Sam Rosenberg: Wired & Weary — The psychological dependence of social media

Tuesday, March 28, 2017 - 5:07pm

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Every single morning, I wake up to the buzz of my phone alarm. Immediately, I check to see a myriad of notifications popped up on my screen and spend at least ten minutes looking through each one before I wash up and get ready for class. Throughout the day, I find myself constantly clicking and thumbing through Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram. Occasionally, I’ll stop to look at a striking image or funny meme, but more often than not, I mindlessly like statuses and pictures when scrolling down my seemingly endless online feed. My browser windows are frequently filled to the brim with a ridiculous number of tabs. Some contain pop culture articles from The Guardian, Pitchfork and AV Club, while others are just YouTube videos of movie trailers and clips of old Spongebob episodes.

Through social media, I’m constantly connected to current events and an online community made up of friends and strangers. Yet lately, I’ve been feeling a sense of disconnect, dread and angst from spending such a lengthy amount of time on it every day.

For a while, I’ve been thinking to myself: How have I become so conditioned to compulsively check social media? And how I can stop? I’ve known for a long time that I’ve been obsessed with using technology. More recently, I’ve been coming to terms with the fact that I am psychologically and sometimes even emotionally dependent on the Internet. It distorts the way I perceive myself and others. It deprives and simultaneously stimulates my energy. And, it dilutes my attention span when I procrastinate. But for some reason, I can’t stop using it.

You’re probably asking yourself why I’m talking about this kind of issue when the notion of social media as “addicting” has been scrutinized and discussed heavily by psychologists, bloggers and skeptics. It’s no secret that consuming social media in excess has adverse ramifications and I don’t intend to lecture people with a critical analysis of its damaging effects. A show like Netflix’s dystopian anthology satire “Black Mirror” has already proven that its presence in our society is much more insidious than we may think. And the solution to this problem pretty much speaks for itself: just stop using social media. But how can I, what with having to use my computer every single day and not feel some sort of inclination towards checking my Facebook or looking through Instagram on my phone when I have “down time”?

There are far more complex implications of what it means to be “addicted” to social media than having it labeled simply as a mental health issue, or really as an issue at all. It goes deeper than just checking on what our friends are up to or building this virtual façade of our lifestyle for others to see. As a generation built on the Internet, we have been psychologically primed to crave a validation that often feels more tangible and comfortable online than in real life.

There’s an episode from HBO’s fantastic, underrated stoner comedy “High Maintenance” that addresses such a psychological complex. In the episode, a tech-savvy 20-something named Anja (Ismenia Mendes, “The Devil You Know”) spends her days updating and constructing a self-deprecating persona on her online accounts. Later on, however, Anja suffers the consequences of her social media obsession when she uploads a photo of the show’s nameless weed-dealing protagonist (Ben Sinclair, “Sisters”) to her Instagram without permission. Towards the end of her segment, a dejected Anja sits in her bed, alternating between a book and her phone, and then she just weeps, feeling the hollowness of her real life and the life she’s made for herself online.     

What the episode, aptly titled “Selfie,” reveals is a sobering truth about the overwhelming nature of being totally lost in the real world and finding solace in a place that capitalizes on this aimlessness. The episode itself might not be as nuanced as it should be; the commentary on social media is a bit didactic and Anja is depicted as a somewhat negative stereotype of a social media-obsessed millennial. Nevertheless, her co-dependent relationship with social media rings true to a lot of the despair and emotional stress that many young people, including myself, experience on a day-to-day basis. We become dependent on social media precisely because it gives us a false, romanticized sense of comfort, anonymity and power.     

So how exactly do we self-regulate and moderate ourselves in using the Internet? Should we just continue to be active on our social media accounts and other realms of the Internet? Or should we delete everything, go rogue and live under a rock like Patrick Star for a while? The truth is that being active on social media is inevitable, especially if you’re a college student who writes specifically about such a topic every other week. I’ll probably still get distracted from social media when I’m doing my homework — hell, I’ve checked Facebook at least seven times while writing this article. But as addicting as it may be, I’m determined to log out and close my tabs every now and then, and just let the world exist around me. After all, life is much more enriching in the time we spend with others in person than with those we connect with online.