For billions of us in the world today, social media has become an integral part of our lives. Whether we use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or all of the above, these apps are sending dozens of notifications to all of our devices, every single day. Without a second thought, we look at our screens as soon as we’ve been pinged. It’s an old classmate’s birthday; an acquaintance has posted a picture of their lunch; a politician or celebrity has said something outrageous.
Most of us never envisioned this when we first signed up for these services a decade or more ago. When Facebook began in 2004, flip phones were what most of us carried in our pockets. If the phone didn’t have a keyboard, text messaging involved pressing “1” two times to get the letter “b.” Likewise, when we first upgraded to a smartphone, we may have just thought it was nice not to carry two devices in our pockets anymore — a phone and an iPod. Now, there was one device that did both. Little did we know that within a few years, these devices would be taking up so much of our time and attention.
Personally, Facebook is the only social media service I’ve ever used regularly. I opened my account way back in 2007 when I was still in high school. I’m not proud to admit that it’s be an ubiquitous part of my entire adult life. Thankfully, I never got sucked in to the worlds of Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, or whatever else the kids are using these days. In my day job as a teacher, I see how much hold these apps have on the younger generation whose childhoods have been saturated by them. Those of us who remember a time without these devices know in our hearts that they are sucking away too many precious moments of our lives. If I’m being honest, I’ve know this for years, but it wasn’t until this week that I finally decided enough is enough and deleted my Facebook account for good. Lest I be thought of as just another cranky Luddite, I thought I’d share my reasons.
How I started using Facebook
Prof. Cal Newport of Georgetown University (Author of “Deep Work” and “Digital Minimalism”) was one of the people who really opened my eyes to the harms of social media.
It was the fall 2007. I was 16 years old, and I had just transferred to a new high school. I was eager to meet new friends, and reconnect with old ones who may have remembered me when we went to middle school together. On AOL instant messenger, people were starting to post links to their Facebook profiles. For a while, I had managed to resist the trend of joining social networking websites. I had tried MySpace in the past, but found it to be an unimpressive waste of time and deleted my account within about two weeks. But this new site seemed different. It wasn’t full of ads and visual clutter, it didn’t auto-play music I didn’t want to hear, and seemed to have some good privacy features. I thought maybe it could be useful, so I signed up. What’s more, it was a site that was previously only open to college students, so the fact that I could now use it as a high school junior must have felt “cool.”
Apart from a few weeks of curiosity when I first opened my account, I probably logged into Facebook once a week at most until I started university. This time, I was even more eager to connect with my new classmates, as I was striking out on my own in the world for the first time. I joined my university’s incoming class group and “friended” lots of people, some of whom I would get to know eventually, but most of whom I never got to know beyond the level of mild acquaintance. I guess it must have fulfilled, in a very rudimentary way, my desire to feel like a welcome member of my new class. I had never been a “popular” student in high school, but as an extrovert I had a very strong desire to make my college social experience different.
How my Facebook use evolved
An Early Facebook Investor, Venture Capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya now regrets the role he played in the company’s rise, and does not allow his children to use the service.
Around 2011, I got my first smartphone. It was also around this time that Facebook released messenger as a standalone mobile app. One convenient aspect of this service was the ability to simply add people as friends after meeting them, and then connect on Facebook messenger, rather than having to save so many phone numbers. Little did I know, this was just the beginning of the company’s carefully engineered process of getting myself – and millions of other users – to increasingly view the site as indispensable to our daily lives. Around this time, Facebook also introduced news feed and started sending more and more notifications to its users. All of these features were designed to keep users engaged with the Facebook ecosystem as much as possible in order to maximize ad revenue. It got to the point where I was compulsively checking Facebook on my phone many times a day. This habit more or less continued for the rest of the decade, save for a few eye opening periods of time where I made the deliberate choice to “detox” from the service for a period of time (for example, for a few months in 2017 and during Lent of 2019).
As I spent most of the period from 2015-2018 traveling to many countries around the world, meeting many interesting people along the way, disconnecting from Facebook just seemed unthinkable. I had met so many interesting people around the world, and I’d hate to lose touch with them. Even more scary was the notion that I would surely lose touch with my friends and family back in the U.S. Deep down, I knew in reality that this was just an excuse to justify my habits of scrolling, clicking, and commenting. During those years, I probably stayed most consistently in touch with my grandfather, who didn’t own a cell phone and barely knew how to use any technology that came out after the 1980s. I did manage to get him on Skype every now and then, but for the most part, that relationship was maintained with good, old-fashioned phone calls. Looking back on it, I think my deep unconscious probably most feared standing in line, sitting on the toilet, or riding a bus without constant access to stimulation.
Each time I did one of my “detoxes” from Facebook, I was astonished by how much better I felt. A certain jittery, low-level anxiety was gone. I felt so much more engaged with the world around me. My attention span seemed to instantly expand, and it suddenly felt like there was just so much more time in the day. I read entire books in two or three days. I exercised more and got out in nature. I meditated, played the guitar and did lots of writing. Perhaps most ironically, my social life often improved, as I made the effort to actually send long emails to my friends, call them, or actually meet in person rather than “like” their status or leave a brief comment on an article they shared. Each time I did a detox, it gave me a lot of clarity as to just how much mindless Facebook use had colonized my time.
“Things will be different from now on,” I told myself. I deleted the app from my phone, drastically reduced my data plan, and resolved to only check it occasionally and mindfully. That was all well and good, for a while. But before long, the site’s carefully engineered methods of sucking in my attention began to take take hold, and I was browsing the site on my mobile browser or letting it distract me at work. In other words, Facebook’s ability to fragment my attention seemed to be just too powerful for my willpower to contend with. When I watched the excellent documentary “The Social Dilemma” in September 2020, which interviews many of the tech executives and engineers who designed these tools, it finally became exceptionally clear that this was exactly the point. I’d heard as much as early as 2017 from Chamath Palihapitiya, an early Facebook investor who regrets his role in funding the company (see the video above for his thoughts). But for a while I was able to rationalize it away as an extreme position, even if it held a bit of truth. Discovering that so many others from across the industry shared Chamath’s views was what finally broke down my strong habit’s defenses. I could no longer ignore that, despite the small benefits it provides, social media use has become a true cancer on my life and on society as a whole.
“We didn’t sign up for this”
Former Google Design Ethicist Tristan Harris gives a TED Talk on the ways Facebook and other tech companies manipulate their users into spending more time using their services.
As my story above shows, my original purpose in using Facebook was rather limited. I wanted to be able to look up new classmates and chat with them online from time to time. In my first few university semesters, it was common practice to post our class schedules on Facebook so we would see who would be in our classes. When people stopped using AIM, I began logging in more often to use the Facebook’s messenger service. But even at this point, the site played a peripheral role in my life. I still didn’t have a smartphone, and defining features such as news feed and the “like” button hadn’t been invented yet. It played a minor role in my life, and on balance, it felt like a positive one. As Cal Newport puts it in his book Digital Minimalism:
A college senior who set up an account on thefacebook.com in 2004 to look up classmates probably didn’t predict that the average modern user would spend around two hours per day on social media and related messaging services. . . similarly, a first adopter who picked up an iPhone in 2007 for the music features would be less enthusiastic, if told that within a decade he could expect to compulsively check the device 85 times a day – a ‘feature’ we now know Steve Jobs never considered as he prepared his famous keynote. . . We added new technologies to the periphery of our experience for minor reasons, then woke one morning to discover that they had colonized the core of our daily life. We didn’t, in other words, ‘sign up’ for the digital world in which we are currently entrenched. (Credit: Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport – Chapter 1)
The colonization of these tools into our daily lives has not been an innocuous process. Our collective addiction to social media has had profound negative impacts, both on our society and on our personal lives.
The costs of our addiction to social media
Computer scientist and philosopher Jaron Lanier, a founder of the field of virtual reality, is one of the most eloquent voices on social media’s harms.
Impact on individuals
All of us will be familiar with these impacts to one degree or another, because they are the easiest to see. We all know somebody who spend hours each day glued to Facebook and/or other forms of social media. Even if we don’t take it to this extreme, many of us have experienced the depleted feeling of having wasted too much time scrolling, tapping, and “liking.”
Wasted leisure time: The average Facebook user spends about 50 minutes per day using the service (not including time spent on Facebook messenger), and the average social media user spends roughly two hours per day using apps and website including Instagram, Twitter, and others. The younger generation is even worse, with 1 in 5 teens spending five hours a day or more using these services. What’s more, people tend to drastically underestimate the amount of time they spend using social media each day. Removing the drain of social media on your time can lead to the miraculous feeling of suddenly adding several hours of leisure time to your week to engage in high-quality social activities and hobbies.
Loss of productivity: The average smartphone user spends 3 hours and 15 minutes per day staring at their screen. If you’re anything like I used to be, most of this time is related to social media use. To make matters worse, the average user picks up their phone 58 times per day, which is obviously horrible for concentration and productivity. It turns out that social media apps in particular are some of the worst offenders at sapping your attention, because they are purposely designed to nudge you to pick up your phone and engage with the services as much as possible (see Tristan Harris’s TED Talk above if you’d like to know more details). This trains your brain to expect frequent dopamine hits, leading to a moderate form of addiction. But the worst harm to your productivity is the fragmentation of your attention. It turns out that frequent distractions such as checking social media, email, and phone calls lead to an average drop of 10 points in IQ scores. With the average person checking their smartphone every 12 minutes during their waking hours, this means that we are putting ourselves into a state of Continuous Partial Attention (CPA), making it very easy to feel that there are “not enough hours in the day” to accomplish goals that would be attainable in much shorter periods of time if we were able to focus our attention.
Mental health: “Social media” is actually a horrible misnomer for services like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Why? Because it turns out that the more you use it, the more lonely and isolated you feel, on average. While it’s true that the research hasn’t fully established the direction of causality (i.e., whether social media use causes people to feel isolated or whether feelings of isolation lead to more social media use), it doesn’t really matter. Even if social media itself turns out not cause loneliness or isolation, using it for hours a day that could otherwise be spent meeting up with people in person certainly will not be a viable solution to the problem.
In any case, I think there is good evidence that social media use, in and of itself, really is causing serious mental health problems. Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University has been studying generational differences for nearly three decades. During the period from 2011-2015 (the exact time that smartphones and social media use reach near-ubiquity), she started to notice an alarming rise in teen mental health issues. Major depressive episodes among teens suddenly increased by 50%, along with a significant rise feelings of uselessness, and significant falls in time spent socializing outside the home with friends, life satisfaction, and happiness. Twenge has dubbed this generation, born after 1995, as “iGen,” because they are the first generation in history for whom smartphone and social media use were present for their entire adolescence. She contends that there is a strong causal connection between the rise in their use and the serious increase in teen mental health issues. Her TED talk above details many of the reasons.
Impact on society
The impact of social media use on society is less obvious than its impact on individuals, but certainly not less important. More and more, it is becoming abundantly clear that social media is leading to more polarization, less substantive and less respectful discourse, and an unprecedented spread of misinformation. These trends have already led to serious, real-world consequences.
“information glut” and fake news: Way back in the 1980s, the legendary media theorist Neil Postman expressed his concern than television and other forms of electronic media were leading to an unprecedented situation: “information glut.” For all of human history up to that point, the biggest problem would have been a generation lack of information, not too much of it. But Postman argued that the rise of 24 hour news on television was creating just such a situation, saying “when there is too much information to sustain any theory, information becomes essentially meaningless.”
Social media has taken this already bad situation and made it much worse. Its algorithms quickly learn your political and social leanings, and will only show you information that aligns well with them. This would be bad enough if social networks were selectively sharing factual news stories in this way. But a 2018 MIT study found that fake news stories are actually far more likely to spread on social media than real ones. It’s not just a minor difference either. False stories were 70% more likely to be shared, and spread at least 6 times faster than true stories. Because of confirmation bias, your brain has a strong incentive to believe these fake stories. Extrapolate the effects of this to the billions of people using social media, and you see how this might cause serious problems.
Polarization: It turns out that social media algorithms are exposing us to more extreme points of view as well. A 2016 Harvard study found that politicians with extreme ideologies gathered a larger following on social media, and that posts expressing extreme views were more likely to be noticed and circulated on the platform. This trend corresponds to another one: more and more Americans describe themselves as very liberal or very conservative than ever before, and more and more view the opposing party as a serious threat to the country.
A more subtle characteristic of social media that increases polarization and makes for nastier and less productive discourse is a simple fact: the “dialogue” and “debate” are mediated by a screen, and humans are not made to communicate this way. This leads us to say things that we would never dream of saying to another human being in real-life, and feeds the perception that those who disagree with us are just ignorant, nasty people.
All of these factors and more have led me to conclude that social media is a toxic presence in my life. It wastes my time, hurts my productivity and social life, is bad for my mental health, and likely leads me to be more rude and misinformed than I would otherwise be. I’ve only been off it for a week, and I already feel much better. I am excited to see how getting this monkey off my back will impact my life in the long term.