Peek-a-boo: – Many couples (married or live-in) are often involved in this category of behavior. Suppose one partner sends a message to the other half anticipating a quick response. If the other partner sees the message and decides to reply later, it can be the preamble to a significant strife and cheating allegation. The innocence of the person is quite challenging to defend. The dreaded “it’s over” can be popped at any time.
  • Friends’ peek-a-boo: -You invite your friend to go for a movie, a nearby cafeteria or restaurant, or casual chit-chat at your khatti place through WhatsApp. You expect a definite response from him. He comes online, sees your message, and decides not to entertain for the time being. You feel ignored, and you secretly take a vow of revenge by not replying to his forwarded memes, YouTube videos so on in the future.
  • Professional peek-a-boo: – The time is 8 pm on Friday. You have already planned for the late-night movie and weekend party. Suddenly, you get a message from your manager on your phone screen regarding some immediate work to be finished by night! Automatically the peek-a-boo effect comes into play, and you ignore it. Vice versa, during the appraisal window corner, you try to impress your manager by forwarding some insightful technical stuff periodically showcasing your technological progress & dedication. Your manager ignores it and gives you a just average rating instead! Tit for tat!

The Psychology behind it:

The reason behind such steps might be explained through various psychological terms.

  • WhatsApp OCD– An urge to constantly check WhatsApp for message notifications can be called a psychological addiction. Needlessly many spend hours using the messaging app to send unnecessary messages to many relatives or friends for its sake. Even they do not interact well with each other in person. Such people playfully indulge in this lurking behavior.
  • Mechanism of denial– People with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) symptoms, such as feeling emptiness, getting bored quickly, and unstable self-image, are more prone to be addicted to WhatsApp. Such people can display impulsive behaviors. They often bluntly refuse to acknowledge their weakness even if they know it. Denial is the first step toward the aggravated peek-a-boo effect.
  • FOMO effect– Fear of missing out (FOMO) is social anxiety that stems from the belief that others might be having fun while the person experiencing the stress is not present. It is characterized by a desire to stay continually connected with what others are doing. It’s also defined as a fear of regret. It may lead to the belief that not participating in social interaction is the wrong choice. The Peek-a-boo effect can be explained as the Mischievous FOMO effect.
  • Social surveillance– Many people use WhatsApp to track other people’s whereabouts and intrude in their personal space. The last-seen status can be used as a double-edged sword for anybody. The peek-a-boo effect is a byproduct of such shameless online shenanigans.

How to curb it?

Three simple rules:

  • Be realistic– Try to get out of the online bubble. If you want to communicate something to someone, try calling them instead of pinging them. Direct conversation clears much confusion that this peek-a-boo effect may create. If it is possible to meet someone in person, then go ahead. The personal touch can benefit long-term bonding among friends, relatives, or any budding love life.
  • Take a break– Start a new hobby, such as reading, blogging, gardening, or helping needy people. Stop spending so much time stalking online or chatting with a person. Be creative and do something constructive. Take time for solitude and meditate.
  • Psychoeducation– Still, if some people miss their peek-a-boo dopamine, then better to consult a trained psychiatrist. They may help to curb this addiction and gets back to normalcy.

Acceptance of the problem is the first step toward the intended solution. WhatsApp is undoubtedly the most preferred communication medium of the 21st century, but it cannot replace the one-to-one, offline, personal touch. You should bring out your humaneness more to deal with this bizarre lurking phenomenon.

You only live once. You are making sure to spend 15 hours on the Internet, desperately seeking validation from strangers! But, why? Be real.

After all, WhatsApp is just a social media app, and some grey-blue tick conversion fiasco cannot sway down our social values.


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