Late last year, I suffered an intense triple spell of depression, anxiety and loneliness. I was caving in under the crushing influence of my continuous Internet use and my presence on social media. Each time I picked up my phone, I felt my heart racing, and then I’d feel nauseous and lightheaded. It was always such an important routine for me to check who liked my posts, the number of persons who did, who commented, who did not, how good the comments were. It was like some drug that I took each time, one that determined how high or low my happiness level tipped. For an adult and academic like me who was ‘woke’ and who is versed in studies around the new media, I found myself struggling with the idea that I may be fraught with social media addiction occasioned by Internet and mobile phone use. Finally, I made the ‘difficult’ decision to proceed on a social media break and to use my mobile phone sparingly.
The first two days, I felt all manner of emotions at the same time and each one seemed to reach for my soul, to strangle me: from a deep ‘FOMO’ – Fear of Missing Out, a sense of loss, cluelessness, emptiness, boredom, inactivity, to sadness. Several times during the break, I nearly surrendered to the pressure to quit. Nevertheless, by the time the one week was elapsing, I was negotiating an extension with myself. I felt different, weightless, bubbly, fresh, detoxed. It was an exhilarating, almost unbelievable sensation. A seething dislike for social media began to envelope me. It now seemed that I had the answers to my initial depression and feelings of loneliness. It would appear that an unchecked social media use engenders certain negative outcomes – from depression, loneliness, detachment, identity crisis, body image problems, feelings of inadequacy, narcissism, laziness, anxiety to unproductivity.
I learned and did a couple of things during my week-long break. I cheated on social media and my phone with a book. I read. Often, I would complain about not having the time to read my favourite books. I read a novel and a non-fiction, both of which I had been unable to read for several months due to procrastination. I went for evening walks. I went for long-distance walks and runs in my neighbourhood and beyond. I did this every evening for eight days and continued thereafter. I discovered road intersections. I learned about new places. I experienced the joy of passing and making eye and body contact with strangers on the road. I saw the priceless beauty in talking with, albeit for a second, random strangers. I appreciated God’s beauty, our humanity, veiled in small things.
I thought. You’ll never know the boundless delight in thinking while taking a walk. I got one of the best ideas I ever had in a long while, during my walks. I got solutions to conflicting situations I was experiencing at the time. Walking in the summery, airy roads and street corners of Cape Town allowed me the chance to think, to clear my head and to cogitate on issues with wider, better perspectives. Research evidence abound on the possibility that exercise of any sort releases happiness hormones – endorphins, dopamine and serotonin. I wrote. The ideas that filter effortlessly into your mind when you’re taking a walk are meant for you to use them. Each day, I went home and wrote down those ideas and built upon them.
Slowly, days after I reactivated my social media accounts, I began to lose interest in the toxic social media routine I was used to. Facebook, Instagram, Blogs, YouTube, Twitter, even WhatsApp sap energies from us, they make us judgemental of others, they eat up our time, they reach for our souls and turn us into something we are not. I reached out more to people around me. I fell in love afresh with myself and I learned to be present with myself. I learned to enjoy my own company and love it. I found myself afresh. Thinking back now, it becomes clearer what a random stranger with whom I interacted in an airport on my way to Paris last October, had said: The reason people often need people around them before they can enjoy their lives, or their travel is because they don’t like themselves. If you like yourself, you’ll learn self-care and enjoy your own company. Social media has the potential to unwittingly cause us to let go of the autonomy we have of ourselves and to rely on other people’s validation of who we are or want to be. It becomes normalised to watch other people’s lives, rather than perceive the beauty in ours.
Social media has given us a false sense of connectedness and we have fallen for it. Our social interaction with each other has been reduced to mere likes, hearts, views and comments that do not hold much meaning. People live with the illusion that because they are friends on social media with some people, it is enough to brag about knowing them personally and being connected to them. Others pride themselves on having hundreds and thousands of friends and followers; this makes them feel good, significant and needed. When the chips are down, what you find is many people who are lonely, depressed and whose humanity get distorted by the wrong things, the wrong values and mores. Several problematic online behaviours point to our humanity being sold cheap: since everyone hides behind their smartphones to harass, intimidate, fight and compete with other people online.
Agreed, there are many recorded landmark impacts of social media in terms of democratising information, connecting people, affording opportunity to participate in politics and upturning hegemonic structures and social injustice through activisms. However, the point must be made that life, people, are more beautiful than what we see on social media. Technology seems to have become the human, and we on the other hand, the tool. Recent reports have emerged which point to the fact that many technology gurus and experts and their families are either not on social media or have a controlled social media use. Chamath Palihapitiya, a former vice president at Facebook has acknowledged feeling tremendous guilt about the company he helped to build. He reasons that Facebook and other social media platforms are ripping apart the very fabric of how society works; arguing that the short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loop and people’s overreliance on technology is breeding poor civil discourse, misinformation, fake news syndrome and mistruth.
Bill Gates, the billionaire tech guru was unsurprisingly reported to have set strict rules for how his kids can use technology. Gate’s domestic policy for technology speaks to the growing consensus that consumer technology is too addictive, and potentially harmful to young minds. With mobile digital devices enough to sway our attention and to keep us hippy, millennials are always caught in the web of prioritising the wrong things. Time spent on the Internet and social media robs us of the discipline and capacity to give attention to important aspects of our lives.
To resolve to make wiser, more informed, more thoughtful, more humane and more calculated use of social media is an urgent need for a world that is increasingly breaking up and losing control of its humanity, while Silicon Valley and the tech capitalists and neoliberalists continue to make gains off our ignorance and mindless use of technology. Might we have the courage to regularly unplug from and detox ourselves of social media, or to keep a disciplined schedule for its use? To realise the beauty in rediscovering our lost true self devoid of technology. To take pleasure in the power of others’ physical presence and attention, and to fall in love with the often-overlooked beauty in our environment and space—those not captured by random selfies or the feel-good photos we upload to social media.
Chikezie Uzuegbunam is a doctoral scholar at the Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town, South Africa. His research interests are around new media, young people’s research, popular culture and political communication. He was named one of 100 Brightest Young Minds in Africa in 2017.