Disconnect to Reconnect

A thought that recently popped into my head raised a red flag. Just like alcohol and cigarettes – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and all other forms of social media should come with a Surgeon General Warning label. Consume at your own risk in big, bold red letters. Excess consumption is known to cause anxiety, stress, depression, loneliness, disassociation with reality and lower self-esteem. If you experience any of the symptoms above, speak to someone in the real world.

It only makes sense. Now that we know that social media is purposefully designed to be addictive and the information it disseminates is intentionally unvetted, we have a right to officially be warned that using it comes with emotional and psychological health risks. People have a right to be warned that the negative feelings and mental health issues they may be experiencing are known side effects of prolonged social media consumption.

When we first moved to The Netherlands, my screen time went up. I was looking up all kinds of information to help us get settled into our new life – residency, taxes, health insurance, doctors in our area, allowances we are eligible for, etc. I followed all sorts of links. Having also quit teaching, I was looking for new job opportunities and as a result, I was spending more time online.

I got caught up in the internet and social media and noticed how it was making me feel unwell. The sheer amount of distracting advertisements first caught my attention. Every third post on Instagram was someone selling something. Before a video played on YouTube, there was an advertisement and then one every three minutes or so. There were blogs and websites I couldn’t even read because of all the pop-ups that stalled my ability to scroll past them. The ads were repetitive and sometimes for things that I found offensive like random ads for scam workshops, superficial cosmetic surgery and support for the IDF.

You can tell me that there are ways that I can modify my advertisement settings or use pop-up blockers, but why should I? The internet is a public space that I pay to use, and it should be protected as any other public space from harmful, unwanted solicitation.

So the question for me becomes – Am I consuming it (Instagram YouTube, etc.) or is it consuming me?

Other questions follow: If we are constantly being exposed to advertising, are we not being constantly reminded that what we already have is not enough? If the pull to refresh and infinite scroll mechanism are purposefully designed to have a similar effect to playing slot machines and drive compulsive behaviour – do we not have a right to know?

The more I engaged with social media the more ungrounded I felt. There was too much distraction, comparison, negative news, and encouragement to consume. I felt myself lose touch with myself and the real world around me.

I am lucky to have been born before the internet. I know what life was like when we were not hooked up to our phones. Life was much simpler. The world was smaller. You didn’t know. When you went out to play, the phone stayed tethered to the wall. There were problems, of course, but there was also space.

I understand that as adults we have the right to choose how we spend our time and the things that we expose ourselves to but what if we are not aware of the risks associated with the products we are using?

Social media is designed to release chemicals and reward loops that drive addiction with the explicit goal of getting people to spend as much time and attention on it as possible. The more engaged we are, the more money social media companies make.

Like slot machines, social media sites are designed to deliver rewards in a way that drives compulsive behaviour. That is how we are trained to let down our guard and give up our attention – by becoming unknowingly trapped in a dopamine loop. The constant production of novelty and unpredictability and the potential for social validation are what keep us hooked. We never know when we are going to get a reward so we check our phones constantly.

Buttons and links give us a superficial feeling of control and Likes and groups give us a superficial feeling of belonging. As feeds are curated to look their best we compare ourselves to what is false which leaves us vulnerable to depression and lower self-esteem.

Now put this all together and our phones become what Catherine Price in her book How To Break Up with Your Phone calls little digital Trojan Horses. Harmless looking at first but packed with manipulative tricks to get us to let down our guard so that our attention can be stolen.

And here’s the thing – our attention is the most valuable thing we own so if it’s being hacked by intentional manipulative practices but social media developers or anyone else for that matter, it’s a very big deal.

Why? Because what we pay attention to becomes how we spend our life. The more time we spend in an intensely focused state of distraction on our screens, the more we slip and slide on the surface of things and never truly feel grounded in reality.

You would think that like all the other things that are addictive and harmful, social media would be regulated and contain warning signs to educate the public of the dangers of its use. You would think that the epidemic of loneliness, depression and the rise of teenage suicide would cause enough concern for those in power to come together to find a solution. Instead, they try to evade responsibility because they are being paid to do so.

So it comes down to us to awaken to the addictive qualities of social media and make the necessary changes to our screen habits to protect our emotional and physiological well-being. If these things are made to be purposefully addictive, treat it like any other addictive substance. Apply your own warning label to it. Raise the red flags.

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