When was the last time you left your house without your phone?
Whilst many people cannot remember a time before snap streaks, filters and hashtags, it’s a more recent phenomenon than you think. 2004 gave us Facebook, Instagram was created in 2010, and Tiktok came about in 2016. Many of us grew up alongside these monumental changes, and we went from talking to our friends on the house phone to posting pictures into a virtual void; sending them nowhere and everywhere at the same time. With it only being a decade since this societal shift, it’s safe to say we’re all still learning how to live alongside these changes and understanding the full consequence social media has on us.
One consequence we’ve been living with is overconsumption. We’re living in two worlds; the physical world and a virtual one. I remember going on holiday to Japan and taking the tube; I was baffled to see every single person hunched over their phones, but even more taken aback when I saw a man with his arm in a cast holding a phone in either hand. Our phones have an iron grip on us and the scariest part is that it’s not our fault. Social media was designed to be addictive. In order to combat addictiveness, we need to delve deeper and understand the mechanisms behind this.
1. Social media is addictive
Social media was designed to overstimulate our emotions. One chemical in particular that’s constantly triggered is dopamine. Dopamine is produced at the prospect of obtaining a reward. Living in an overstimulated world causes our dopamine to be continuously triggered, meaning we’re constantly looking or thinking about the next place to get that dopamine rush. In turn, this is causing a lower attention span and drive within us. If we can get instant gratification from our phones, why would we bother doing things that take longer for the same dopamine effect?
Another addictive agency of social media is there are no stopping cues. There’s nothing to prevent us from scrolling and scrolling and scrolling. Refresh the page and more content loads. Attention engineers have taken inspiration from Las Vegas slot machines to make these apps colourful and addictive with minimum effort.
All of this leads to us developing an unconscious dependency on our digital devices. Interestingly, research has consistently shown that addictive use of social media is more prevalent among women than men (Griffiths et al, 2014).
This comes as no surprise when looking at the commodification of women throughout history. Now, in the ‘aesthetic age’, the culture of social media validation and relentless comparison to others has created an abundance of low-esteemed women.
2. Social media makes us feel validated
Somehow, posting on social media can make us feel more validated in our life experiences. We’ve told ourselves that if we have fun and don’t post it online, our experiences are less valuable than others. Despite knowing social media is not the real world, we can’t help but feel it’s more validating than reality. Again, this comes back to the dopamine rush we receive from others that make us feel good. This sought out validation often comes from feeling neglected in real life and constantly comparing ourselves to others online.
‘Comparison is the thief of joy.’ - Theodore Roosevelt
Comparison culture is nothing new. I’m sure even cavemen looked on in envy as they saw someone’s sharper spear, or that another had hunted a bigger and juicier animal.
However, social media has exploded this phenomenon into what I feel is an internal pandemic (sit down coronavirus I’m not talking about you – this time anyway). It is arguably one of the worst things to come from overusing social media. We are no longer content in our own lifestyles, and instead we compare what we don’t have to what others do. The constant overstimulation that we get from social media feeds into these feelings of self-doubt, fear and jealousy, until we no longer feel happy.
3. Social conditioning
Often times using our phones is not an active choice, but a compulsive behaviour. How many times have you been speaking to a friend when mid-conversation they suddenly begin scrolling? When was the last time you were alone in public and didn’t bury your head in your phone in an attempt to look ‘busy?’
“What's making us uncomfortable...is this feeling of losing control - a feeling that instantiates itself in a dozen different ways each day, such as when we tune out with our phone during our child's bath time, or lose our ability to enjoy a nice moment without a frantic urge to document it for a virtual audience.” - Cal Newport, digital minimalism.
4. Fear of being disengaged from society.
Approximately 4.48 billion of the world have some sort of social media (I). We’ve now moved past the traditional telephonic era as smart phones and social media have brought about a new way to communicate. Instead, we’re inundated with a constant flow of information on others, whether it be through posts, stories or shares.
It can be difficult to detach ourselves from social media because we view it as a way of keeping in contact with friends and family. After all, nobody wants to feel like they’re actively disengaging from society. Because we’re so accustomed to seeing and hearing what our friends and family are doing, the thought of logging off and this information flow coming to a halt invokes the fear that we are shutting ourselves off.
Not only do we have FOMO for ‘real world’ activities, but this has also transcended into a virtual space. Seeing that we didn’t get invited to dinner with friends or Helen just got promoted and has bought her own house in London at the same age as you. Despite knowing how these things make us feel, we look on in envy and fear, and in turn feel inadequate.
“There is a valid reason social media is linked to depression and loneliness. We live in a time when many people spend countless hours a day online strolling through the timeline of others with envy, regret, and little appreciation for their own life.” - Germany Kent
Whilst social media does keep us connected in ways, I believe it’s become a comfort blanket that serves us the illusion of connection. Humans are social creatures, and we were not designed to be connected through likes and shares. It doesn’t mean anything. Instead, we use social media to compare ourselves, we feel unhappy and the cycle continues.
Whilst algorithms may seem unrelated to the amount of time you spend on your phones, your addiction is actually nurtured and spurred on by them. Algorithms are designed to collect data to build up a character profile of what you like and don’t like. This way, more content you like will be suggested to you in the hopes of keeping you engaged for longer. This is because more engagement = more money for the app and third-party ad agencies.
If you feel you may have a social media addiction, it can be difficult to know what to do to combat it, as the interface right down to the content is designed to hook your attention. You may have tried putting your phone away when you sleep, or using your phone for a limited amount of time each day, but if you find this doesn’t work for you then maybe it’s time to rethink the way you use social media.
Set app time limits
If you find yourself losing track of time using specific apps, set app limits in your phone settings. This way you’ll be reminded when a certain time limit has passed so you can take back control and get off the app rather than be sucked into a time vortex.
Delete apps you do not need
Whilst this one may seem obvious, consciously going through the pros and cons of each social media app can help eliminate the ones that won’t be missed. Think about whether that app is truly useful to your life by drawing up a pros and cons list. For example, pros could include you use the app to keep in contact with friends and family. Cons could include that you end up scrolling mindlessly and get distracted. Whilst the pro is valid, you can substitute it by using other means to contact friends and family, either through text or call.
Read Digital Minimalism
Cal Newport’s book sheds light on how we can utilise technology without too much of a damaging effect in what he calls digital minimalism. He defines it as:
A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimised activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.
Rather than getting lost in a digital world, his book highlights how technology should be optimised to help day- to- day life rather than hinder it.
If you find yourself feeling consumed by social media, you’re not alone. I have not met a single person who has a perfect life, and social media sells us a false narrative that eats into our own insecurities. Our social feeds are a whirlwind of memes and news and pictures of brunch and selfies and Maggie’s got a new house and Lara just hit 10k on Instagram and Frazer just performed at his first gig and-
Let’s be honest, it’s exhausting to keep up with it. But the beauty of it is we don’t have too. We can unlearn these behaviours and break free from the digital shackles we’re all bound in.
If you’re looking to declutter your Instagram feed and want to follow empowering accounts, check out our recommendations here.