Twitter has always been my social media drug of choice. My timeline — essentially Arab twitter, Muslim twitter and Leftist twitter, speaks to my personality and beliefs to a concerningly accurate degree. As my relationship with Twitter has adapted — what was once a 30 minute daily check-in has seamlessly transitioned into a pandemic ritual of daily two hour blocks — I’ve come to the realization that Twitter, as well as other forms of social media, has had an engrossing, personal effect on my life, especially within the past six months. Remember that one week where everyone posted passive aggressive tweets followed by a red heart? I used the same mannerism in nearly every text conversation that followed, thinking it was comedic gold. In April, when everyone was absolutely fascinated by bread, specifically of the banana variety, I bought multiple bags of flour and made banana bread at least three times a week. The intrusive effect social media has had on my psyche and social life has intensely heightened throughout quarantine. Unfortunately, the same can be said for a concerning number of young adults. Online, where the need to create viral content reflects an internalized need to feel validated within public circles, social media directly translates to the urges we have as social creatures because of its unique ability to gather people. The sense of gratification when a post gets more likes than expected, the second guessing we feel before we hit post and the tweet in our drafts that will never hit our followers timeline, all indicate an emotional dependency that technological giants have spawned for their users. And during the pandemic, that addiction has never been stronger.
As how I choose to spend my day and how I communicate increasingly stem from social media interactions powered by consuming algorithms, the compelling allure has held me and others captive. Amassing a sizable following and receiving likes are parts of a system designed to psychologically persuade users to utilize these apps, each usage followed by immediate dopamine hits. This potent neurotransmitter is responsible for making us feel pleasure, and in moments filled with heightened sadness, consumers are desperate to fend off secluded sentiments of sadness. This has been particularly severe among young adults, as Gen-Z’s dependence on social media was excessive prior to the pandemic, and screen times have only elevated during the numerous phases of lockdown. Further, the CDC has conducted studies that have shown that Gen-Z is facing the brunt of mental illnesses during the pandemic, with one in four young adults, aged 18-25, experiencing heightened anxiety, depression,and suicidal thoughts. The social fabric of society is unraveling. While that percentage can be broken down and expanded across a multitude of issues such as financial stress, anxiety surrounding health and academic pressure, the lack of human connection is just one more centrally detrimental factor for the mental psyche of young adults across the world. In this emptiness, social media networks have rooted themselves as essential connecting points amid daily pursuits for companionship while quarantining. Before the pandemic, it was clear that Gen-Z, the first generation born in the internet era, was already facing higher numbers of suicidal thoughts, feelings of isolation and anxiety than generations prior. And the pandemic has only exacerbated already augmented statistics.
Social media’s ability to offer quickly digestible media headlines and regulations as the world shifted through stages of lockdown, left users on the application long enough to consume other forms of information. Conspiracy theories are one example. The United States has been politically — and morally — polarized for some time, but social media platforms; namely Reddit, Facebook and Twitter have stretched out an exceedingly thin line in the COVID-19 era. False conspiracy theories such as QAnon; a theory asserting that Donald J. Trump is the only one who can “save the children” from alleged sex traffickers Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton, have grown exponentially. As people struggle to grasp onto any idea that seems rational in irrational times, Twitter has immensely furthered these divides, pushing leftists further left, and far-right users further into the fringe. According to Pew Research, users on Twitter, second only to Reddit, are more likely to be exposed to conspiracy theories. This has serious implications as it continues to bleed into political discourse, and the danger of entrapping users in a bubble remains a societal threat.
The role social media has had in fostering communities based on common interests and beliefs has also been socially beneficial. Social media applications allow people to form niches, causing users to view strangers as close friends, despite never having truly interacted with the individuals off the internet. With apps like TikTok dominating the airwaves, other platforms remain social media powerhouses, wielding influence in fostering connections based on personal affiliations; whether it be a horoscope sign, brand or fandom alignment. While social media can rightfully be analyzed as a dangerous way of promoting groupthink, the possibility to cultivate a community with people who share your quirks and interests are endless. Especially in a socially-starved society, it manifests as a way to feed our aching cravings. If a user can focus their time and energy on stan culture, analyzing movies or engaging in debates online, there is less time to stress on truly immediate issues. This is a severe form of escapism, but in a period filled with so many unknowns, confusion and tension, social creatures are looking to escape what’s off our screens.
Despite all the apparent danger, I can’t help but wonder how the platform will become more enmeshed in my life and the lives of others as the weather chills and any small window we have to be social outside pushes us back into our homes and onto digital spaces. This dangerously enticing human connection we have to mere applications is the basis of commentaries like Black Mirror, but in a world where our social selves are left wanting, users, including myself, will continue to sacrifice our time, energy and personal data for a swell of gratification. Time has proven that our ravenous reliance on social media harms our collective consciousness, but right now, when the hunger for interaction overwhelms our fears of a technologically-consumed society, consequences be damned.