As a kid, when at a friend’s house playing, hearing the phrase “OK, it’s time to go” filled you with sadness. Over the past hours, you were sharing an immersive joy and developing a bond of friendship. Losing all track of time, wishing it would never return and this moment continue into eternity. The only way we could recreate this experience was to be together again, in person. When will the next time be? 1 week? 1 month? But you’re a kid, you don’t even know what “10 minutes” is. You have no concept of time! But soon enough, with advancements in 21st century technology came a solution to bridging that gap. You could instantly reach out to anyone in the world, from wherever you are, and communicate in real time (or close enough).
The power to reach out to a friend or family member, no matter the time or place is one of the most incredible breakthroughs of our lifetime. We even went one step further, you have instant access to any topic of interest imaginable. Even topic discovery! On social media you can see regular people, like yourself, interacting with the same things you like, and even connect with them. New Insta-friends! It’s that easy. But studies have found we are more lonely than ever. 22% of millennials, the most active demographic of this technology, say they don’t have any friends according to YouGov. 25% say they don’t have an acquaintance. Why are people so lonely? Not that long ago, you had to work 3 times as hard to meet someone and finding new friends was a roll of the dice in terms of compatibility. Now it’s easier than ever to find friends but instead you wake up everyday, unimpressed by everybody around you, then go on social media where you see everyone else looking better, having more fun with more toys and more friends than you. They’re always on vacation! How can someone be on vacation all year?
What is social media?
Why is this such a big thing all of a sudden, when all of recorded human history never had it or asked for it? For that you could look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Basic needs such as food, water, safety and security, have never been better.
We used to get psychological needs — friends, intimacy, feeling accomplished — with things like athletics, higher education, getting a promotion, buying a house, getting married and starting a family. Now, with social media, you can also get prestige by posting something on Instagram that gets a lot of attention. The magnification effect on a global scale is far greater than any wedding, house purchase or job promotion. People you’ve never met, will never meet, and probably don’t even live on the same continent as you, can “like” your post and interact with you. Wow! But this has an unintended and unnoticed cost on others because a lot view it with envy, jealousy and even hate (hate-liking is a thing). You can get even more prestige for calling out “haters”. On Twitter, the platform that was supposed to give us all an equal voice to share opinions through civil discourse, you can call someone out that you deem [insert ad hominem of your choice] and let the prestige roll in. Social media is largely comprised of people working to increase their prestige since our basic needs have been met for roughly a quarter century.
📈 Show me the data
In America, Britain and Canada, rates of depression and anxiety were fairly stable from the 90s to early 2000s.
For college students asked “Do you have a psychological disorder, such as depression?”, the rates also jump from just above 2% to 6% for men. And 6% to 15% for women.
Hospital admissions for non-fatal self-harm has also shot up across all age groups. Since 2009, ages 15–19, up 62%. Ages 20–24 up 17%.
Age 10–14 is up 189%, that is a 3x increase in 5 years.
The most alarming as pre-teens historically had the lowest rate, it’s now on par with ages 20–24 at just over 300 per 100,000.
What happened between 2009 and 2011? Easy access to a good smartphone with fast internet became accessible. Then social media, with all it’s well intentions, hid with it the ability to damage anybody’s social relationship with deniability from an anonymous account. Social comparison also became hyper-elevated. It was always impossible to live up to expectations from magazines and TV, but at least you could find solace knowing they had make-up artists and professional crews working behind them. Now your own friends can put on a filter to enhance their appearance, making you feel uglier.
Before Instagram you could be a loser or loner but not feel it because the winners weren’t always in your face (and you put them there!) Even the most mundane posts of people’s food, Instagram’s original meme, sends the message “I’m having fun and you’re not, enjoy eating leftovers loser”. This is how social media gets you coming back. People gawk at the “have’s” on Instagram, secretly hoping to see someone who’s life is worse than theirs, or hoping their life will turn into something better the second they finally look up from their phone.
Have you ever seen someone do the following?
- Post something to Instagram, and waited anxiously to see what response it gets, then deleted it if it “didn’t get enough likes”
- Opened Instagram and scrolled their feed like a reflex while in the middle of a conversation
- Get cosmetic plastic surgery to increase their Instagram influencer status
- Chosen a vacation or activity based solely or largely on it’s “Instagramableness”
- Wait at a stop light, as driver, passenger or pedestrian, and submit to the urge to check Instagram
- Refresh Instagram with the urgency of a drug addict looking for their next hit
- Be on Instagram for an entire car or bus ride
- Be unable to focus or concentrate at work so they open Instagram as a “smoke break” of sorts
- Check Instagram multiple times while at a family gathering or “catching up with friends”
So why do we keep coming back? It’s easy to get caught in the delusion that it will help us. Like a drug, we think getting a fix is good, but it actually makes us feel worse, which comes down to an error in our ability to predict our own response. If you ask someone, even yourself right now, “Will I feel better after I go on social media?”, a lot would still say yes. Studies show people always feel worse. But the answer isn’t so simple as deleting social media from your life. Social media can be enjoyed responsibly, like alcohol or gambling, but excessive use can be detrimental to your health.
What can I do?
For your kids
If only it were so simple as to tell your kids “no phones, no social media” but when they’re the only one out of a group of friends that doesn’t have something, they will be excluded, causing social stigmatization and resent you (even more than they already do). And they’ll find a way to get access without you, so better to get in front of it.
🗣 Talk with other parents and teachers. Talk with other parents to bring awareness to this issue and come to an understanding. Talk to teachers and even the Principal to call for measures to be set in place. In France, a ban on smartphones was put in place from kindergarten to 9th grade in 2018. Problem solved? Hardly, but it is a catalyst that parents and teachers can use to measure any effect.
🛌📵 No devices allowed in the bedroom. There is no reason for a child (by definition, under the age of 18) to have these devices in their bedroom. It affects sleep which is a big factor on mental health. This one is pretty cut and dry.
🎛 Use the phones parental control features. All Apple and Android smartphones now come with parental controls to limit phone usage, with very robust controls such as only limiting certain apps and limiting time spent in apps. Take the time to learn how to set them up, it’s not hard and worth the time invested.
For iPhones, set up Screen Time and configure the controls you need.
For Androids, get familiar with Family Link.
Try these methods:
1. Turn off all Instagram notifications. Everybody I’ve told this to, wished they did it sooner. You don’t need to be notified when someone replies to your post or story or sends you a DM. And especially when someone likes your photo (this should never notify anyone EVER! Bad Instagram design choice). You will open it later, trust me, it will still be there.
2. Do not open Instagram while you are outside of your house. Set boundaries for where you can and can’t open the app. There is nothing on there, that won’t still be there later. I promise you. It will take no more than 5–10 minutes to catch up on all your stories and feed.
3a. If you want to capture a story or photo, use the native camera. Or another 3rd party camera app. Then later, post to your heart’s content.
3b. If you really want to post something right now, use the shortcut to launch directly into the camera or post create. Then close the app once you are done. This will help from becoming distracted by posts once the app is launched. Have to throw in here that Snapchat got this one right, launching directly into the camera by default (also no feed).
4. Do not use Instagram to text your friends. I know it might go down in the DM (it won’t) but try to follow the rule “one app for one thing.” Messages app for messages (texting). Calendar app for your calendar. Mail app to check your email. And Instagram to look at photos. Don’t fall into the trap of using it to “text” your friends. While this feature seems great, its purpose is to get you to spend more time in the app. Not to make it easier to share Instagram posts. You can always “Share posts” to your texting app of choice.
5. Use the mute feature. Ruthlessly. If someone’s posts are not adding value to your life, mute them. This way you can avoid the awkward interaction of “why did you unfollow me/not follow me” and instead let them dare to say “why don’t you ever like any of my posts”. Hopefully that never happens but if it does it will become shockingly clear how disturbing that statement is. Pro tip: You can always get out of that one with “I don’t spend much time on there anymore” which you can now backup by showing your activity time.
6. Do not follow influencers, celebrities, meme accounts and other people you don’t know. The original purpose of Instagram is to “instantly” share “photos” (telegrams) with your friends. Try to keep your social media network to close friends and family. It can be a good way to catch up on a niece or nephew’s birthday or your sibling’s vacation photos.
7. Spread the word, buy my pin and stickers.
Get off Instagram and get outside. Meet up with people in real life. Call them on the phone, yes, the one where you talk out loud. Go somewhere together, take lots of photos and share them with each other, in person, and nowhere else. Print them out after, at the end of the year perhaps. Give it to them as a gift to commemorate your friendship. Don’t wait for their birthday or Christmas to do it, just do it now. Have a meal together. Enjoy it. And just remember it, in your head. Talk about it later. Maybe on the phone, and in person when you meet up with them again. These are the moments social media tries to capture. Just live it.
Contains bits from Real Time with Bill Maher: New Rules on Aug. 16, 2019, The Joe Rogan Experience #1221 with Jonathan Haidt on Jan. 7, 2019 and my thoughts everywhere I go every single day.