Today in 2020, social media usage is widespread. 88% of 18 to 29 year olds have at least one active social media account, and public figures such as the president of the United States use Twitter to publicly project their views to the world.
Midway through March, whilst the national lockdown was in effect in Britain, I took the decision to delete most social media apps from my phone and see if I could last a month without them. Applications which I use primarily for messaging like Snapchat and Facebook Messenger would stay, but everything else would be deactivated and uninstalled.
Like many other teenagers my age, I spent an excessive amount of time scrolling through Facebook feeds and Instagram stories, often times for no meaningful purpose other than to pass time when I was bored or lying in bed. I was like a Pavlovian dog, refreshing the page for an extra like on one of my Instagram photos.
Do I really need to like Facebook posts of Cristiano Ronaldo on holiday with his family? Why am I watching an Instagram Live from someone I don’t even know in real life? My ‘screen time’ figures on my iPhone were not pretty, and I frequently broke the 30-minute daily cap I set for myself.
The initial idea to try a month without social media stemmed from a book I read aptly titled Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier, which I stumbled across whilst browsing in the library last year. I found the points he made quite convincing, so I decided to give the challenge a go.
For the first week or so, it was quite difficult. I would open up my phone throughout the day and try to find the Instagram app, only to find it missing from the home screen. Using Instagram every day for months had conditioned my brain to crave it.
It isn’t entirely my fault though, as social media companies use psychological tricks to make it hard to leave the ecosystem. They may send you notifications if you haven’t opened the app in a while. The option to permanently delete your profile is hidden away in the settings tab.
In his TED talk in 2016, Professor Cal Newport likens social media consumption to that of a slot machine, giving you small treats and boosts to your dopamine levels in exchange for minutes of your attention. Quitting a service like Instagram is not designed to be easy.
Newport also goes on to explain in his talk that companies tweak their applications in order to maximise the amount of time users spend on their app. This was seen most clearly in 2016, when Instagram announced they were overhauling their chronological feed with a new algorithm feed that would be ‘ordered to show the moments we believe you care about most’.
Previously, a user could ‘complete’ Instagram for the day by being up to date with all the days posts. Now, with the current feed, users are subject to an endless stream of content. Individuals can waste their life away observing other peoples’ carefully curated profiles whilst wishing something exciting was happening in their own lives.
The move away from the fundamentals of social media such as messaging to content like videos and posts which can be liked and shared inherently increases the amount of time an individual spends on social media platforms. People can browse the Instagram ‘discover’ tab or get lost down the YouTube recommended videos sidebar for hours at a time.
Social media is fine in moderation, but as Jeremy Nobel stresses: “As with any diet that tilts heavily toward foods that lack nutritional value, an excessive intake of social media may be bad for your health”.
This is precisely the problem. Teenagers today in our ever-digital world are spending much longer than 30 minutes or an hour online. According to a Pew Research Center survey, over half of American teenagers admit they spend too much time on their mobile phone, and 72% of them say they check their phone for notifications as soon as they wake up. For many young people, this is not sporadic use but a dependence on social media as a form of entertainment, distraction or escapism.
A reliance on social media often has negative side effects too. A January 2020 Cigna study found that there was an increasing correlation between social media usage and feelings of loneliness.
In 2017, the Royal Society for Public Health concluded that Instagram was the worst social media platform for mental health, in large part due to body image and ‘FOMO’ concerns. Whilst Instagram have toyed with the idea of hiding the number of likes on posts to ‘remove pressure on users’, these seem like baby steps in terms of addressing an increasingly serious problem.
In a few years, we will look back on the 2010s and recognise it as an era dominated by social media and the emergence of the superpowers in Silicon Valley. Social media may have originally intended to bring people together, but currently it seems to be driving people apart.