The fact that social media has become a necessary function of our day-to-day life is now taken for granted. Many of us will begin and end our days scrolling through posts on some social media platform. This bookending of our days with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter etc., as well as inevitable scrolling in between, has made it so that social media does not necessarily detract from what we understand to be “real life” but, in part, composes it. This begs the question: is it possible to bow out of social media and still be part of what has become present day society? In what way is tuning out of social media actually synonymous with tuning out of real life?
Especially during times of college deadlines, the tendency to try and de-activate social media accounts is common. The main reason for deactivation is because it’s a distraction from college work. Your social media usage may seem like a problem after you’ve just spent a day in the library without realising that you’re spending more time on Twitter than on your essay, or when you’ve instinctively opened up a new tab and found yourself aimlessly scrolling through Facebook without knowing how or why you’ve gotten there. This, in a way, is the rhetoric of addiction: something that gets in the way of the functioning of normal tasks, interferes with productivity and takes over in a way that is in some ways beyond comprehension.
In what way is tuning out of social media actually synonymous with tuning out of real life?
The idea of social media as an addiction is not a new one and neither is the phenomenon of the ‘social media detox’. There are many blogs that follow people’s experience with the detox. Writers often outline results of their detoxes as spending more time with their friends and family, paying more attention to their surroundings and, as is mirrored by a study in Denmark following daily Facebook users on a week-long break, feeling less stressed. Yet, people also report withdrawal symptoms, such as noticing social media’s absence constantly, feeling as if you are missing something and questioning if you are able to live without it.
Our dependence on social media can be attributed to the fact that it has become our main information platform about everything and everyone around us. It’s our platform for receiving world news, our reminder of friends’ birthdays, our main messaging platform and a tool for not only keeping, but making friendships. When you accept a friend request, Facebook suggests you send them a message and strike up a conversation. When it’s a friend’s birthday, it suggests you wish them a happy one. And in reminding you of your activity several years before “On this Day”, it even influences how you remember your past. In this way, it has seeped into what we could consider real life by dictating how exactly we should live our own.
Furthermore, social media usage blurs the line between real and virtual worlds. In celebrities and acquaintances, it has given us the option of connecting with people who are not and will likely never be, our friends. All the people that before Facebook you would meet once and then never keep in touch with again become part of an online community that encourages you to remain in touch with their lives. This becomes confusing in distinguishing a real and meaningful connection from a shallow one. It is also difficult to replicate your identity online, and in this way, social media can fail us.
In her article “Generation Why?”, Zadie Smith discusses the way in which we are reducing our personalities in order to fit them into the boundaries of an online persona: “[T]he more time I spend with the tail end of Generation Facebook (in the shape of my students) the more convinced I become that some of the software currently shaping their generation is unworthy of them. They are more interesting than it is. They deserve better.” As well, by being constantly plugged in, we’re also curbing our alone time, affecting our personal development. Alone time does not and cannot exist when you are constantly checking your phone, and when things like Facebook Messenger tell you how long since you were last active. You are connected in a constant way that people living prior to the internet could probably not have anticipated.
You are connected in a constant way that people living prior to the internet could probably not have anticipated.
While all these factors are damaging, they are also so interlinked with day-to-day life now that it would be difficult to erase social media platforms from our lives. While there are many things to be gained from a disconnection or detox, people who do this today will inevitably lose things. They may hear about world events later and may miss social ones entirely. As a student, disconnecting from social media is particularly difficult. Facebook, for example, is where many student societies and groups discuss upcoming projects and where events are created. My housemate recently tried to get rid of her Facebook, but found that it was difficult to go beyond a couple weeks without missing information from teammates and other group messages. Despite the time and anxiety rescued without it, she had to get it back for practical purposes. Life today is geared towards operating under social media.
While it is possible to have a healthy relationship with social media, and to use it mindfully, we must be weary of our level of dependence on it. Social media births new anxieties about genuine and fake friendships, and about what we are supposedly missing out on. While it can also provide us with a great deal of joy, the constant expectation of connection is exhausting. I took pause in my relationship to social media when I opened my Facebook, after checking one minute before, and felt a little emptier after seeing that no one had tagged me in a new meme. This is a silly feeling, yet a nagging one nonetheless. One that makes me want to step aside from social media altogether, but also, indicates just how difficult that would be. I would definitely feel as though I was missing something.