- Social media: the good, the bad and the ugly
How one conversation changed my complete outlook on social media.
“Sorry I’m not on Facebook”. “How about Instagram?” I asked hopefully. “I’m not on any social media actually”. I recoiled in surprise at his response, treating his reply with a degree of suspicion — perhaps he thought I was annoying and this was his way of politely refusing to stay in contact. It wasn’t until I was in a similar situation where it happened again that I became enlightened. To be precise, it was 2018 and I was staying in an amazingly quirky hostel in the foothills of the lush Ecuadorian mountains. I’d met an inspiring Swiss couple in their thirties who both worked in I.T. They were the ‘we’ve-got-our-shit-together-comfortable-in-our-own-skins’ type of couple. “Are you on Facebook?” I blurted, hoping to keep in future contact with them. “No, we’re don’t have any social media.” At this point I started to wonder whether I really was an annoying bastard that nobody could stand for more a brief chat, or if they knew something I didn’t. I pushed them for an explanation behind their blasphemous statement. Surely working in I.T meant that they had to be on all the social media platforms? They spent the next thirty minutes or so opening my eyes to the potential perils of social media. It is these perils that I hope to cast a light on in this article. I hope to leave you with practical ways to take back control over your life and banish yourself from the shackles of this unsuspecting beast.
Photo by Steve Sawusch on Unsplash
What is social media?
It is important to first define what social media is before we can become aware of our own consumption of it. Cambridge dictionary defines it as “websites and computer programs that allow people to communicate and share information on the internet using a computer or mobile phone”. A non-exhaustive list of examples include: Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Tik Tok, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube, LinkedIn, Pinterest and TripAdvisor. One thing that the average Joe might not be aware of is how social media companies make their money. Simply put, their primary job is to find the most effective ways of getting us hooked on their platforms. Advertisers pay social media platforms for our attention in order to tout their goods. They are therefore selling our attention and data so that specifically tailored information and products can be targeted at us. This came at quite a surprise for the naive me; weren’t they there to help me connect with friends and family? So, in order to make money from selling our attention they have to hire psychologists to introduce secretive ways of getting us hooked. A bit like casino’s or gambling establishments might do. We’ve all seen slot machines, the kind where you push a button and eagerly wait in denial for a matching trio of fruit symbols. It’s addictive because you never know what outcome you’re going to get next: you are on tenterhooks, hopeful that the next pull of the handle will be a winner. This concept in psychology is called positive intermittent reinforcement. Does this sound at all familiar to the swiping that we do on phones or laptop screens? You never know what you’re going to see next on your newsfeed so you keep swiping. It’s the anticipation that we crave: the unknown. That delay in loading up posts is also deliberate, a bit like the reels on the slot machine that whir for a few seconds before showing us the result. The red notifications and the ‘like’ buttons are just a few other examples of deliberately-imposed features that deliver little hits of dopamine (the feel-good chemicals in our brain) to keep us wanting more. Gambling is generally considered to be a sin by several Abrahamic religions including Christianity and Islam. So, where do we place social media on this moral compass with the insight that we now have into this technology? Why is this a big deal I hear you say? We get a place where we can stalk our acquaintances and flaunt our yearly holidays pictures on in exchange for a few targeted ads which we just ignore anyway... Well, it’s a bit like the problem drinker who thinks that having a bottle of wine every evening is no biggie: eventually it will catch up with them. It’s the pervasive and insidious addiction to these platforms, and the advertising that goes with it, that slowly erodes away at our ability to think for ourselves or to govern our free behaviour. Without further ado, lets introduce you to the bad and the ugly.
Unrealistic expectations of life
I was lucky enough to have been born in a generation before the advent of social media (call me an old fart, I quite like it). I grew up in the days of the mighty Nokia 3310, where, despite the addictive nature of Snake, it wasn’t enough to entice me away from kicking a ball around my local neighbourhood with mates. I vividly remember being told to ‘fuck off’ by a 90 year-old pensioner because our football ended up in the ‘no ball games’ area. These moments were priceless, memorable and non-replicable on a phone screen. Generation Z is the title given to the group of people born after 1996 (don’t ask me why). This unfortunate bunch were born into the furnace of social media through no fault of their own: call it bad timing. They were born into a world where their social lives were reflected back to them from their phone screens rather than a walking talking human being. They were born into a world where exercise was playing on a Nintendo Wii rather than the sports field. Social media makes us believe that the world is perfect. It’s like constantly looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses. But this is different: it’s not trying to see the best in people, rather, it’s seeing the fake in people. We all know that nobody is perfect in this life. We all have flaws, imperfections and weaknesses yet our Instagram accounts only display us at our best (perhaps with a slight tinge of increased saturation for good measure). We live in a results-driven society where people only care about outcomes, not processes; nobody wants to see a picture of you in your pyjamas without make-up on studying for an exam but that picture of you looking a million dollars gowned up for graduation is bound to get likes. If all we ever see is success then by nature we start to compare our lives and feel that we are underachieving all the time. This ultimately leads to reduced self-esteem and depression. The above applies not only to human form but also to geographical landmarks; as an avid traveller I’ve flown extraordinary distances to be left frankly underwhelmed by a landmark that was over-exaggerated by influencers on Instagram.
The solution: carefully curate your social media friends and followers. Do this regularly. Ask yourself; ‘does this person or account make me feel good or bad about myself?’ If the answer to the latter is no then be brutal and get rid of it. The result will be a carefully composed list of people that make you feel positive about your life and inspire you in the way you like to be inspired.
Greater levels of depression and anxiety
Ok, so we’re generally in agreement that being fed limitless amounts of fake bullshit for hours each day leads to reduced self esteem. It also leads to fear-of-missing-out (FOMO). Yes, it’s a real thing; because people only post when they’re doing something extravagant (or ‘throwbacks’ to times when they were), we become wired to believe we are living boring unfulfilled lives. Everyone seems to be on holiday all of the time. What happened to boredom? What happened to having free time where you just sat down somewhere and thought. Reaching for your phone to scroll through social media has become an automated behaviour when waiting for the bus, on the train or in any queue for that matter. Social media has actually rendered us un-social. I fear for the children our our future: how do we expect them to develop the emotional intelligence and nuanced communication skills required in life if they spend most of their ‘communicating’ online. Not being able to pick up that fake smile or the uneasy body posture might cost them their friendship or employment one day. These things cannot be learnt online. Ranting aside, the issues I write about are real; studies have shown that the rates of suicide, self-harm and hospitalisation for mental health illnesses have sky-rocketed amongst teenaged girls living in the U.S. This alarming trend coincides perfectly with the increasing use of social media by this cohort.
The solution: have phone-free time in the day. Think of it as a digital detox. You could go further by having a social-media-free-day once a week and build on from there. Make time on social media a treat to reward yourself. Nowadays it’s also possible to set alerts when you spend over a set time on social media. Leave your phone outside your room when you sleep and buy an alarm clock. Personally, this intervention has made the biggest difference to my consumption of social media; I used to flood my brain with the news first thing in the morning and last thing at night, contributing to both poor levels of attention and insomnia respectively.
Photo by camilo jimenez on Unsplash
I’m a big believer that time is our greatest asset in life. You can always earn lost money but you can never resurrect time. Imagine a stranger coming up to you and burning wads of their own cash in front of you. You’d call them a crazy person right? How is it that we can be so quick to label that person as crazy yet we wouldn’t bat an eyelid to someone spending hours perusing social media pointlessly. Our time is money and we should use it doing something that catapults us towards our own definition of success. Remember what we said earlier — that the role of social media is to get us addicted to it — well that’s why just ‘popping on for 2 minutes to send Aunt Dora birthday wishes’ turns into two hours of browsing the random by-gone photos of someone you don’t even know properly. And don’t get me started on YouTube: I’ve had many fuck-my-life moments at 2am after having watched what feels like every cat video ever recorded.
The solution: the fix for procrastination is not easy and I’m not going to pretend I can do so in a paragraph. However, I’ve found that planning one’s free time to include constructive tasks or activities is one of the best antidotes that has worked for me. If we have too much unplanned time that automatic behaviour of reaching for our phones occurs all too easily.
The polarisation of our thoughts
Have you noticed that everything nowadays seems black and white? Our identities have been siphoned off into a number of limited compartments: democrat or republican, conservative or labour, racist or non-racist, gay or straight. I believe that much of this polarisation of the world is influenced heavily by advertising on social media. We can go back to its purpose: to provide advertising companies with subjects who will willingly ingest their perfectly targeted ads. In many ways, through our clicks, friendship circles and posts they can build up a perfect image of what makes us tick: as a result they feed us more of those things that reinforce our judgements of the world. Therefore all we ever see is more of what we already think but perhaps the more extreme version. In this way we become blinded to alternative views on the world. We are losing the ability to think for ourselves. At best this can lead to prejudiced views of certain groups of society and at worst can lead to all-out war. It is no secret that the Brexit campaign and Donald Trump election victory heavily exploited social media to project their messages. Has your belief about the management of the COVID-19 pandemic in your country been shaped by what you’ve read on social media?
The solution: if you are passionate about something then make an effort to try and speak to a range of people who have different opinions about it before making your own judgement. If you are not bothered by the topic (for me this includes most of the news these days) simply don’t bother consuming it in the first place. Reducing our consumption of social media as a whole, as already discussed earlier, is key.
Are there any benefits to social media usage?
I promised myself before writing this that I’d present a balanced opinion of social media. I can confidently say I’ve failed. It already feels much more like a rant than any logical definition of balance. However, there are undeniable benefits. For me, I feel like social media offers the key to the doors of people and places that you would have never dreamed of in its absence. You can find the most niche Facebook groups; at one stage I was keen on trying out wild open-water swimming. I was pleasantly surprised to find literally dozens of these groups where hardy men and women would post videos submerging themselves in the near-freezing tarns of the Lake District. I chastised myself for weirdly finding it motivating. Take home point: if you’re in a niche hobby then you can find a fellow weirdo somewhere in the world. Are these just virtual friends you may ask? Not necessarily; a couple of years ago I reached out to a YouTuber after watching his video — a year later we met up in the Swiss Alps for one of my most memorable mountaineering trips to date. Similarly, social media allows us to spread a message that we are passionate about to potentially a limitless number of people. If this is a message born out of a desire to improve society then this can be extremely powerful. On the other hand, if in the wrong hands it can be used to promote vitriol and incite riots across the world. And please, lets not forget Aunt Dora and her cousins — you find them all incredibly annoying but they invite you for Christmas dinner through Facebook and getting rid of it would make it incredibly awkward. With increasingly globalisation social media has also made it easier to stay in touch with friends or family members who have migrated across the globe.
What should I take away here?
Social media is here to stay. We cannot avoid it. It’s not all bad but it’s not all good either. But at least now you know it’s true motive. Don’t be beaten by it. How you choose to use it has to be your own personal decision: for some it might be their only way of promoting their business whereas others may find it easier to reduce their consumption. Be careful of whose life you follow, try having phone-free breaks, buy an alarm clock and don’t forget to talk to the stranger in the queue. Now, excuse me whilst I post this article on Facebook :)
- Date of publication:
- Wed, 01/13/2021 - 16:37
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