Are you addicted to Social Media? Could you give it up for a week? That was the premise of an interesting documentary I watched recently on TV3 Ireland called Screen Slaves. It’s no surprise that people have become addicted to their online lives – everything is online nowadays, so what’s the problem? Like many addictions, the problem is usually when you don’t realise you have a problem. It was only when the participants were asked to delete the social media apps from their phone that the real impact of their online habits became clear. They were visibly shaking and anxious; one of them felt physically ill and all of them lamented ‘I’m going to miss everything!’
For the older participants, it was Facebook that kept their eyes glued to their screens, whereas for the younger ‘guinea pig’ it was Snapchat and Instagram. In fact, she admitted to spending up to eight hours a day on her phone; checking it every 1-2 minutes. She said her grades were suffering as a result and even her actual social life. She would find herself going to parties and spending all of her time on her phone – then rushing home to post the photos! As human beings we are social animals and there is an addictive hit from the instant approval we receive via ‘likes’ or ‘shares’. Then there is our ‘voyeuristic’ tendancies, that mean we end up watching other peoples’ lives instead of living our own. So, what exactly are we signing up for here and what are companies such as Facebook getting out of it?
According to Mark Zuckerberg, privacy is no longer a ‘social norm’. Unless you’re Mark Zuckerberg. So when we sign up to these online communities, we are willingly surrendering not only our privacy, but also our time – our most valuable commodity. This is our own personal ‘mental time’, in which we think, dream, imagine and create. Being a writer, time to just do nothing is the most precious thing in the world. It was clear that this was the biggest challenge for the participants. When they were suddenly faced with all this extra time on their hands, they didn’t know what to do with themselves and complained of feeling bored. But for me, boredom is the gateway to creativity. I do some of my best thinking when I’m bored! And that’s what concerns me for our future generations. They are constantly switched on, yet constantly distracted, which affects their attention span. (Note to self – write more short stories!)
Luckily, I was ‘of an age’ when the whole Facebook thing took off, so I was able to step back and make up my own mind about it. At the time, I was reading a great book by Tom Hodgkinson called ‘How To Be Free‘, a how-to-guide that offered an alternative to our consumer culture. Tom had a lot to say about the people behind Facebook and why we should think twice about jumping on that particular bandwagon. You can read his oldie but goodie 2008 article in the Guardian here. In fact he is responsible for an entire movement, The Idler, reminding people how to find pleasure in the simple things and avoid the rat race. Check it out on http://www.idler.co.uk.
Facebook’s popularity has grown exponentially since then – with 1.5 billion monthly active users in 2015. But as the documentary pointed out: ‘If you’re not paying for it, then you are the product’. And it’s not just the advertising or sharing your private information with third parties, it’s the belief that this is the norm now. Going ‘offline’ seems to be the equivalent of going to a pub with your friends and declaring, “I’ll have a lemonade please”. Everyone stares in disbelief, tells you to have a real drink and proceed to buy you a pint anyway. The fact that I don’t have a personal Facebook page does mean that I am a little out of the loop at times, but I think it’s a small price to pay for the freedom I’ve gained. If there’s something I really need to know about, the information will get to me eventually. Perhaps even the old-fashioned way like getting a phone call!
Now I have to qualify that with the admission that yes, I do have an author page on Facebook, but thankfully it doesn’t function like a personal page, so I just use it to post links to my blog. I’m not completely immune to the pull of social media. I do use Twitter quite a bit and I suppose this blog counts as well, which is why I always recommend disconnecting your WiFi when trying to write a novel! It is so easy to get sucked in, so it’s no harm to review your social media habits every now and again. At the outset, I decided not to have any apps on my phone. The idea of being constantly available and always connected is a bit overwhelming. I like the fact that when I shut down my laptop, I’m free from the impulse to ‘just check’. As Tom Hodgkinson says, people who complain that they don’t have enough time, have simply chosen to prioritise something else. And that’s the important thing to remember – we have a choice and I think it’s even more important to remind the younger generation of this. You can either be a screen slave or a screen user.