Social media: It’s a part of our lives, especially as young people. I’m suspicious of baby boomers telling this generation that it’s lazy or useless because of social media, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned about the enormous impacts it may have on us as individuals and a society.
To understand the rise of and problems with social media, we have to understand that it is addictive. For some, the term “addictive” may not be entirely accurate. Social media may be common but not compulsive throughout daily life.
For others, though, social media addiction can look like any other, including “neglect of personal life, mental preoccupation, escapism, mood modifying experiences, tolerance, and concealing the addictive behavior,” according to a study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
So maybe some people can’t stop looking at their Instagram feeds, but what’s the harm in that? According to other studies, overall life satisfaction, including cognitive, physical and emotional well-being, declines with social media use. Herein lies the problem: The artificial, online social interactions are not as fulfilling as the real, in-person interactions.
Humans are social animals. Our brains reward social behavior, and social media found a way to exploit that reward on demand with an artificial substitute.
Not only is social media always available, but it also constantly takes our attention throughout the day. The buzzes from your phone or smartwatch eventually train your brain to prepare for a reward, much like Pavlov’s dog. The cycle becomes increasingly part of our daily lives and takes more control over time.
Eventually, our social media controls us more than we control it.
This entire cycle is encouraged and perpetuated by advertisers and social media companies themselves. More time spent on their sites means they make more money.
If systems in our brain and economy are perpetuating the programs of hearts and thumbs up online, why put up a fight?
Jean Twenge, author and researcher of the link between social media and our generation, stated that our generation is “on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades,” in an article in The Atlantic. “Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones,” she wrote.
While the number of studies on social media is still relatively small, we know there are serious risks involved, individually and societally. What may appear to be harmless clicks and taps can easily turn into a destructive problem.
We trade authenticity and vulnerability for perfect sunsets and faces without frowns or blemishes. We trade beautiful clouds (sans Photoshop) and friendly faces on campus for reading emails between classes.
We trade the honest, joyful, heartbreaking, beautiful, terrifying, vulnerable, real life that is set before us every day, and we hope the edited, sponsored, eerily happy sites we visit will be fulfilling substitutes.
Social media is here to stay, but that doesn’t mean it has to control us or our well-being.
We can realize that the “do not disturb” button is our friend. One tap can give us focus, clarity and rest from the endless barrage of information we receive every day. We can learn to limit our time online to certain hours, when we are best prepared to engage the content we see honestly, with respect to ourselves and others.
Perhaps, little by little, we can learn to ignore more notifications than we do sunsets.
Daniel Payne is a sophomore integrated marketing communications major from Collierville, Tennessee.