Let me make a prediction. You were indulged in an activity – be it attending online class, working, watching movies or listening to music – and then you felt a tad bit bored. You decided to ‘energize’ yourself with some social media ‘drink’ and ended up scrolling more than you intended. I can safely hedge on this prediction, as a majority of the readers of this site would fall into the bucket of heavy social media users. Last month, Netflix released a documentary called The Social Dilemma where they showed the darker reality of social media. Most of us who watched it felt despondent and helpless, and yet continued with our social media habits with a heavier heart and a regretful brain.
The documentary illustrates how social media analyze each of our actions, understand our interests and disinterests, and provide us with even more content to grab our attention. Social media is most profitable when it gives us our own customised shows, leaving us addicted and distracted. We succumb to the screens not because we are lazy, but because tech companies invest billions of dollars in thousands of hours of some of the brightest minds of the world. They work to make this outcome inevitable. Our social media usage is equated to the gambler’s high, where even the slightest of accolades push us to invest more time and energy, eventually falling into a pit subconsciously.
Social media is also the breeding house of misinformation. It makes for an easy passage of misinformation and half-baked-truths. Our feeds and suggestions usually run us into rabbit holes, where we are shown more of what we already believe in, thereby solidifying our faiths. This has resulted in extreme outrage and polarization in recent years. We see people debating endlessly standing in their own versions of reality – a reality modelled by the hundreds of posts that confirmed their opinions. Social media exploits what behavioural scientists call the ‘Confirmation Bias’ – one’s tendency to cherry-pick information that is consistent with their beliefs. As a society, we might have been better off if we were uninformed rather than misinformed. It is not an overstatement when we say that extremist authoritarian governments have been formed due to our online behaviours.
Above and beyond all of this, there are multiple studies that prove that the human attention span has drastically reduced ever since we started using our smart screens. Don’t we find it arduous to read an article without our mind wandering off, or to watch a movie without re-checking the phone notifications? If that is not a reason enough for you to introspect your usage, there are also studies that have shown a significant correlation between the use of social media and the increasing anxiety and depression-related issues within our generation. Our brains are wired to have a ‘Negativity Bias’ where we focus on the one negative comment more than the hundred positive ones. This affects our brains which are in a constant quest for social feedback. In the United States, research has found that the number of teenagers who have self-harmed or attempted suicide has nearly doubled. We are in the midst of a teen mental health crisis. The greatest threat is how unaware we are of this danger. We have let the supercomputers hack our brains to force us to come back and scroll again for hours. We are the ‘useful idiots’ for big tech companies – useful in creating our own content and idiots in absorbing them mindlessly. While some of the so-called influencers reap monetary benefits out of their promotions and fake testimonials, the average user scrolls down and absorbs chunks of these junk content absent-mindedly.
Let us try to decipher some of our own activities. Some of which we are guilty of, some of which we never have noticed. Haven’t we picked up our phone to check the time and before we knew it, we are five Insta posts down? Haven’t we reached out to our phone while waiting in line in a store, because a minute of solitude was too much to bear? Haven’t we looked forward to going for a trip with friends, only to drift our focus to the random Insta notification the moment our natural conversation paused? Haven’t we sat with our close family members for dinner and opened Insta to check out stories of random celebrities? One of the greatest paradoxes of our lifetime is the Social media paradox where we feel more connected but are in fact lonelier than ever before. To explain and answer this, Cal Newport has written a book named Digital Minimalism which re-iterates the idea that technology is beneficial but can be detrimental to our own well-being if we don’t regulate how we use it.
The author encourages us to declutter our digital space with the bare minimum notifications to distract us. He challenges us to go through a digital detox for a while, to break the shackles of social media addiction. Spend time in solitude without any external distractions – it is freeing, beneficial and necessary! You’ll be shocked to see the number of times you catch yourself subconsciously reaching out for the deleted Insta icon. Meanwhile, find activities and people that truly deserve your time before you re-introduce technology again, more cautiously this time.
Social media has also created a false sense that the depth of our relationships with our friends relies on the reactions to their daily stories and posts. During your digital detox, start talking to your friends again instead of just replying to their posts/stories. Our human brains have evolved so much to understand multiple communication cues – be it change in voice modulation or tempo or facial gestures. Social media is the least social form of communication human beings have ever invented. We do miss a lot when we simplify our conversations to mere likes, comments and emojis.
The fight for our attention economy is real and damaging. There is so much incentive for the big tech companies in keeping us hooked onto our screens. We need to be aware of the danger and be extremely cognizant of how we use the tools that take a lot of our time & energy. I personally decluttered my social media usage for a month, after which I have consciously cut down my Instagram consumption to be just once a day. I also have friends who used to uninstall the app every time after their day’s use. To fight against the algorithms that are designed to hack your brain is never an easy game, isn’t it? But with the extra time you gain, look outside your window more often, take a stroll around your house, play board games, video call your friends and cousins. We can liberate ourselves from social media’s clutches if we start being more cognitive and mindful of the time, we spend on it each day. There is a lifetime’s worth of books to read, music to listen to, and activities to perform out there. Your social media apps do not deserve to replace them!
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