Podcast: How social media is killing us. Literally

Monday Talk is a series of discussion starters subjects to bring new perspectives to your week. You can read the following text or listen to my podcast below:

Last week my husband and I finally watched The Social Dilemma, a Netflix’s documentary that is buzzing over social media these days. It’s an hour and 34 minutes long, with a series of former big-tech employees interviews mixed with some fictional dramatization to explain to us the origin of our social media addiction.

If I had to explain this complex subject in a simpler way, I’d say that big tech-companies, in the last few years, were able to create robuster algorithms that can process our behavioural data and predict – and change – our response to certain situations. In a nut shell: they can allegedly manipulate our decisions in the digital world and real life.

As their main business models are supported by advertising, it’s very important for those companies that we spend as much time as possible in their applications so they can serve us more ads and learn even more about us to, of course, make their product even more addictive and serve us more ads. Yes, it’s like a snowball going down hill.

The aftermath is: as people become more and more addicted to social media, as if it was not a bad outcome enough, they are more prune to develop mental wealth issues, such as anxiety, depression and other disease that can lead to self harm and even suicide.

Most of the information brought to me by the documentary didn’t surprise me, but there’s this particular part that shocked me, when we can listen to the Social Sciccologist Jonathan Haidt showing us the increase of self-harm and suicide rates in the United States in the last few years.

“There has been a gigantic increase in depression and anxiety for American teenagers which began right around between 2011 and 2013.”

Jonathan Haidt

Stats show an alarming spike in the number of kids in the US being admitted to hospital after cutting themselves or otherwise self-harming. For girls aged 15 to 19, there has been a 62% increase since 2009. Among pre-teens aged ten to 14, the increase was 189%.

Deaths by suicide in the US are up 70% in older teenage girls compared with the first decade of the century. For pre-teen girls, suicide has risen by 151%.

As I said, this data really raised my eyebrows but the whole subject of the documentary didn’t. Here is why: first of all I’ve been working with social media for a long time now. And when I say work I mean, I had jobs that forced me to understand the mechanics behind it and even made me study their strategies and tactics. When I decided to make my content creation my main job I already knew how – let’s say – the machine works.

But the second reason I have to say it didn’t surprise me is kind of sad: I’ve been noticing how people’s behaviours are changing, especially in the last decade.

As a millennial that is not quite a millennial I think I come from an old world and had to adapt to this new world we are living in right now. By that I mean, I grew up without social media and learned how to manage boredom. Better, I learned how to embrace it. I kind of enjoy real life as it is and feel like social media is an extension of it, not the centre.

What I see nowadays is the lack of presence. It’s totally ok to browse Instagram while we are on a bus, it’s totally ok even to spend some hours watching Youtube videos or any other content on internet, but only if this is not taking us from real world important activities.

How many times, riding my bike I had to warn someone who was crossing the bike lane without taking their eyes off their cellphones. This example is very clear: it can be dangerous, right? But there are a lot of other situations when social media becomes the most important thing in someone’s world and prevents them from living in the present. And that sounds even more dangerous to me because it’s a silent danger, we don’t realize the harm until it’s already doing harm to us.

And it’s very interesting that we live in times when it’s so easy to have a voice that that changes our perception (or lack of perception) of how judgmental we can be at the same time we go blinded about our own behaviour.

This situation I’m gonna share happened more than once. Actually, more than twice. I’m a blogger. As a blogger I usually take photos of my dishes in restaurants and write about my experience on my blog. It’s not uncommon, when I take my camera off my bag to take pictures to see funny faces looking at me and commenting on something. I can even hear the comments sometimes and they’re not about how my food looks delicious!

People are fast on presuming I’m there only for the photos. Especially because, yes, I pose and make a big smile for the photo and then arrange the table to take a careful photo of it.

That used to bother me but then I started realizing that, after the two minutes I spent taking the pictures and after I put my camera in my bag for the rest of the dinner people would continue to alternate talking with phone-screen-looking. Sometimes they even “talk” to someone at the table while are looking at their screen. And as someone who is part of the judgemental society I’m criticizing right now I can’t help but ask “you people can’t be present for a whole meal?”. Like, is your social media feed really more important than the relationship you have with the person you’re sharing your meal with? If you’re not a “people person” at least the food should, right?

Well, maybe because I had to learn how it works, I already know likes don’t mean people like me. Most of them don’t even know me, how could they? In the best case scenario they like the photo I posted. Let’s not even dig into the worst ones…. So why should I take time from the moment I’m spending with someone I care about to join a parallel reality?

But still I’m not immune to it. Of course I can spend some time thinking why my latest photo didn’t get as many likes as usual, why someone unsubscribed from my newsletter. Seeking love and approval is part of being a human being. Social media has only shed more light on this. And of course, gave us more tools to potentialize some bad human behaviours.

I have two goals for today’s Monday Talk: 1) I want to encourage you to rationalize your feelings toward social media content and 2) I want to raise your awareness over how your loved ones are dealing with social media.

I don’t think social media is the evil that is destroying our world. I have a lot to thank on social media. As a journalist, I’m very grateful for having platforms to spread my work. When I was in college, in the early 2000’s in a developing country, I didn’t have many options for my future: I would have to get a job in a media company and play by the book. It’s still unreal for me that I can work by myself and produce content I’m passionate about. So cheers to that!

But I have to be aware of the thin line between taking advantage of social media and being dragged by it. And I have to do it daily.

The trick part is: it’s not a matter of quantity but quality. There’s no single answer for how much time we should spend online. It depends on a lot of factors like our goals with these tools, our surroundings, our time to spare. But for me the most important metric should be our happiness (if we could only measure it in an objective way!). As long as an activity brings us pleasure without compromising our life quality and responsibilities we should continue to do it. But when it becomes painful, when it brings us anxiety or prevents us from living important things in real life, it’s time to acknowledge that and take a step back.

So, I want to propose you an exercise. For a whole day try to rationalize your feelings while on social media. I mean, try to label what you feel when you look at each every photo, when you read comments on your own posts or watch some videos. You can even count them on a piece of paper.

After that try to find a score of your emotions. Were the majority of them positive or negative? It’s ok if some of them are not pleasant. Actually, that’s good because that’s how life is: we have to deal with good and bad things to function as responsible adults. The problem starts when you have to deal with too much negativity, when it’s more than you can take.

I personally hate this “social media detox” thing because it looks like it’s ok to exaggerate on something and then get rid of all the bad consequences magically. As adults we have to be able to live our life in balance and understand our limits.

As for the companies responsibilities I wouldn’t like to blame all on them because I believe if we do so we’re giving them even more power, but for sure we have to be aware of their intentions and tactics and, more than that demand regulations over their processes.

If you haven’t watched the documentary, I strongly recommend you to do so, because having information is the crucial weapon to make better decisions in life. The more we know how it works the more control we have over our relationship with social media.


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