Is Your Feed, Feeding You?
by Victoria Derr Valencia
I won’t be the first to say it, and it won’t be the first time I say it: I’m addicted to my screen.
Like any freshly self-proclaimed addict with a new addiction, I talk about this a lot: I’m addicted to talking about my addiction to my phone. To social media, in particular. The false sense of connectivity, and the junk culture readily available online.
Alas! The first moment of clarity: let’s recognize the dependency. Seek sources. Go to an art gallery opening, with a painter, Nissim Ouzan, who explores the scars left by technology on our human psyche. Let’s read books by writers like Marlee Grace, who’ve written zines turned self-care books about the toxicity of Instagram. Let’s bring it up casually in conversation, almost ironically – a half-assed allusion to an imbalanced relationship to the tiny robot living in our pockets.
Screen addiction still seems so casual.
No, it’s not coke in dive bar bathroom stalls. No, it’s not molly from a stranger-turned-lover at a Shlohmo show. No, it’s not beers after fights with my partners, or chain smoking cigarettes the last hour before a deadline.
But an unchecked, overuse of social media and obsessive screen time has it’s impacts on the human psyche. It’s been noted that an extreme usage of social media leads to a heightened sense of isolation, lower self-esteem, and a distorted view on not only the life of other’s, but your own life and memories.
Replacing coffee dates with friends to checking an app multiple times a day can do that.
On top of the quantity of the usage, comes the quality – what is being highlighted on social media? This goes beyond Instagram filters and speaks to the filters in which we present ourselves with – the highlights of our life. The good moments: achievements, being reclined on a chaise underneath bougainvilleas in El Salvador, a perfected-and-completed embroidery project, a post highlighting the benefits of lavender…the nonstop scroll keeps going. With us seeing a filtered version of someone else’s life, our self-esteem about the reality of our lives lowers.
But we’re not seeing the Sunday morning hangover, just the brunch. We’re not seeing the mistakes it took to finally perfect a piece of prose, just the completion of it. We’re not even seeing the minutes spent on perfectly curating a photo that is viewed, and liked, in less than 10 seconds. But the damage that is caused goes beyond ten seconds.
What we do see, and do post, affects the way we are remembering our own lives. Suddenly, the trip to the East Coast seems like a photo collage of rooftop drinks and subway rides. But what about the smell of the subway? Or the sudden flush of existential angst that came with being in a city jam-packed with people?
Screen addiction has yet to be recognized in the medical community – in the latest edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, screen addiction (nor nothing of the like) doesn’t appear listed as an addiction (Kamenetz). The evidence is clear – but the owning up? Slow-coming.
Heavy phone usage isn’t perceived as a career-stopper, as a family-breaker, or as a gateway drug. If anything, having a smartphone and having an online presence is seen as status, as a form of the elite. This may be where the true danger lies – whereas in the past there was a gradual shift in outcasting or victimizing the addict, those with the most prominent social media presence, latest iPhone model, or scattered general knowledge on headlines and happenings are awarded status.
As goes the folklore, there’s two sides to the same coin. What about the status and achieved elite-ism existing alongside the addiction, the cracks in mental health?
Marlee Grace, an improvisor and writer, speaks on this.
Her essay/zine is titled “how a photo and video-sharing social networking service gave me my best friends, a true love, a beautiful career, and made me want to die.” Marlee comments, “The title is serious. It is not a dramatization. It is exactly ways that social media has impacted my life in bountiful ways and also triggered my mental health to an extreme” (Grace).
Beyond a personal dependency, a culture that promotes the prestige in smartphone social status.
Stay with me here. I’m thinking of advertisements in the 60s in the US – glamorous movie stars, busy housewives, men at post-work happy hour. All images of the day to day life of middle class America, star studded smiles with cigarette between lips or fingertips. The glamour, the prestige, and the health benefits? Santa Claus wasn’t the only influencers endorsing smoking – doctors and other medical professionals claimed truth to the health benefits as well.
What else but to enjoy the benefits of social hour smoking, decreased appetite, and improved inhaling?
Our current collective consciousness of social media addiction isn’t as misinformed as the American 60s and smoking. There’s a few studies, research done by universities, and personal experiences that further uncover the effects of mental/social health and screen time.
But for the majority of users, the addiction is still largely perceived as something frivolous.
First, stands the evidence of the prevalence. 74% of Americans aged 18-24 use apps like Instagram. And this isn’t just millennials and iGen – 68% of US adults under the age of 65 are reported Facebook users (Smith). These apps were designed with the intention of being addicting – developers work every day to not only create engaging content, but design and triggers that keep you subconsciously coming back for more.
In 2018, 40% of social media users reported that they find it difficult to stop using social media – a jump from just the 28% of social media users in 2014 (Wang).
Design that triggers dopamine.
And of course, there’s the difference between a habit, a compulsion, and an addiction. Varying levels of addiction can be categorized, discussed, and analyzed. There’s the physiological condition, the state of your brain chemistry, the psychological character of your mind...the classifications can keep going.
But what about specific instances?
About scrolling Instagram while driving? About the mental energy and mindless conversations spent on coming up with captions? What about the fact social media creates an audience out of every peer you have and haven’t met? What about the fact of how much worth and value is placed into social status via media?
And then what about the disguises of social media? Building your personal brand, having an online Instagram photography portfolio, using Instagram messages to reach out to businesses rather than e-mails?
Artist Nissim Ouzan, in his most recent work, paints pixel drips – a visual representation of the scars technology leaves on our psyches.
There’s a huge shift in the psychology of relating to the self and of relating to others that isn’t being talked about as much as it’s being experienced. The shift is crashing like a tsunami over our culture, our lifestyles, our day to day habits, and all I can find are Psychology Today articles that cover the symptoms in list-style articles. (Note: I do love Psychology Today – I do a large amount of my reading on that website, and equally their print).
We don’t need an internet article to list symptoms; we need a cultural shift over the way individuals (and the collective) interacts with their phone, and with the ever-quickening virtual society around me.
Where are you reading this from?
A bus, a cafe, a stoplight? How many other humans around you are also absorbed into their phones?
It’s become a physical tick for us to reach for our phones when we feel our environment lacks engagement. Sometimes, a sunset doesn’t cut it. We reach for our iPhones to take a photo. Sometimes, our lunch date convo doesn’t cut it. A phone break happens after eating, between having your poke bowls bussed and the check being placed on your table.
Artist Kim Dong-Kyu speaks to this cultural shift.
The Korean illustrator took historical artworks and inserted modern technology into the pieces – chargers, iPhones with shattered screens, laptops at cafes. His project, titled ART X SMART, aims to showcase the addiction to smartphones. “I wanted to show how our daily lives changed, and at the same time, how ridiculous the changed figures of characters in the pictures are by drawing smart devices in classical paintings. They are together but are disconnected. Not only the landscape, but also the person next to you” (Art x Smart).
Again, we find the disconnect in a product that was meant to further connect us.
We are not ingesting the product, we have become the product. In an electronic world, we are under the illusion of having more control of information, of communication. But are these apps actually what is controlling us?