On the verge of making a clothes transition video, Esther O’Moore Donohoe contemplates ditching the apps
On the 4th of October 2021 the world held its breath when Instagram, WhatApp and Facebook all went down… for a bit. For approximately six hours, we couldn’t post or scroll or absentmindedly send the cry laughing emoji to whatever meme someone had sent to the family WhatsApp group.
‘Twas like living in the olden days (aka 2004, the year Facebook was born). It felt weird. But why? We could still text people, and had the rest of the entire Internet to waste time on but somehow, it was like we were bobbing around the online ocean without our Insta life raft.
Some of us found temporary digital shelter on Twitter, as I imagine Rose from Titanic would if a) she were real and b) she knew what the Internet was. After following a few threads using the hashtag ‘Facebook Down’ it seemed that some people were really freaking out that their social media limbs had been cut off temporarily. “Wow. Look at these people really freaking out that their social media limbs have been cut off temporarily,” I said to myself, as I refreshed Instagram for the 150th time in two minutes.
If you’d asked me three minutes before the app’s absence on October 4th if I was ‘into’ social media, I would have smiled enigmatically from behind my pretend loom and said smugly ‘Oh not really. I mostly use it for work’ and got back to weaving imaginary socks.
Part of my self-deception was telling myself that I can take or leave The Apps when in reality, they never go unchecked by me for more than a handful of minutes a day. I do a bit of work then reward myself with a social media visit, and round and round I go until I log off for the day. I tell myself, ‘sure I’m just checking in with my friends because I’m working alone all day’. I then spend one minute looking at friends and family’s Stories and eight minutes watching complete strangers do slow motion clothes transition videos to Busta Rhymes Touch It.
While I enjoy watching someone seamlessly edit themselves wearing multiple outfits in less than 13 seconds, almost immediately after they end I stop and think ‘WHAT AM I DOING?!’
Of course I need to be more disciplined about how I use social media but we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. Millions of dollars and thousands of hours have been invested in keeping us online for as long as possible. In a 2018 BBC Panorama interview, the engineer behind the ‘infinite scroll’ Aza Raskin said the function was intentionally created to keep users looking at their devices longer than necessary; ‘If you don’t give your brain time to catch up with your impulses, you just keep scrolling.’ We feel in our gut that it’s not quite right and yet, we check in day after day. We promise ourselves that today we won’t let it control us – we’ll do the internet the right and healthy way. Cut to hours later as we stare at our screens minutes before we expect ourselves to fall asleep. The pandemic drove more of us online in search of the latest updates and news, and it’s a habit that’s hard to break.
I am a grown woman though, with several reusable travel mugs and at least 125 bags for life in my kitchen press at any one time. I feel guilty when I spend too long online but I understand the effects of infinity scrolls. My work gets delayed and the quality of my sleep isn’t as good. But can we become addicted to the Internet? In a 2018 article on the Harvard University website, Information Technology Advisor Trevor Hayes wrote ‘Smartphones have provided us with a virtually unlimited supply of social stimuli, both positive and negative. Every notification, whether it’s a text message, a “like” on Instagram, or a Facebook notification, has the potential to be a positive social stimulus and dopamine influx.’
When we see another like on a photo we’ve posted or a red notification on our social media inbox, our reward centres light up and as sad as that sounds, we’ve all been trained to respond to it.
Zuleika Daly, a doctor of counselling, psychology and psychotherapy with Insight Matters, says social media can absolutely be seen in the context of addiction and says that the younger you are, the more problematic it is because of the way the brain develops. “Our brains don’t fully develop until our mid-20s so younger people would be more susceptible possibly to becoming addicted to these kinds of things… because the frontal lobe, which is kind of like the control centre for the brain develops later than the limbic system, which is the emotional centre of the brain. So we are more susceptible… when we’re a bit younger to that kind of immediate gratification of things like social media.”
But going cold turkey is not as easy as simply deleting the apps. It’s also not possible for most of us. We use the Internet all day for work and in the evening online platforms like Netflix are also part of our downtime. I asked Zuleika if ditching social media and life online is possible or advisable? ‘”I think it depends on your lifestage,” says Zuleika. “So if you’re single for example, it’s a completely different ballgame to somebody who’s got a partner and is quite settled and is not so reliant on those external relationships or possibilities of relationships. And then, if you look at younger ages, maybe 16 or 17, then you’re sort of stuck if you don’t use social media so you can’t ask them not to be on it completely.”
She points out that there are also upsides to using social platforms. “For example, if you’re an introvert, it can connect you in a way that’s far more manageable than being exposed to groups of people or people with social anxiety. I don’t think there is a simplistic answer.”
Since 5th October, when former Facebook employee turned whistleblower, Frances Haugen disclosed internal Facebook documents to the U.S Securities and Exchange Commission, it was clear that the company has been aware of the harm their apps have been contributing to for years.
Company research showed that Facebook addiction which they refer to as ‘problematic use’ is most severe in teenagers peaking at 14. Furthermore, in a 2019 Facebook document released to The Wall Street Journal by Haugen, it stated that “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls’. And yet until this September, when the company announced it was ‘pausing’ its development, Facebook was pushing ahead with an ‘Instagram Kids’ platform which would target children under 13. In a recent column, Brenda Power remarked that pulling younger users in on platforms like Instagram and Snapchat is the ‘the modern equivalent of selling single cigarettes’. Meta wants to develop platforms like Instagram Kids so they can harvest the data of a much younger demographic and in doing so, keep them under surveillance for a greater portion of their lives.
Earlier this week, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht published their report on the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill which has been worked on since 2019. One of the recommendations within the report included a legal requirement for children to be a certain age to access specified online services. It also stated that ‘The committee recommends the prohibition of any form of profiling or tracking children’s data.’ It is encouraging to see checks being put on the tech giants but its success will only be realised once it is enacted and the legislation tested.
The power that Facebook/Meta has in shaping our world is vast. Their breadth of influence touches everything from our consumer choices to self image to democracy itself. Legislative checks will go some way to protecting us but ultimately it’s down to the individual to regulate how big a role we afford social media in our lives. This doesn’t mean you have to cut it out of your life altogether but perhaps we can all be more mindful of how we use it. I don’t look at social media, email or WhatsApp for the first hour in the morning and before I go to bed at night for example. I don’t have a perfect record but I try.
Mark Zuckerberg has a net worth of over $113 billion. Next time you feel yourself getting lost in the scroll, ask yourself, what is his vast wealth costing you? Oh, and if you ever see me doing a clothes transition super cut video on Instagram, please come to my house and take my phone away from me.
If you think you are spending too much time on social media and online in general, you could try some of the following:
- Turn off notifications
- Keep all devices out of your bedroom
- Don’t check your phone first thing in the morning or last thing at night
- Seek help with a therapeutic specialist or in the first instance talk to your GP