Social Media Is Dragging Us Into The Gutter: But I’m Told There ‘s A Way Out

I’m writing this article sat in a leafy West London park on a balmy summer’s day. I’m positioned so that my phone is avoiding the sun’s glare and within arm’s reach. My neck is burning quite badly, but that’s ok because at this angle I know instantly when a Whatsapp message comes through or whether my Facebook check-in (“Catching some rays in the park. Bliss”) has hit twenty likes. A few metres away children are playing, vying for attention, whilst their parents sit in silence, adding filters to the choreographed family photo they just took. There’s a game of cricket happening to the right – one of the players just missed a catch because he was staring at his tablet. The twenty somethings to the left of me haven’t spoken for five minutes, communicating with their thumbs instead – no doubt organising a meet-up with other friends they can ignore.

I can’t help thinking how strange things have become since social media was catapulted into our lives. We put hours into creating an online persona far removed from our real lives. We seek approval off people we don’t really know (and cross the street to avoid), whilst ignoring our nearest and dearest. For many it’s more important to be perceived as happy than to actually be happy. Some of us will even prioritise a sun-burned neck over a tanned face. Who needs a tan when you have Instagram filters anyway?

Despite the energy we put into social media, the net result is rarely positive. More often than not, an over-active user will alienate more ‘friends’ than they impress. For the two dozen people that ‘like’ hourly updates of what Milly (aged 4) is up to, hundreds won’t (including Milly when she grows up). That political status that you hoped would initiate a revolution? It will probably irritate most people into thinking the opposite – I’ve been on both sides of that outcome.

Aside from reducing framed photos of likeable friends to dartboard targets, social media can also hit us psychologically. Its forever-refreshing newsfeeds serve up a conveyer belt of unachievable role models via air-brushed celebrities and manufactured friends. Constant exposure can lead to status anxiety – a feeling of insecurity psychologists cite as a key driver of unhappiness (colloquially referred as FOMO). Studies suggest that status anxiety can lead to depression, self-harm and even suicide, particularly (although not exclusively) for children. Social media has also given birth to rampant sexism, racism, bullying, death threats and an offline society divided by the countless online bubbles it exists in.
Some people argue that the negative outcomes of social media have always existed. People have always sought validation, suffered from status anxiety and irritated others with their opinions. Sadly, people have always been bullied and threatened. Nothing has really changed they argue – we are simply seeing a modern carnation of long-standing challenges. Of course, I’d agree that these problems have always existed, but it’s clear to me that it’s all a little worse in the virtual world.

One of the biggest problems with social media conversations is that they tend to lack context. In the real world we share our opinions with people who are interested in them, or are at least willing participants in the conversation. In real life, I rarely rant about politics or air my dirty laundry to a bloke I once went on a stag do with. But on social media, every member of the stag party, Auntie Mable and the class of 96 have to listen to the many highs and lows of my existence.

Online interactions also lack the context of body language, facial expressions and tone of voice, each of which are essential to building empathy and understanding. Unlike communication face-to-face, they carry an inherent insecurity – it’s so much easier to take or leave an online conversation, or to simply ignore the other participant. If you’ve ever done online dating, you will know what I mean!

Perhaps the most unique feature of social media is that it’s always bloody there. As a result we have to listen to our ‘friends” opinions all the time, not just in pre-arranged social gatherings. This perpetual conversation has implications on how people present themselves. In the past we demonstrated the evolutionary need for status with things that rarely change – such as a new car, job or house. But in the world of social media we need a more transient, dynamic currency – such as our opinions or the things we do. And confronted by the many updates of our friends, we have to continually come up with new material.

This persistent need to share ‘tick-box’ activities can stop us from enjoying our experiences. I remember recently visiting a museum and being awe-struck by a certain exhibit. I took a photo and reflexively uploaded it to Facebook. Before I knew it I was reading about how Milly had fallen off her bike and needed seven stitches. Museum experience ruined. Some people may be so consumed with their devices that they will never enter the experience in the first place. I’ve heard stories of children taking thousands of photos a day, and meticulously planning the optimal time to post.

I’ve begun to see social media as the junk-food of relationship building. It tricks our evolutionary needs much like a bar of chocolate does when it mimics a piece of fruit. Like the bar of chocolate it gives us an instant hit of pleasure which quickly fades. Primed for survival, our ‘monkey brain’ prioritises the easily achieved, positive hit over the dissatisfaction that follows, and leaves us craving more. And so we set off a pattern of activity where we choose social media above more meaningful, long-lasting and effortful pleasures. Facebook, Twitter or Instagram gets the nod over time with our children, a game of cricket or even a tanned face.

Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. Social media does of course offer a lot of positives – and many more than a Galaxy Ripple. At its best, it strengthens relationships that may have otherwise withered, provides communities for the isolated, and is a voice for the disenfranchised. It is a cheap marketing tool for talented individuals and start-up businesses. I’m well aware that without it, I’d be starved of an opportunity to rant on this blog and that some of the groups I support would have significantly less leverage. These positives give me hope, and the desire to cling on, albeit with a more healthy relationship.

In creating this healthy relationship, I think the first step is to return to the junk-food analogy. Just like when we are trying to give up chocolate, we should admit that the triggers that draw us in are a lot more powerful than our will-power. Each social media platform is designed by clever behavioural psychologists who know exactly how to target our ‘monkey brain’ (over which we have very little control). So, simply ‘moderating’ or ‘being stronger’ should be thrown out as a strategy.

A good starting place is to understand how our habits are created. According to Charles Duhigg all of our habits (good or bad) are made up of three parts – a trigger, a routine and a reward. We overcome them either by removing the trigger or (when the trigger hits) finding an alternative routine that gives the same reward. The trigger for eating chocolate may be boredom, and the reward is a hit of dopamine. So next time we feel bored and reach for the Dairy Milk, we may want to do something else that triggers dopamine – like speaking to a friend, or going for a run. With social media, my trigger is the presence of my phone, and the reward I seek is the same as the chocolate. So when my checking is particularly bad, I tend to put my phone in another room. My alternative routine is similar – a conversation, exercise or a piece of chocolate!

For children however, I wonder if more rigorous action needs to be taken. Clearly parents can (and do) educate and invigilate. But this just favours children with responsible parents, or parents with responsible children. And removing social media from our children’s lives, when all the other kids at school are using it, can be as alienating as being bullied. As a future parent, I would prefer it if there was legislation in place to take the onus off the parents – just as there is for other addictive and damaging areas of life. I don’t really know what this legislation would look like, but at the very least it would dilute the bullying, marketing, child-grooming free-for-all that currently exists.

Back in the real world, the social media use around me is continuing to irritate. The family and the twenty somethings are on their 16th choreographed photo – which is double the amount of conversations they’ve had. One of the cricketers is pretending to film his dad bowling, but I can see he is just watching YouTube. Most importantly, my battery is only on 10% – I’ll have serious FOMO if it goes dead. I’d love to hear your thoughts on Facebook or Twitter.

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