Are we worse off scrolling through socials? Does social media make us lonelier? Has the pandemic made us addicted to our smartphones?
Last week I checked the ‘Digital Wellbeing’ setting on my phone (a setting I can’t say I’ve ever tapped into before) to find that my average screen time per day was four hours, minimum. My whole week came to approximately thirty hours spent on my phone. That’s more than one full day spent staring into pixels. This result didn’t surprise me, I’d noticed my habit of opening my Tik Tok ‘For You Page’ and staying on it until I remembered what I was supposed to be doing, or my battery percentage flashed as critical. If my day was free, I’d stay on it indefinitely, allowing myself to be sucked into the video void. I used to fight that urge off, but recently I just couldn’t find a strong enough reason to resist it.
Winter has arrived, bringing colds and flu as well as covid. The world feels as uncertain and imbalanced as it ever has and I’d just like a distraction. Enter, social media.
In the UK, internet usage was “nearing its peak” coming in at 95.5 per cent in 2020 and it is only expected to rise to 97.5 per cent by 2022. Smartphones were the go-to device for Gen Z and millennials (18 to 24-year-olds) and surprise, surprise – the picture-perfect social media platform, Instagram, was hailed as the ‘most important app’. Instagram has been long known as the internet’s home of unrealistic expectations. ‘Aesthetic’ was always the word universally associated with the app, but now an even more specific word has been coined in its place, ‘instagrammable’. When synonyms like this become part of everyday vocabulary, the influence social media holds is hard to ignore.
We were globally grounded during lockdown; social media was all we had. An endless reel of travel vlogs, music festivals, wedding proposals, self-employed business journeys. The kind of life we yearned to be our normal once more, was there to be fantasised over, romanticised, envied. All at the touch of an app. Still, that freedom of living feels that bit out of reach, even as we adapt to our ‘new normal’. The apps are still there, but they’re better fed now as people do more and as a result, post more. The claws of comparison can claim victims easily if we spectate each other enough, and we do. Success, beauty, social lives, people upload only their most polished moments. It’s one shiny spoon in a drawer full of dented cutlery. We know this, we’re reminded again and again, but that sense of inadequacy and isolation is almost inescapable if you’re on social media. Currently, in the UK, that makes 45 million of us.
Although, social media can undoubtedly also be a positive force. It keeps us connected, informed, and acts as a platform for every kind of voice to be heard. In many cases, it is vital in maintaining stable mental health and wellbeing. It is when social media is used in excess that its effects become questionable. When was our internet usage in greater excess than in lockdown? In March 2020 13 to 25-year-olds were asked which activities they deemed helpful or unhelpful in coping and self-managing their mental health during the pandemic. Watching TV/films and face-to-face phone calls with friends scored the highest on the helpfulness metre, scoring a happy 72 per cent. The social media scores are a stark contrast: 31 per cent of young people voted social media as ‘helpful’ whilst 36 per cent voted social media as ‘unhelpful’ for their mental health during the pandemic. This near-perfect divide showcases the uncertainty surrounding social media’s impact on mental wellbeing.
A Royal College of Psychiatrists report exploring the use of technology and the mental health of young people in January 2020 states that the “data on the effects of screen time remains limited and urgently calls for more research”. There simply hasn’t been enough investigation into screen time and social media usage for an overall verdict to be found. What is clear is that screens now dominate our society and encountering them is essentially unavoidable. You are reading this on a screen right now – it’s ever-present. A lack of analytical knowledge of how screen time implicates our mental health in such a technology-integrated society is concerning, to say the least.
Coinciding with the increase of internet traffic is the loneliness levels polled in the UK during that same month of March 2020 during the lockdown. The study revealed 37 per cent of young people (18 to 24-year-olds) reported feeling ‘a little more’ lonely than usual and 15 per cent said they felt ‘a lot more’ lonely than usual. I do not believe it to be a coincidence that feelings of loneliness rose with our levels of internet usage during our most online year in history. These figures were taken at the very start of the pandemic. We are roughly one year and seven months on from then, I can only imagine how high that loneliness number has climbed in that time.
This is not me saying that social media is the cause of lockdown and post lockdown loneliness. Rather, our increased screen time and scrolling contribute to our baseline level of discontentment. This discontentment derives from our emotional response towards situations that are beyond our control. That situation was the outbreak of Covid-19 and the adaptation to living with social restrictions. Social media has become a common coping mechanism for dealing with reality – an escape route if you like. Ironically, that coping mechanism is the ability to wrap ourselves in other people’s realities and yearn for what they have and what we don’t. The more time we spend consuming this content, the stronger our feelings of inadequacy, hopelessness and frustration grow. It may be that loneliness will always be a side effect listed on the medicine bottle of social media, but that warning shouldn’t be hiding in the small print. Talking openly about feelings of isolation and learning to be more mindful about our screen time is the only way to alleviate and avoid bad reactions to social media.