The struggle to be here now

Wednesday, July 29, 2020 - 5:57pm

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Illustration by Hibah Mirza

A few days ago, I had plans to meet a friend for a (socially distant) dinner at their house. We made this plan at around 6:27 p.m. PST, and I was going to arrive at their house at 7:30 p.m. At 8:02 p.m., a text message from my friend appeared across my phone screen: 

where are you?

 Upon hearing the ding, I abruptly regained consciousness as if I had just woken up from a midday nap. I was groggy, disoriented and late. Only I had not been sleeping: for the last hour and a half, I was trapped in what I like to call a TikTok Hole. I laid on my couch in the fetal position without distraction and scrolled mindlessly through the app. When I say “mindlessly,” I truly mean it. I filtered through the app one video at the time, not processing any information presented, swiping my right thumb up whenever I was ready for something new. And as soon as that text message shocked me back into reality, I lost all recollection of any content consumed in that catastrophic hour and a half. 

I had traded in a period of my precious and ever-fleeting life for bad skits and renegades. In some twisted way, this was a mystifying, supernatural experience of time travel in which I remained awake but lost all sense of consciousness. On the other hand, this was quite sad. It all depends on how you look at it. I proceeded to explain the reason for my late arrival to my friend, expecting a response filled with ridicule. Instead, she couldn’t help but empathize, “That happens to me all the time.”

From the time I got a smartphone in the eighth grade, my dad has consistently nagged me for spending too much time on it. “Be here now,” he’d remind me. I’ve always responded to this comment in a way that’s common among my age group, asking him, “what do you expect of me? I’m an impressionable and curious young adult who was given infinite information at my fingertips during one of the most critical times in my cognitive development. At this point, the material world pales in comparison to the fantastical possibilities of the internet,” or something along those lines. While this may be true, at the risk of agreeing with my dad, I’m afraid he’s right. Far too often, I am not “here now,” but instead a victim to the allure of social media.

According to a study done by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, participants who used social media the most were 2.7 times more likely to be depressed than those who used it the least. Theories attempting to explain this phenomena range from experiencing a fear of missing out (FOMO), problems with balancing online and virtual relationships, social comparison with followers and cyberbullying. In another study on social media and its impact on mental health disorders for teens, researchers found that the rate of young adults experiencing serious psychological distress in the previous 30 days increased 71 percent from 2008-2017, coinciding with the rise of social media.

While these statistics are troubling, I cannot confidently say that social media use has increased long-lasting feelings of depression or anxiety within me. I am certain, however, that social media makes me feel really physically and mentally terrible when I’m on it. 

When I get into a social media trance, the corner of my vision starts to darken. My head throbs every five seconds or so, and I am usually thirsty, though maybe that’s a separate problem. My thumb develops a mind of its own as it effortlessly navigates the bright LED screen. My neck is perpetually stuck at a 60 degree angle against the backrest of my couch, and every so often I will move it side to side to keep from cramping up. My leg will fall asleep, and I will shake it awake as a 15 second clip of Doja Cat’s hit song “Say So” loops on repeat. I bounce between Twitter accounts of people who I find annoying and stew in my own frustration at their opinions. I check the Instagram account of a kid I know is cooler than me and start comparing myself to him. I check my own Instagram page to try to understand how people perceive me. I remember that I am perceived. I plummet. I feel myself slip into this comatose state very acutely, yet I feel effortless in stopping it. The instant gratification of a notification, the carefully selected color schemes of the apps, and the comfort promised by passively taking in mediocre content lures me in despite my best effort to look away. My eyes depress into a squint and my head seems to surrender closer and closer to the nightmarish rectangle. 

Sometimes, I have the conscious thought that I want to put my phone down and do something else. Maybe I could have my first glass of water for the day. That would certainly help. But there’s always one more basketball highlight, one more refresh, one more fit pic. And so I persist.

My wake up call came toward the end of this past school year, about a month before quarantine started. In a sudden flood of courage, I decided to check my Screen Time statistics that Iphones now provide. Every day, on average, I spent 4 hours and 30 minutes on my phone. That is insane. That is 4 hours and 30 minutes, every single day, of consciously feeling my body and mind deteriorate. If I were to stop using my phone and reallocate 4 hours and 30 minutes across my day, I couldn’t help but feel like the possibilities were endless. I could learn a trade like woodworking or glass blowing. I could introspect. I could do a lot of pushups. I could read a book. I could practice mindfulness. I could call my mom. I could finally learn what Anarcho Primitivism is. I could do, quite literally, anything else.

After this realization, I made a conscious effort to stay away from my phone. I set a daily time limit to social media applications. I deleted Facebook and Snapchat entirely, and would try not to use my phone before going to bed. And truthfully, I started to feel better. It wasn’t that I suddenly no longer cared about the superficiality of social media, causing all feelings of inferiority and FOMO to disappear. Instead, I just started to feel the positive effects of not physically being on my phone for such a long time. I sat down less, I drank water more, I looked at the sky and got better sleep and did not worry about why Kanye West was trending. I certainly was not perfect. There were times that I broke the rules and stayed on the applications longer than the allotted times. But I was improving. As the school year winded down, I was, more often than I had been, “here now.”

So how then only a few days ago was I thirty minutes late to a dinner because I couldn’t stop watching TikToks?

With quarantine in effect, my social media use has only been exacerbated. There is, at times, literally nothing else to do. And there is, at times, literally nobody else to be with. So I go to social media to feel any sense of connection in an increasingly isolating time period. Part of me thanks God, or Mark Zuckerberg (or Eduardo Saverin) for the fact that we have social media right now. In a way, social media is sometimes the only social outlet I can find during quarantine. Additionally, we’ve seen social media act as a crucial source of mobility for social movements such as Black Lives Matter during quarantine. This has only increased my attraction to these apps, as I now feel a moral obligation to stay updated on current events. 

At the same time, I am slipping further and further into the problem I had just started to come out of toward the end of the school year. At this point, I feel a genuine reliance on a piece of technology that I consciously do not enjoy. The old self-destructive habits that I pinpointed and aimed to root out now seem more ingrained in me than ever before. That is a scary feeling. I find myself checking twitter while walking from my bedroom to the bathroom. I find myself scrolling through instagram while facetiming a friend. I find that once again my head starts to hurt and my thoughts start to muddle and my eyes start to squint and my worries seem to be in all the wrong places. I find myself getting frustrated for falling back in. 

But maybe I shouldn’t.

It is easy to say that I should just stop using social media altogether, trade in my iPhone for a flip phone, and watch all of these unnecessary burdens I carry disappear. But this seems unrealistic. For my generation, in this particularly strange time, social media and “real life” are intrinsically linked. Things that are happening in “real life” are being broadcasted on Twitter feeds. Real social connections are being forced into the depths of Instagram DMs. Trends and music and fashion that have a real impact on the current culture are being cultivated by TikTok For You Pages.

There is certainly a fine line to walk here. By no means is it reasonable to be on social media as often as I am. I should, by all accounts, start fighting back. I should set time limits and delete apps and be more mindful of my actions. I should try to be present and purposeful rather than defaulting to autopilot. I should have a glass of water every now and then. I should do this for no other reason but personal benefit. 

And yet, despite all the rational reasons to log off, maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on myself if I can’t. Because at this moment, maybe looking for an outlet to socialize and spread ideas is not the worst thing in the world. Maybe it is an impossibly difficult time and anything that can make it incrementally easier is worth it. Maybe, just maybe, the use of social media is part of truly being “here now.”

And maybe, I’m just trying to justify something that I truly can’t control.

 

Leo Krinsky is a junior in LSA studying Film, Television, and Media. He can be reached at lkrinsky@umich.edu