Let's talk about social media.
As we’re all aware, social media has become an integral part of our lives. Today we’re gonna talk about that.
Social Media and its Impact#
Whether we like it or not, big tech companies know more about us than we realize. And their accumulated data doesn’t stop at what we ourselves have provided to them. When social media first popped up in the mid-2000’s, no one could have seen what would be happening by 2020 (and if you did, congrats, here’s a gold star).
The number of social media sites and the resulting user counts has continued growing to the point that not just the youngest generation (Gen Alpha), but also the second youngest generation (Gen Z), have grown up with face filters and a sense of need (otherwise often left behind by peers) to document their lives online. Social media has also grown to do more than just posting photos and life updates; it’s many people’s prime, and sometimes only, news source. This has become a major topic of discussion around social media’s influence in fake news and misinformation spread.
So what has been the result of all this?
Facebook was accused of influencing the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Studies show that teenage mental health cases have increased by 50%+ since the early 2010s. It’s important to note that these teenagers are Gen Xers, the first generation to grow up with social media available in middle school.
Even adults recgonize that they spend too much time across social media platforms, constantly posting about how they spend too much time on social Facebook. And yet here we are, still checking our accounts first thing in the morning, throughout the workday, after the workday finishes, before we go to sleep, and seemingly worst of all, when we’re in the middle of face-to-face conversations with family and friends.
I initially intended this to be a post sharing my own experience with slowly changing and decreasing social media use, but I find this subject to be so paramount that I decided it was worth it to encapsulate a more comprensive collection of my thoughts regarding social media, based on both my experience and information I have learned from other sources. We’ll start with the book that really broadened my perspective to on social media and its purpose.
In 2019, a book titled Digital Minimalism was published by an author of the name Cal Newport. The book offers stories of people who have shared their realization of the unhealthy relationships they had with technology- relationships that were taking time from their loved ones, their passions, and even themselves. These stories are included alongside a steady introduction of methods that can be utilized to change one’s relationship with technology, in addition to sharing why it matters to be aware of our usage in the first place.
One of the most profound discussions in the book, in my humble opinion, is around solitude and the human need to prevent dependency on a constant influx of input. In today’s world, the average person’s day can easily look as follows:
- Get ready for work (sometimes with music, a podcast, or TV/a video on)
- Listen to a podcast or music during a commute
- Have conversations or background music going through most of the workday
- Listen to a podcast or music on the commute home
- Spend the evening scrolling through social media or watching TV (or potentially both at the same time)
Did you notice when time is intentionally taken to just think? To meditate, or to be still in silence, okay with being alone in our thoughts? You may consider the two minutes you spend brushing your teeth or the time you spend walking from your office to the car as being “alone time”, but it’s not. It shouldn’t be a surprise when we forget about birthdays and promises we made. When do we take the time to sit and think about things without distraction? Further, many of us can’t do everything we’ve committed to because we never just stopped to consider what we physically had the time and capacity to do. Not to mention that we all tend to complain about not having enough time while actively donating hours upon hours of it to sites and apps that give nothing in return.
Another critical takeaway I had from Digital Minimalism was its stance on the most popular excuse for using social media- “It’s how I keep up with everyone”.
Listen. I’ve been there. I understand. I have plenty of family and friends from over the years that I only saw updates from on Facebook and/or Instagram. But here’s what the book put into perspective for me. Social media isn’t helping you develop or maintain relationships. It’s a lazy way of being handfed quick updates. If you enjoy pictures of your friends vacationing around the world and newlywed couples and cute little kids, why don’t you just reach out to those friends and ask how things are going? Why not provide a personal inquery about how their lives are going? If people are important to you, you should be able and willing to reach out to receive the information you want, not depend on social media to spoonfeed it to you in a manner that doesn’t nourish your relationships at all.
All that being said, I’m not telling you that social media is 100% bad or bad 100% of the time. There are times when it’s great, and it’s up to you to decide when those times are. There are also times when it’s harmful, and again those are for you to recognize. If you need some beginning considerations, frequent comments I hear from people regarding their social media use include “Instagram reminds me I’ll never look like these girls” and “I never feel better after going on Facebook. Only worse”. Personally, Twitter is the last social media I actively use and I have curated my feed to be what I want it to be- meeting people and finding resources for my field of work. Different from the previous two statements, I mostly find inspiration and beneficial information from my time on it. What is gained from these sites and apps will vary from person to person.
So we’ve discussed what we’re missing out on as a result of social media use: time (to think, plan, and be intentional), and actions that will improve relationships intead of giving a false sense of closeness.
Now let’s take a look at how social media can not just prevent positive time use, but also actively add negative impacts.
In 2020, Netflix released The Social Dilemma, a documentary sharing the stories of big tech (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest) employees who no longer work at those companies. The information they convey is clear. We have no control of our relationship with social media, and quite honestly even our phones. Today’s social media companies are driven by none other than a desire to maximize profit. The intricacy of the algorithms that have been developed has turned AI into not just a future possibility, but a very real thing that is already here. Machine learning is taking every possible piece of data it can gleam from users to feed metrics that know more about us than we know about ourselves.
To put this into perspective, we would eventually get bored if we had to individually search for each new post or video to look at after finishing with the prior one. These algorithms are being used to calculate exactly what type of post would be most likely to retain our attention and, as a result, subconciously entice us to keep scrolling.
It doesn’t stop there. What about when we’re not on our phone at a given moment? Notifications don’t exist to get us instantaneous information for our own benefit. If so, that information would appear directly on the screen, not requiring us to enter an app to learn the entirety of we were notified about. Notifications exist to pull us from a state of not yet being on our phone, or even on a specific app, and pulling us into a state where it’s much simpler for the app to keep our attention. The more time we spend in an app, the more ads that can be shown to us, and the more money that the company makes. And what does that mean?
Social media benefits from maximizing our time spent in an application, negating any intention of minimizing or even being aware of our level of use.
So again, what does that mean? If you want to lower your time spent on social media, unfortunately it isn’t as simple as giving ourselves a time limit. While we can try this, and it may work for some, the app has been developed specifically to make us keep scrolling. You’re not just scrolling because you lack self-control, you’re scrolling because the app has been designed for stopping to be a largely difficult choice. You’re not just fighting yourself, you’re fighting AI.
If you’re interested in learning more about this, I recommend watching The Social Dilemma. This is a laregely complex subject. Users are addicted to apps, apps are collecting data, companies are analyzing, selling, and profiting off our data- it’s a lot more than I could fit in a blog post. For now, let’s take a look at what we can do about it.
I quit Facebook and Instagram. What happened?#
Let’s talk about my own experience with quitting Facebook and Instagram.
Let me start by saying that both of these decisions took a few years of evolving decisions and actions until I reached the point of actually deleting my accounts. Quitting cold turkey is definitely an option, but there are a lot of considerations that can make the decision more complicated. For example:
- How you’ll feel about not having access to other people’s social media updates
- If you currently use any of their messaging capabilities and how you would shift from them
- What to do with any content (e.g. photos, conversation, things you were tagged in that you didn’t upload yourself) that you may not have backed up and will want to save off
- How to stay in contact with long-distance friends you may not talk to over text or otherwise
As I took things like this into consideration, I started making changes to make myself less dependent on the apps.
The number one change I made to ease myself out of the apps’ use was removing the apps from my phone. I did this first with Facebook, as I was more used to using it on a desktop anyway. With Instagram, an app-centric social media, I took a different initial approach of moving it further from my phone’s first home screen, requiring me to intentionally locate it and use it. This was an important change that I made as a result of noticing that I was scrolling through Instagram without even knowing when I had unlocked my phone and opened the app. It had become instinct (with triggers that were a result of my habits), and I wanted to break the cycle.
What the above point boils down to is 1) removing ease of access and 2) intentionally choosing how difficult or easy that access will be, compared to where you started. This will likely be an iterative process. A little while after reducing my Instagram use, I deleted it from my phone but could still access it online if I wanted to, not having yet deleted my photos or locking my account. I basically stopped using it at this point. Once I eased myself away from visiting Instagram (the more difficult of the two for me to stop using), I was able to see that quitting it altogether really could be possible.
So I eventually deleted both accounts (wiping Instagram of my photos in hopes of changing what data I left behind, a whole other post topic in itself). Then what happened?
I never looked back. Seriously. I haven’t missed it once. I’ve never thought, or learned about something later and then though, “Dang I wish I had been on Facebook”. In fact, quite the opposite. I wish I could take back all the data Facebook has about me and has created from my use of it over the years.
As for Instagram? I’m so much more in touch with how I want to improve myself and take care of myself, as opposed to both consciously and subconsciously comparing myself to others every time I scroll past someone I’ll never be or look like. When I find myself in situations where I’m just waiting or figuring out something to do, my thought process is now full of thoughts around what I could read and learn, what I could watch to give my brain a break, who I could talk to and catch up with, or how I could get up and move around. All options require me being in touch with myself and responding to that in some way instead of scrolling through information or photos that won’t benefit me that and I probably didn’t even want in the first place. Frankly, it’s been more important for my mental and physical health more than ever, given our current quarantined circumstances.
If you’re considering quitting some social media, let me know if this post has been helpful at all. I would highly recommend reading Digital Minimalism, as it was the last bit of a push I needed to finally make my long-time coming decisions.
If you’re happy with where you are, then great! This isn’t meant to be a judgement against people who use social media and enjoy it. I’m glad you’ve found it to be a benefit in your life.