Yangyang Wang explores the dark side of the social media cult and its damaging effects
I admit that I used to be somewhat of a social media addict. I had Snapchat, Whatsapp, Instagram, Facebook, email and YouTube on permanent rotation on my phone. I sometimes even found myself pretending to use my phone just to avoid awkward interactions with strangers. I flitted from one screen to another, alternating between using my laptop to checking my phone, between, and during lectures. Technology has fully inserted itself into our lives, but at what cost?
I find that my concentration span is constantly getting worse. I am unable to concentrate for an extended period of time on a single task and my phone is always within arm’s reach, ready to provide respite from 5 arduous minutes of solid study. Our increasing dependency on technology may very well actually be the cause for our diminishing attention spans. A study by Microsoft showed that our attention spans decreased from 12 to 8 seconds in the last 15 years with the advent of smartphones. Funnily enough, the average attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds. By measuring their brain activity, the study established that those with an active digital lifestyle found it harder to concentrate for a prolonged amount of time.
This may be because short bursts of concentrated energy appeal to our brain activity. The human brain is hard-wired for instant gratification and this is why social media becomes so addictive. Daniel Levitin, an American neuroscientist, states that the novelty of a Facebook update, or a scroll through Instagram activates the limbic system in our brain, the area associated with pleasure. These rewarding feelings soon lead to addiction as the user increasingly seeks to satiate their technology cravings, they begin to need their fix. It also feeds into the problem of attention deficiency disorders as users become accustomed to the sensations from a quick stimuli and find it harder to focus for a longer period of time.
Social media has become a careful construction of our real lives. We tread a delicate balance of self-deprecation and self-promotion with our online image, performing to gain validation based on the number of ‘likes’ our posts receive. There is a lot of anxiety associated with using social media: are my hashtags relevant enough? How many likes does my profile picture have? Did someone unfollow me? We are feeding a system where our virtual lives almost hold greater value than actually living. We start to have feelings of low self-esteem and emptiness when our virtual presence is somewhat lesser than our friends’.
Tanaya Basu de Sarkar, a student at UCL says:
It’s anxiety about how I’m perceived when I don’t have many photos up that makes me want to delete my Facebook. It’s questioning whether I am living my suburban life to the fullest in comparison to every summer holiday album that hits my newsfeed.”
Essena O’Neill, who famously quit social media and started www.letsbegamechangers.com, as an antidote to the endlessness of social media, also commented:
I feel like at 12 I thought I was nothing, and here – at nearly 19 – with all of these followers I don’t even know what is real and what is not because I have let myself be defined by something that is so not real.
Social media, especially how I used it, isn’t real. It’s contrived images and edited clips ranked against each other. It’s a system based on social approval, likes, validation in views, success in followers. It’s perfectly orchestrated self absorbed judgement.”
Feelings of inadequacy caused by social media are not anecdotal. Studies in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that frequent Facebook use was associated with depressive symptoms. This was due to social comparison: people who regularly used Facebook compared their lives to the glittering ‘highlight reels’ of their friends, resulting in feelings of depression. Social media creates a distortion of reality; we only ever see the social highs and celebrations of others, which creates the illusion that our own ordinary lives are unsatisfactory.
There is a genuine concern about how social media and technology is changing our lives. Human interaction has seemingly become secondary to online interaction and our minds have undoubtedly changed to accommodate this. Browsing is endless, which means that there is no finality to the world of social media. We could spend a lifetime online as the number of websites, according to Netspeak, exceeds 1 billion and is still growing. Social media is unrelenting and omnipresent. We find ourselves constantly inundated with messages and notifications and it can become overwhelming. We are plugged into a world where there is seemingly no off button and immediacy is made a high priority. In a climate where most of our generation is connected to the social media matrix, what would happen if we decided to unplug?
Featured Image Credit – Flickr