Sure it’s a lark to lurk online to see who’s wearing what, but after the latest Facebook security breach and an increasingly anti-social side to social media, Amanda Cassidy asks is it time to finally break up with our digital selves?
The urge to pick up the phone, the relentless scrolling, regretting the screen binge – it is time to recognise that we are all completely addicted to the internet. In fact, it is called random reinforcement – an addiction fed by reward but amplified by never knowing whether or when this reward will come.
Like it or not, we are in love with the anticipation, validation and participation that comes with voluntarily dangling our lives out into the digital ether in the hope of catching a few likes – flypaper style.
But what of it? Is remaining part of the online loop really so damaging? Conclusive findings are limited because social media is such a new and emerging area, but some of the studies are jolting. A 2011 study from Nottingham Trent University analysing 43 previous studies concluded that social media addiction is a mental health problem that may require professional treatment. It found that excessive usage was linked to relationship problems, less participation in offline communities and found that those who could be more vulnerable to a social media addiction include those dependent on alcohol, the highly extroverted, and those who use social media to compensate for fewer ties in real life. Another 2016 study by Penn State University showed that viewing other people’s selfies lowered self-esteem because users compared themselves to photos of people looking their happiest.
We joke about getting rid of our accounts, but few of us ever really do for fear of being cut off, isolated from the daily hits of mindless junk we have become so dependent on. The closest we get is deleting the app for a couple of weeks off our phones before succumbing to acute FOMO. Surprisingly, teens are those leading the way when it comes to the great social media escape. A new study claims that more than 11 million teenagers left Facebook between 2011 and 2014, swapping public platforms like Twitter and Instagram for private messaging apps like WhatsApp and Snapchat.
25 year old, Rosanna Cassidy is one of those who decided to eject herself from these platforms. She admits she is far happier since she quit social media. “I was sick and tired of people trying to force their political beliefs upon me, and I found it so depressing that people were repeating views they had heard that weren’t true. Now, three months later, without Facebook, I feel much happier and more content. I can live my life instead of trying to shape it into one that looks good online. I also have a lot more time now, and it’s easy enough to keep in touch with my friends in other ways. What’s more, now we can have conversations about what we’ve been doing because we haven’t seen it all already on social media.”
Dangerous and unethical
58-year-old Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist, virtual reality expert and outspoken critic of social media. In his new book, Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Account Right Now, Lanier says platforms like Facebook and Instagram have sucked us into an addictive spiral of outrage, isolation and extremism. Speaking to the Financial Times, he says we need to be aware that we are being used. “We would all have a clearer understanding of our world if we relabelled the likes of Facebook and Google as “behaviour manipulation empires”. His argument is that “pervasive surveillance and constant, subtle manipulation is unethical, cruel, dangerous and inhumane” In short, he believes that social media is turning us into assholes.
But what about all those cute cat videos we love so much? And how realistic is it to untangle ourselves and our business from these networks? What about some of the very positive benefits – online support groups, diagnosing mental health issues, combating loneliness, embracing technological progress and plain old FUN? Can we possibly fulfil all these needs elsewhere without completely cutting ourselves off?
Lanier argues that we simply need to understand that we are being used on a massive scale.
“These companies are using their computing powers to gain a vast informational advantage, keeping the economic rewards for themselves while radiating risk out to everyone else. It is reminiscent of a gambling economy where the only sure position is in the casino.”
But we knew all that, right? We know that if we look up trips to New York or talk about needing a lawnmower that we are going to be targeted with similar goods in frighteningly accurate a see-me, remember-me, buy-me spiral. A friend of mine recently shrugged it off by saying she was happy that the algorithm knew which items to place in front of her as she surfed online because it made life easier. In this scenario, we are allowing our world to get smaller and our true choices risk being distorted and sold back to us like our own.
Knowing you are being manipulated and then shrugging off that manipulation because you are getting something out of it is very dangerous – especially when you swap products for politics.
And then there is the data mismanagement. Just last night, Facebook announced that the security of 50 million accounts was compromised. That’s all your photos, all your private messages as well as your personal details being accessed by outsiders - a stark reminder of just how much information big technology companies collect from those using their network.
Fluff and feels
Like any addict, we look for obstacles to place in the way of withdrawing from our fix – I need it for work, I'd never stay in touch otherwise, I only go on in the evenings.
That’s what social media was designed for – to be addictive and dominant and impossibly hard to quit. To take and take and give you fluff and feels and friendship anniversaries and fake news in return.
I’ve hovered over the deliberately ominous DELETE ACCOUNT PERMANENTLY button many times. It is so tempting to free yourself from the shackles of Snapchat, to exit Instagram and fade out of Facebook for good. I’d dearly love to have to courage to live without always being ‘connected.’
But I definitely need mine for work.