Joyce Fegan: Social media is now a socially accepted addiction

No one is in denial. We are all well aware the effects an hour spent scanning the perfectly presented lives of others has on our mood Joyce Fegan.

WHEN the co-founder of Instagram leaves Instagram, we need to take note. And when the multi-billionaire co-founder starts talking about the importance of “policing” social media for the “future of the world”, alarm bells should start ringing.

In September Kevin Systrom left Instagram and this week he called for the policing of social media. “You start to realise… how important it’s going to be for the future of the world that we police these things [social media] well, that we take it very seriously and put real resources against solving the problems now that you’re at this scale,” he told a tech conference in California.

This echoes the concerns of another social media developer. Last year former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya admitted “tremendous guilt” for his role in creating “tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works”.

Both men are just a small part of the growing chorus of critics of social media and yet, everywhere I look, people are on their phones more than ever.

I remember being in a New York breakfast diner in late summer 2013. To the left of me was a table filled by a large family, parents and four children. Instead of sharing their breakfast of maple syrup-covered banana pancakes, they each poured themselves into their phones. They didn’t speak to each other at all, not even to ask for more syrup. The dad eventually left, presumably for work, the family barely registering his departure because of their screens. I remember this scene more than five years later because of how shocked I was by it at the time. But five years later, this has become commonplace.

On a recent bucket-list destination of Iceland, I was confronted by more of this. As our tour bus made its way around the ring road of the volcanic snow-covered island, through fjords and past glaciers, everywhere around me tourists had their heads buried in their phones. One young woman hopped from Facebook to Instagram to Mail Online, as if in a trance. 

And what was notable about her trip through virtual reality was that she was not really consuming what she saw; it seemed more like an excuse to repetitively brush her thumb against her phone’s glassy screen. She scrolled so fast that she could have barely made out the photos and headlines rushing past her line of sight.

On a different bus, another young woman occupied herself with workout videos on Instagram and later, in one of Iceland’s famous and glorious hot springs, so many people balanced beers in one hand and their phone in a sandwich bag in the other. One man busily WhatsApped from the edge of the lava rocks as a nearby geyser exploded in the air.

On one final trip, this time into a newly discovered ice cave in the world’s third largest glacier, a young American broadcast her expedition live on Instagram as our van hurtled its way along a rollercoaster of an off-road towards the tongue of the glacier.

At the Northern Lights that night, which were invisible to the human eye, but visible on a camera with low shutter speed, everyone on the tour laughed when at midnight, in temperatures of -3C, the guide said: “So what, it doesn’t matter that you didn’t see them, showing people the photo is all that matters.”

Social media seems a bit like smoking: We all adapt its charms into our lives and years later, when the damage is done, the research of its malignant effects come cascading towards us.

Only the research is already here.

This week when Mr Instagram was making his remarks, yet another mental health/social media study was published.

The University of Pennsylvania found that when you reduce your daily social media consumption to 30 minutes you will also reduce feelings of loneliness and depression. The study was published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.

When the participants in the study monitored their own use in this way, they also noted a drop in their anxiety levels and what people now refer to as FOMO (fear of missing out).

Other studies, as cited in the University of Pennsylvania’s research, have shown that higher use of Facebook has been associated with lower self-esteem and greater loneliness, and higher use of Instagram has been tied to issues with body image.

But I feel we could cite peer-reviewed, empirical data until we’re blue in the face and we’d all just nod along with our heads bowed towards the blue light of our phones’ greasy screens.

There is no doubting how integral this shadow limb has become to our lives. I haven’t been to a bank in years. I do all that from the comfort of an app on my phone.

The last time I read a map was in 2007, nowadays a woman in an English accent tells me exactly where to go. I don’t have to worry about printer ink or paper jams anymore because there is a little app called a wallet on my phone that houses all my boarding passes. And like lots of other people, calls are scheduled and only conducted with a select few, because now we prefer to communicate via digital passages of text, even prerecorded videos.

THE use of my phone as a watch and an alarm goes without saying. Who’d have thought, back in the summer of 2007, that these pocket-sized blocks of glass, aluminium and plastic could serve so many purposes and become so indispensable to our human lives?

But smartphones are not smoking, because with nicotine and tobacco the data proving their damage took a long while to emerge.

We can’t say the same for social media. The data and the activists are already here and no one is in denial. We are all well aware the effects an hour spent scanning the perfectly presented lives of others has on our mood. We seem to be choosing to do this anyway. Maybe we’ve become afraid of being alone with our thoughts, or maybe we’re scared of what might happen if we’re bored, for even just a moment.

Only you can answer those questions.

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