In years to come we’ll look back at this period in history and think: “how the hell did we get it so spectacularly wrong.”
Here’s a reality check for us all to enjoy - social media is evil and we need to do something about it, now.
If what I’m about to say doesn’t instinctively ring-true (it will, for most people), to understand what I’m saying you need to do something that is becoming increasingly difficult to do in the modern age – you have to remove yourself from what I’m saying. It doesn’t matter if you enjoy social media because you love putting pictures of you and your friends up online. It makes no difference if you love posting pictures of all the gigs, events and holidays that you’ve been to because it “serves as a lovely memory for you”. If you have built a large audience based on your glossy snaps that show off your glamorous lifestyle and are making money off it, but you don’t consistently acknowledge or try to raise awareness of the things that’ll I’ll here talk about, that’s great for YOU...but sorry everyone, it’s really not about you this time.
What it is about is embracing and recognising the astronomically brutal, devastating effect that social media is having on the enormous amount of people that engage with it when they are not seeing it for what it truly is – or even when they are!
We’ve all heard the lie that social media is this super-fun, positive thing – a great way to keep in touch with family and friends, a great place to explore content and discover things. However, the facts speak for themselves...
Depression is up (18% since 2005).
Anxiety is up (15% since 2005).
Levels of loneliness and social isolation are worse than they have ever been.
Social bullying is rife.
Social media is an instrumental tool for the spread of fake news stories and propaganda.
The youth are losing the ability to communicate face to face.
...the list goes on and on and on, and the experts will tell you, that social media is undisputedly playing a huge role in exacerbating these problems.
This isn’t a fictitious conspiracy theory, there’s no agenda here, I use social media as much as most people (more in fact), but the facts cannot be ignored, and it is time for people with big voices to start shouting, loudly, to help people get a better sense of balance with regard to social media. We need to help everyone see it for what it truly is and limit the powerfully detrimental effects it’s having on vast swathes of people worldwide.
Before I go any further though, as a reminder of why this is all so important, let’s break it down. This is what’s actually going on, on social media...
1. People are showing you the image of themselves that they WANT you to see. A staged snapshot:
"Wow amazing holiday!" (But they aren't showing you the crippling credit card bill).
"Oh my god! Amazing work trip!" (But you haven't seen the hours of spreadsheet filling and endless meetings that are part of their daily job).
“Here I am on stage DJing at an amazing event” (but there’s no mention of the hours of loneliness and boredom before and after the gig).
A photo, or a post, communicates precisely what the poster wants it to communicate, and offers no additional context outside of the realms of what they want it to offer. It's not an accurate representation of reality outside of that instance in time, and actually, it's often not even necessarily an accurate representation of that instance itself! I have seen with my own eyes picture-perfect couples screaming at each other on the street before stopping to snap a perfect shot for Instagram against a “cool wall”…seriously.
2. So you're scrolling endlessly through your newsfeed, seeing image after image, post after post of curated perfection, from all these people that seemingly have elements of their life WAY more together than you...
BUT, the brain doesn't process all this information in isolation. It doesn't think "yeah, that person over there always goes on amazing holidays with their friends, and this other person over here has a wonderful family life....but the person with a wonderful family life hardly ever goes away with friends” (or whatever it may be). Instead your brain processes it as:
"Look at ALL THESE PEOPLE with their AMAZING LIVES!! They ALL do amazing things, ALL the time!"
Your mind combines everything it sees and tricks you into thinking that EVERYONES lives are just brilliant all the time, and that yours pales in comparison.
In fact a survey carried out by Hill Holliday revealed that 29% of Gen Z’ers said that social media hurts their self-esteem or made them feel insecure, while 61% said it boosts it. Now, you might be thinking “errr, Alex...why have you put that stat in? If social media actually boosts some peoples self-esteem, doesn’t that disprove your point!?”, no, it doesn’t. What this research shows is that either way, social media is still in control of people’s feeling of self-esteem (it only doesn’t have an effect of 10% of the people surveyed!)...and that, is exactly my point. It has robbed 90% of us of our OWN feelings of self-esteem and self-worth and placed control firmly in the hands of other people’s perception of us, and THAT is arguably the most self-destructive version of vanity that there is.
3. What this leads to is a misinterpretation of what a "life well lived" should consist of. It sets the bar impossibly high. It makes us think that "success" in life is equal to this staged perfection.
Worse than that, it incorrectly makes people consciously or subconsciously believe that ANYONE can (and should) be a “celebrity”. Social media has seemingly eradicated the lines between “us and them”. For the first time ever, fame seems relatively easy to achieve and you don’t have to have some sort of inaccessible talent like being an amazing singer, or dancer, or actor, or artist, or whatever to achieve it, you can simply upload pictures and videos of you talking about your day, and become famous. That is the (false) perception.
In a debate I held on Twitter recently, some people said “yes...but reality TV has been around for years though, isn’t that the same?”. Absolutely not, because that’s still “on TV”, a traditional medium that seems inaccessible, there is still a wedge between “normal people” and “the celebrated” (celebrities). It’s not the same as a kid in their house, on their iPhone, uploading videos, which everyone knows that everyone can do. There is no external selection process.
Someone else said “isn’t it the same as looking at glossy magazines?” - again, absolutely not! Magazines are full of staged shots sure, but the curated nature of the platform, the fact that someone else has decided to feature that person, makes it seem inaccessible and therefore, again that falls into the traditional realm of celebrity.
The difference, which makes it all so destructive is that for the past 20 years we’ve been polluted into thinking that the celebrity lifestyle is the very definition of success/a life well-lived. The only thing that stopped that from sparking a mental-health epidemic is the fact that most people knew that that world was out of their reach, so they were happy to admire it from a distance while they got on with their own (often more meaningful) lives. But now social media has come along and made people think that ANYONE can (and should) be famous or have that sort of “aspirational” lifestyle...and it’s that, that is fucking people up, as it’s placed us on a conscious or subconscious hunt for likes and validation.
4. Crucially and potentially most damagingly of all, this conscious or subconscious pursuit of likes and validation, also fundamentally wrongly-skews our sense of what things in life are actually important. Social media demands that you place the focus on the END RESULT, and not on the journey itself.
How many times have you seen someone not actually watching a gig, because they're trying to a capture it on their phone to "prove they were there"? How many time has a delicious meal been delivered to your table, and rather than taking it in and allowing your mind to rest on that experience, you reach for your phone to snap it for the ‘Gram?
Psychologically, this shift in motivation removes you from fully living in the moment, and places the focus on the material end-goal. And, this lack of full-immersion is actually having a detrimental physical effect on people’s brains and their capacity to create memories (as opposed to their digital memories).
Now, I’m not a religious person, but if I was, I’d think that this obsession with “the self”, is one of the realist manifestations of the devil winning, at scale, of all time. Vanity has absolutely polluted us, and it is only getting much, much worse.
5. So what are we left with?
We're left in a situation where we feel like we aren't doing enough, we aren't "owning" enough, we're perpetually afraid of missing out and we are obsessed with ourselves and our personal perception. Even when we DO actually do something fun, we're not fully immersed in it/enjoying it, because we are consciously or subconsciously thinking about how we're going to show that thing off online, or commit it to a digital memory because we don’t trust our own.
In essence...whether we know it or not, we are chasing an unachievable and unrealistic life, being constantly bombarded with lies about what “a live well lived” looks like, and not fully embracing and enjoying the lives we are actually living. We are obsessed with the end-goal, and not the journey and this is literally depressing us. We are anxious and we are worried, and all that negativity is being reinforced and perpetuated by our addiction to the very thing that's making us feel this way - social media.
And here’s where the “evil” steps up a gear...
6. What do people do when they feel shit?! Think about it...what do YOU do when you're feeling down? You seek out the things that will make you feel BETTER, right?
If your mate's on an amazing holiday, you'll book yourself a holiday. If your friend has super fashionable clothes, you'll try and buy some super fashionable clothes. The point is...so often, YOU BUY THINGS!! You consume!
So, social media grinds you down and makes you feel like your life is nowhere near good enough....and then, at that point, when you're at your lowest ebb, searching around for a quick fix, that is when social media offers you all the ways you can feel better....THROUGH ADVERTISING. It showcases things to you, that are specifically targeted AT YOU, based on the intimate knowledge that it has extracted FROM YOU.
Social media literally preys on our insecurities and our vulnerabilities in order to make huge profits, and if that’s not the modern-day version of corporate “evil” - I just don’t know what is, my friend.
Furthermore, think about it from a “control” point of view! When you want to control the masses there are a multitude of ways of doing it. Fear works, but eventually people rise against it. Implanting an obsession with wealth works (and continues to work), because people will happily conform and spend 80% of their days working as part of the machine so they can purchase things that they don’t actually need or live an aspirational lifestyle that they have been told will make them happy. But this obsession with the self, this intense distraction tool, this vital instrument of spreading propaganda, this world of social media is the ultimate method of control - because it’s actually adjusting how our brains work and while our heads are down, staring lifelessly at our screens, the people who know what’s up, are doing whatever the fuck they want. Just look around you, it’s happening every single day.
But, here is the crux - the ONLY way to truly tackle this, is from the inside. Teachers teaching it in classrooms will have limited effectiveness; news/editorial on TV and Radio and in press will help spread the overall message - but really it’s only the people who are influential in this digital space that are the ones that will properly get through to the youth. However, the problem is that so many of them are profiting off it! For the biggest influencers, it’s their livelihood! What we need then are brave Trojan Horses, we need the people who have built huge online audiences to expose it all for what it really is, from the inside. What we need is the influencer-equivalent of someone senior from the meat industry admitting that actually killing animals for human consumption is destroying our planet. It needs to be that powerful.
Crucially: I want to note at this point, that there ARE digital “influencers” (for want of a less catch-all term), who are already acting in this way - influential people who are aren’t afraid to let their audience know about the pitfalls and trappings of social media. It should also be recognised that (as many have criticised me for) I’m not out to ruin anyone’s livelihood, there are many people who work with and within social media who try and use it as a force for good: helping people learn things; instructing people; introducing people to ideas/concepts/art/fashion; making people laugh/entertaining people...and all that is great. BUT, THAT DOES NOT MEAN that we shouldn’t all, collectively, help people to see social media for what it truly is. That is what this is about.
In the same way that we have to write #ad or #spon to flag up advertising online, we need to start flagging up that there is so much more to life than seeking validation online.
The bottom line is this: we can play in the devils playground and make some people smile...but we need to remember that we need to remind people, all the time, where we are.
If you don’t, then I’m afraid that whether you like it or not, that YOU are a part of the problem.
The clock is ticking, we are teetering on the edge of a worldwide mental health epidemic, we are allowing this medium to warp our sense of reality and the time has come to bring it down from the inside with raw honesty and raw debate. This isn’t a battle for Troy, this is a war for our minds and we need a #TrojanHorse.
Hill Holliday Survey
Article Photo: by Pritiranjan Maharana on Unsplash
Lady with her head in her hands Photo: by Niklas Hamann on Unsplash
Times Square Photo: by Saketh Garuda on Unsplash