Safely Perilous: Social Media Today

I was in the fifth grade when I joined Facebook as a result of some peer pressure. To a naive nine-year-old, it all seemed super exciting. All the ‘cool’ things seemed to go down on this online platform. People posted pictures from their birthday parties, school trips, and most importantly talked to their friends in real-time! It became a new sensation to stay ‘online’ for hours, playing games whilst interacting with friends. It grew to be an increasingly popular way to stay connected without the hassle of signing off an email with a “Hope to hear from you soon.”

Only now do I realize that I hopped on the social media train a little too early for my own good. While I did experience its early stages which were relatively less invasive in our lives, today we are way more online than we are offline. Websites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and many others have become more popular than ever, with millions of users across the world. And they continue to evolve, in order to keep these numbers growing. This so-called growth of these media giants, however, is based on the sole foundation of exploiting their users. 

The incessant use of social media in our lives over the decade has drastically impacted lifestyles, especially in urban areas. We have failed to recognize this impact due to its subtlety and the infinitesimal changes that take place every day. Be it waking up and immediately checking our phones before even really waking up, or ‘going to bed’ but scrolling for hours before actually sleeping. These habits have become deeply embedded in the everyday routine for a lot of us. So much so that we have developed a muscle memory to keep switching between the same applications on our phones. 

A culmination of these little developments has resulted in two very deleterious habits — one of them being mindless scrolling wherein you sit for hours at end just consuming content that your brain barely registers. The latter being a rise in doom-surfing or doom-scrolling, which refers to the habit of surfing the web endlessly, consuming negative and depressing news content, causing harm to one’s mental health. 

The Social Dilemma, a recent documentary released by Netflix, highlighted the many perils of social media. Former employees of said social media giants came forward to explain how they began to fear what they themselves created. They elaborated on the means of revenue generation used by these companies, which is built fundamentally upon advertising. To be fair, this film only brought to light what we already know: that we are constantly under some form of surveillance with our online presence. Hence, these social media platforms exercise what is known as surveillance capitalism to keep minting money. This, along with extensive data mining, helps the experts behind the screens to use the personal data of users to provide targeted ads, thereby commodifying user information. It all comes down to selling us. To them, we are the commodity.

We see the result of this directly when, these days especially, we see back - to - back ads of fancy masks from a variety of brands. The algorithms set in place to run these ads record every little speck of information — including the amount of time you spend looking at a certain post, thereby recommending similar products to you. It is likely that you have wondered how an ad for something you were thinking about showed up in one of your feeds. What caused this is you probably having mentioned it online or to a friend or having looked it up some time ago. All of this is recorded in order to understand the user’s personality and preferences and henceforth builds upon this data. Its direct result is an increase in impulse buying. God knows I have done it — buying things you have no need or prior want of, it’s basically therapeutic. 

These applications have specifically incorporated more and more changes in their designs to encourage these unhealthy mechanisms. These take root, grow slowly, and eventually become highly addictive, and prove to be detrimental to the user’s mental health as well as overall personality development. Statistics have offered insight into the relationship between the usage of social media and an increase in the number of cases of depression and anxiety in adolescents. In fact, the average attention span of humans has been reduced to mere seven-seconds, which is even less than that of a goldfish. 

Personally, I really feel like throwing my smartphone away sometimes. The need to disconnect gets as overwhelming as its perpetual presence. But unfortunately, a smartphone has joined the list of essentials for a college student like me. People all over the world have become accustomed to the need for such devices in just about all households. Even low-income groups now have access to an affordable smartphone and some bandwidth to at least use WhatsApp and the occasional Facebook. 

After watching The Social Dilemma, many people decided to take a break from their phones and the various social media platforms. I myself became highly conscious of my screen time, and set limits in order to decrease my intake of what I now saw as nothing but a burden. Given the pandemic, however, online connections have been more than helpful in not just keeping in touch with friends and family, but also to stay “sane” and have that virtual social life going. 

While we live under exceptional circumstances, it’s all the more important to take breaks to detox. The kind of engagement that we look for through these applications was once found in immersing ourselves in long books, hobbies, and minor crafts. And sometimes, it’s better to return to find a balance rather than letting the social media sphere take control over our lives the way it has. 

Today, there remains no such thing as privacy. Movies like The Social Dilemma only reiterate what our parents repeatedly tell us. So now, more than ever, it is imperative for us to wake up to these alarm calls and put in check the consumption of ourselves by these applications. In a world where machines are progressing better than ever, we must take away this unchecked power from them from knowing us better than our own selves.