A world without social media platforms and mobile phones might seem foreign to young people growing up in today’s world, but for most of us it was the norm. Whilst I was introduced to this technology at a relatively young age, I spent a fair chunk of my childhood removed from the influences of social media. I can only just recall the unique freedom associated with the detachment I had from any type of device, and moments seemed to stretch out as though life was lived in slow motion, because we didn’t have such a pervasive and appealing distraction to pass the time. It wasn’t long before high school when I was introduced to MSN and Myspace, and my life was invariably changed for good. I always felt a bubble of excitement before logging into MSN or Myspace to chat with friends, update my profile through the use of (what I thought was) complex coding, and observing what other people were doing on their profiles. It was immediately encapsulating, and from the moment I was introduced to social media, I’ve never looked back.
Throughout my teens and twenties, this fixation on social media grew so ubiquitous that it became a permanent fixture in my life. Like the ritual of gulping down Vegemite on toast every morning or brushing my teeth before bed, logging onto social media was a habit that became second nature – a fact of life that was never questioned or critiqued. It crept up on me in an almost insidious fashion, and I never really noticed my daily choices of watching movies, reading books and playing games were usurped by social media apps. Whether it was chatting to friends on Facebook, sending humorous selfies on snapchat, or scrolling robotically through Instagram, I was hooked to whatever bizarre sense of pleasure I was receiving from staring at these apps on my phone. Indeed, as I type this article I inadvertently have flicked to Facebook to scroll down a feed that has very little to offer besides vague acquaintances selling useless products or depressing news articles containing comments filled with fifty year olds arguing and Covid-19 conspiracies.
Arguably, the appeal of social media is two-fold. It taps into our zeal for modern electronic technologies and our fascination with computers and smart phones. More importantly, as the name suggests, it focusses on the fundamental need of social connectedness. We all long for that sense of belonging and connection with other people. Conversely, we want to avoid feeling a sense of loneliness and abandonment – we don’t want to be outcasts or perceived as separate than the in-group. From an evolutionary perspective, we are social beings that thrive, and indeed have survived, off our ability to communicate, plan, and coordinate ideas with others. Recent studies have identified the importance of strong relationships in maintaining a sense of happiness. Social bonds and a lack of isolation has been identified as the key facets that promote overall wellbeing and a sense of life satisfaction and fulfilment. On this basis, it’s no wonder that we all spend hours a day on applications that purport to be social. We can send funny memes to friends every 15 minutes during the working day, and we are able to know what everyone is doing throughout the day through filtered updates depicting coffee cups in front of the ocean or sweaty mirror selfies in the gym. But in a world where loneliness, suicide and depression are at an all-time high, is it correct to describe the most utilised platforms in the world as “social”?
Most of us can sheepishly admit that we spend far too much time on social media. I know I shudder with regret when I receive the weekly notification on my phone indicating how much screen time I had over the preceding week, most of which was taken up by Facebook and Instagram. Such a significant amount of time devoted to an activity purporting to be based on socialising wouldn’t be that much of an issue if we were indeed interacting with our friends and family in meaningful and fulfilling way on these platforms. If we were strengthening our relationships with those around us, and creating positive memories to reflect upon wistfully in years to come, then our addiction to social media would not be as much of an issue. But our time on these apps is often devoted to scrolling through the feeds of random celebrities and influencers, comparing our mundane lives with their exciting and packed experiences. We immerse ourselves in repetitive and rapid videos on Tik Tok which provide fleeting and vacuous entertainment, but arguably fail to add much in the way of substance and value to our lives. We communicate through an electronic veil, hiding our authenticity and depicting ourselves in a way that will confer the most likes and follows, rather than developing long-term fulfilling relationships.
All in all, there appears to be a conspicuous lack of socialising on these platforms, and if they aren’t being utilised for their ultimate purpose of social connection, this provokes the question of what exactly is their purpose then? I would argue that it’s true we do receive some entertainment value in the form of humorous exchanges with friends, and interesting and engaging content on our feeds. But for the most part, the reason we spend so much time on our phones scrolling endlessly is because it is so easy. Rather than being forced to confront our anxieties, fears and life stressors, we can distract ourselves by simply scrolling down a feed of pretty pictures and rapid videos. We can avoid thinking about the dreaded tasks we need to do, or worrying about the crappy day you’ve had at work. Whilst we don’t want to think about stressful things all the time, it’s important we don’t avoid confronting uneasy feelings altogether in order for us to ultimately grow and prosper. Another reason we spend so much time on these apps is due to our “addiction” to receiving social validation in the form of likes and comments. Moreover, we become engrossed in our feeds which share distressing and captivating news about world events, fuelling our contradictory desires of wanting to avoid the depressing news articles but also feeling too intrigued to look away. Whether we are posting heavily edited photos, doom-scrolling the news feeds, or watching cringe-worthy Tik Tok videos, I think most of us can admit we often feel as though we are wasting our lives on these platforms.
So, you have identified that you devote too much of your time on social media. Now what? It’s important to become aware of exactly how much time you spend scrolling on your phone by putting a numerical value on it. Five hours per day? Three hours? You probably think you spend a mere thirty minutes but when you actively notice how much time you’re spending you’ll probably realise it’s significantly more than that. Notice in what circumstances and contexts you take out your phone. It might be when you have an assessment or presentation due for university or work and rather than focus on the task at hand, you spend your time on Facebook. You may have had a particularly tough day and subsequently spend the entire afternoon laying in your bed and comparing your life with those who get paid to holiday in Croatia. It’s also crucial that you identify exactly how this unproductive scroll makes you feel. You will probably notice that you don’t feel any sense of accomplishment or fulfilment after a long scroll, but rather you feel sluggish and perhaps a little despondent. I would suggest writing all of this down, particularly your emotional responses to the the social media scroll-a-thon, until you gain an in-depth understanding of how pervasive this issue is in your life.
Once you bring awareness to any situation, it can become a lot easier to change. I am sure most people don’t want to waste their lives on applications that confer minimal benefit and which provide no positive or memorable experiences. There are plenty of books, podcasts and documentaries available on how to change maladaptive habits, and it will be a good opportunity to invest in these. On a basic level, you will probably need to replace the scroll with an activity or task that provides you with a “bigger, better offer” (as Dr Judson Brewer puts it in his book, “Unwinding Anxiety”). This might be something like watching a humorous television show with your housemates or partner, reading an intriguing book, skyping a family member to play trivial pursuit, or learning another language on Duo-lingo. It will also mean you will probably have to face the feelings you have been avoiding, and the best way to do this is to journal about them. Ultimately, it’s important that you keep the bigger picture in mind, and remind yourself about what makes you feel a sense of contentment and happiness in the long-run, as opposed to what makes you feel gloomy and grouchy. This isn’t to say that social media use should be discarded altogether, as I believe it can certainly be useful and worthwhile. The main idea is to focus on productive and fulfilling social-media use, and overcoming repetitive and unhelpful scrolling that serve no purpose but merely exacerbates your anxieties.