Three years ago, my wife and I were sitting by the beach in Mirissa, Sri Lanka, ready to watch the sunrise. I was ready with my smartphone to click a photograph. Instead of enjoying the stunning view that lay in front of me, I was looking at my phone screen thinking about my next Instagram Post.
That was the moment I became mindful of how I was not savouring what was in front of me. I put my phone away. I had a rapid flashback of the many beautiful moments on that holiday I had missed because I was thinking about how I would share them with the world. As I was watching the sun rise from the ocean, I reflected on why it mattered so much to me to share on social media.
Was it for reflection, connection or validation? Was it to practice photography and portray my work? Was it to capture the moment? At the outset, these reasons seem valid. On deeper thought, I knew social media gave me neither an opportunity to reflect, nor to connect. It gave me some superficial validation that didn’t necessarily help me grow as a human being. On the contrary, I felt I was more distracted and less mindful. My mind was in overdrive with the constant bombardment of content from many people. More importantly, I found lesser time for connecting deeply with my friends and family and often little time for building habits that were good for me — whether it was exercise or even photography. That day, I decided to quit all social media.
It has been three years since I left these platforms except LinkedIn, which I use for professional purposes. While I am less updated about my wider circles, I feel more authentically connected to the people who matter to me. I have connected with more people who have played the role of mentors, allies and partners in my work. I have gotten back to reading and blogging. I have a healthy routine around daily exercise and mindfulness. I feel more centered and resilient in times of crisis having been able to create space for myself in the hyper-stimulated, hyper-connected world. While I cannot say all these shifts were because of quitting social media alone, staying away has helped in many ways!
The Reality of Social Media
Social media has played a pivotal role in enabling and expediting some positive shifts in our world. It has enabled new businesses, fostered a thriving gig economy, facilitated social change, offered people in need a community of support, among other things. At the same time, there is growing evidence of its adverse impact on our society.
The recent Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma reveals the true nature of social media, in the words of many engineers, architects and designers who were there at the inception of Google, Facebook, Instagram, etc. The algorithms are not just designed to keep you hooked, but actually drive subtle behaviour changes in large numbers of participants, that enable more targetted advertising and therefore, more revenues. The computational engines that support these portals are powerful and ever-evolving. Our human brain has not changed its biology in thousands of years. Therefore, it is easily understood by these engines and tricked into following its impulses —that validation of a ‘like’, that dopamine rush.
It would have been wonderful if these well-built algorithms were anchored in increasing universal wellbeing. Unfortunately, their purpose is singular — to attain profit at all costs. It has come at a huge price, as is highlighted by the effects of social media on individuals, societies and social groups. I am summarizing it verbatim from their website (more details available here if you are interested).
Effects on Mental Health:
Persuasive design techniques like push notifications and the endless scroll of your newsfeed have created a feedback loop that keeps us glued to our devices.
A 5,000 person study found that higher social media use correlated with self-reported declines in mental and physical health and life satisfaction.
American Journal of Epidemiology, 2017
Effects on Democracy:
The ability for advertisers to apply social media microtargeting to nefarious purposes gives bad actors the tools to interfere with elections and fuel political divisions with phenomenal ease.
The # of countries with political disinformation campaigns on social media doubled in the past 2 years.
New York Times
Effects on Discrimination:
Algorithms promote content that sparks outrage, hate, and amplifies biases living within the data that we feed it.
64% of the people who joined extremist groups on Facebook did so because the algorithms steered them there.
Internal Facebook report, 2018
It is true that social media is not the root cause of all these problems. At the same time, one cannot deny the fact that it is an active contributor to aggravating them. It is incentivized to amplify our worst human tendencies and spread disinformation. It is creating fundamental questions about what used to be the undisputed ‘truth’ in itself — like matters of science, or where there was clear factual evidence. If we don’t act now and demand these networks to change, we could bring to life aspects of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984.
What can I do to change my habits?
Some things that worked for me were:
- Setting limits on where you can use devices and what time you can use devices. For example, my wife and I keep devices in DND mode and away from the bed at least 60–90 minutes before sleeping. We have a no phones policy when we go out for dinners (those pre-COVID times!) or when we take our evening walks.
- Installing a screen time tracker, setting alarms for usage time of certain apps and using this data to gradually reduce your usage. This is slightly easier if your intention is clear and you do it with a buddy at home!
- Removing all apps with infinite scrolling (where more content automatically shows up as you scroll down). Not surprisingly, it was mostly social media apps that had this feature. If uninstalling is difficult, at least shut off all notifications from social media apps on your phone.
- Deactivating or even deleting my accounts on most of them. This may not work for everyone because going cold turkey is not easy because these platforms are designed to be addictive. If it is any assurance, the fallouts were not half as bad as I expected when I quit these platforms.
If you want to find many more ways to take action, not just in your own lives, but to fight misinformation and advocate for more ethical social networks, check out this section of their webpage.
If you have already taken action to reclaim your life from the clutches of social media, let me know what worked for you. If you still think you don’t need an intervention, you could test yourself using the Social Media Confessions Bingo:
What the Social Dilemma Misunderstands About Social Networks: The Verge [This is a alternate-view of the documentary’s narrative. I do resonate with it]
Social Media is rife with propaganda: The Hindu [A research-based article in the Indian context]