“Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” the researchers said in a March 2020 slide presentation posted to Facebook’s internal message board, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. “Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves.”
Leigh Stein’s “The Empty Religions of Instagram,” appearing in The New York Times, identifies a multi-layered problem. This past year we’ve experienced isolation due to the pandemic, we’re addicted to our phones, and we long for connection, meaning, and transcendence. It turns out we are human after all.
But many millennials and Gen-Zers are not affiliated with a religious tradition. Emerging generations either did not receive formation in a religious tradition or have disaffiliated with the tradition of their youth for various reasons. Ms. Stein is one of those millennials. She substituted political activism for a stretch. Social media has been an outlet.
But both have come up short. Ms. Stein writes:
I have hardly prayed to God since I was a teenager, but the pandemic has cracked open inside me a profound yearning for reverence, humility and awe. I have an overdraft on my outrage account. I want moral authority from someone who isn’t shilling a memoir or calling out her enemies on social media for clout.
Left-wing secular millennials may follow politics devoutly. But the women we’ve chosen as our moral leaders aren’t challenging us to ask the fundamental questions that leaders of faith have been wrestling with for thousands of years: Why are we here? Why do we suffer? What should we believe in beyond the limits of our puny selfhood?
The whole economy of Instagram is based on our thinking about our selves, posting about our selves, working on our selves.
Her perspective turns following a conversation with a person of an older generation:
My mom is an influencer in the old-school sense — at 72, she still works full time as a psychotherapist, she’s a lay minister at her church, and she fills her free time with volunteer work. Her sermons are a combination of therapeutic tips, references to current events, and lessons from scripture about having compassion for the other even during times of intense polarization.
I told her that I find myself craving role models my age who are not only righteous crusaders, but also humble and merciful, and that I’m not finding them where I live (online). Referring to the influencers who have filled the void religious faith has left for people like me, she said, “They might inspire you to live your best life but not make the best use of your life.”
And her conclusion is an outright stunner:
There is a chasm between the vast scope of our needs and what influencers can provide. We’re looking for guidance in the wrong places. Instead of helping us to engage with our most important questions, our screens might be distracting us from them. Maybe we actually need to go to something like church?
Contrary to what you might have seen on Instagram, our purpose is not to optimize our one wild and precious life. It’s time to search for meaning beyond the electric church that keeps us addicted to our phones and alienated from our closest kin.
But where will she, and others like her, ultimately land?
Alan Jacobs wrote an excellent post on muting, and how we go about it, and why. Jacobs is responding to Noah Millman, who wrote a longer essay in The Weekon muting. Millman claims that when we mute someone, we do it for ourselves, and it is not the best way of being a friend, or a citizen.
First, when I have disengaged in this way I have indeed, and absolutely, done it for myself — but I don’t think that’s necessarily a reason not to do it. I find the online direhose of wrath and contempt and misinformation immensely wearying, and indeed depressing, and especially given the damage I have sustained from the unavoidable depredations of the Year of Our Lord 2020, I think there can be good reason for avoiding the depredations that are not necessary.
Second, I think that how you disengage matters. On many occasions I have decided to unfollow or mute or just ignore people I know IRL, and when these were just acquaintances it was a simple thing to do. But on the rare occasions when they were genuine friends it was complicated. In all such cases, I began by telling them that I had problems with their online self-presentation and that I wished they would behave differently. Memory may fail me, but I can’t at the moment remember an occasion when that intervention had any effect whatsoever. So eventually I unfollowed/muted/ignored — and I told them I was doing that, also.
In 2020 I decided to ditch Instagram and drop off Facebook. I quit checking Twitter in 2019. In every case, the decision I made to abandon those environments has proven to be the right one for me. I have more mental focus, I’ve freed up energy to read other sources of information, and I think my mental health is better. Plus, I’ve stayed in touch with friends and family via email, text messages, and phone calls. Such communication is more personalized. Sure, I miss out on bits of information and on occasion some important news. I’m living life as it was a couple of decades ago, B. S. M. (Before Social Media).
There is no obligation to be on social media. Maybe you love it, and you find it adds value to your life. Maybe, like Jacobs and Millman and so many others, maybe there are people in your social media environment that you have reason to mute, ignore, unfollow, or hide. If you do, it is at least worth considering the contours of these arguments, and to factor them in how you take action within these online environments (and offline in your relationships, if you read the rest of Jacobs’ post).
Here’s your semi-regular reminder: You don’t have to be there. You can quit Twitter and Facebook and never go back. You can set up social-media shop in a more humane environment, like micro.blog, or you can send emails to your friends — with photos of your cats attached! If you’re a person with a significant social-media following, you can start a newsletter; heck, you can do that if you just want to stay in touch with five of six friends. All of the big social-media platforms are way past their sell-by date. The stench of their rottenness fills the room, and the worst smells of all come from Facebook and Twitter.
In your heart you know I’m right: It’s time to go.
I agree that the social media platforms are odious. I don’t know if it is time for me to ditch all my social media accounts officially and forever. Today I was thinking: “What would it take for me to change my mind?”
The truth is that I hate social media services. I hate the way I get addicted, the way I long for likes and favorites and hearts and flattery and affirmation and shares and followers and friends. I don’t like how social media ecosystems have come to manage, shape, and alter our human psychology, to shape our view of the world, to reveal the ways we’re polarized, to intensify our polarization. I don’t like the ways they create the illusion that we’re keeping up, or that we’re connected, or how each service becomes its own broadcast medium, and that then, for some reason, we feel compelled to create content for those providers, to tell stories and provide updates and to compose tweet-storms, and the like.
I feel guilty from time to time that my presence on social media contributes to forces that hold other people there. Odds are you landed here from your social media feed. I like that and I don’t like that at the very same time.
I haven’t been on Twitter for a couple of years, I ditched Instagram this summer, I left Facebook about a month ago. I genuinely believe I am happier person because of these decisions. My accounts are still active. But I don’t log in.
I don’t like the codependencies that have emerged between social media platforms and traditional, old-world media. I find the relationship between Twitter and those who work as professional journalists disgusting. Twitter depends on traditional outlets for content, traditional outlets depend on Twitter as a source of clicks. It is no surprise that Twitter would bend to the demands of the power brokers in traditional media, and that journalists working in traditional media would tailor their trade to the contours of what “works” in social media ecosytems. The cycle is vicious, and devours all, even bystanders.
But as someone who has written on the internet since MySpace, I know and understand the game. Readers live on social media platforms. If you want them to come to your website, you have to open the portal, leave a breadcrumb, open the door, show them the path, leave them a link, create a trail. I’m not wrong. The headline needs to be enticing. The image needs to be compelling. Then, the content needs to be good.
You’ll notice that my website has followers. Visit my homepage, and you’ll see this in a sidebar:
But here is a little secret: 1,303 of those subscribers are connected to my WordPress site via social media channels, mainly Twitter. My audience at my Facebook Page is much smaller. I have twenty-four email subscribers and seventy-five people who follow me in their WordPress feed. Forty-four people receive my occasional newsletter.
This past weekend I was talking to my brother. We touched on this dilemma. From time to time, I have something to say. The social media platforms are often the easiest medium by which to connect with a readership. It is where the readers are, it is the road they take to arrive here. On the grand highways of Twitter and Facebook, more often than not I have to post a billboard and provide an exit. Then it is up to the reader to travel down the information superhighway, stop off at my website, and enjoy the offerings at this here greasy spoon.
So what would it take for me to quit social media forever? To close my accounts? I don’t know. I do, after all, want to develop a readership.
But if one day, on Facebook and Twitter, you notice I’m gone, I hope you’ll track me down, see what I’ve been up to, sit a spell, and read and gaze and rock on.
I think we’d all be better off if we ditched social media, returned to readers and RSS feeds and listservs. I used to bookmark my favorite websites and visit to find out what’s new. That was before social media services learned how to put those enticing clickies in front of my face, to be my aggregator of information.
Do you ever get tired of having a massive supercomputer directly aimed at your brain?
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could see what we had opted to see rather than what our social media algorithmic overlords want us to see?
Another world is possible. Ditch social media. Build another network. Your own.
The past few years I’ve conducted a staggered withdrawal from all forms of social media, most recently backing away from Facebook.
I left Twitter during a Lenten fast; I dropped Instagram this past summer.
(If you’re saying, “Wait! I got to this post via social media!” please remember: WordPress pushes my content to my registered social media accounts automatically, and I’d prefer you follow my blog via subscription. Just submit your email to the proper field.)
This post by Alan Jacobs captures one thing I’ve loved about my step back from social media environments: privacy. Being alone, and letting others alone. Not knowing what a loose connection thinks about a news story, or not knowing the latest conspiracy theory a friend is now pushing.
Mo Perry, whom Jacobs quotes, writes that ditching social media gives us a “chance to rediscover privacy.”
What happens when you rediscover privacy?
Perry identifies one significant consequence. You get “[t]o inhabit…experience without broadcasting it or framing it for public consumption.”
Perry hopped off social media for a weekend trip, motivated by her observation that “my social media feed is full of people scolding others who have the audacity to try to salvage a shred of joy and pleasure from their lives…The communally encouraged state of being is dread and misery and rage. People who eat at restaurants, people who let their kids play on playgrounds, people who walk around the lake without a mask — all condemnable, contemptible. Selfish. How dare they?”
Who wants to be part of that kind of environment? Why continue to subject yourself to it if you don’t have to? Why continue to log in and camp out in social media environments that are stoking hatred for others while also bolstering your own feelings of self-righteousness?
Remember, Facebook, Twitter, and the rest are all algorithmically designed to show you more of what you want to see, more posts that confirm your biases, and more posts that stoke your outrage. It’s built to put the things before you that make you happy or make you mad, and we’re more drawn to the things that make us mad. Social media is well designed to make you angry.
Regarding Perry’s observation, Alan Jacobs writes:
A ray of hope, this thought. That what the scolds will achieve is to push the rest of us “to rediscover privacy.” To take photos that we share only with friends; to articulate thoughts just for friends. To leave Twitter and Facebook and Instagram to the scolds, who will then have no choice but to turn on one another.
Why not just go back to the way things were not that long ago, when we enjoyed our life in private, without social media? That doesn’t sound so bad. Wouldn’t we all be just a little better off?
We like to believe the myth that social media connects us, brings us together. The longer we go, the more that bit of ideology is exposed as patently false.
Today I made the decision to log out of Facebook. I don’t know when I’ll log back in.
From time to time, someone in my network has posted an announcement to their feed saying, “I’m out!” This may be an act of courtesy. In some cases, the intent is to display sanctimoniousness. In other cases, the tone is apologetic: “I’m sorry everyone, but I just can’t take it any longer! I know you’ve enjoyed knowing that I may or may not be monitoring your feed, as Facebook’s hidden algorithm allows or disallows, I’m not really sure, but I can’t stay any longer. Your posts about [insert topic, controversial or benign] are driving me insane.”
About three years ago now, during the season of Lent, I chose to log out of Twitter and Facebook for the season. I deleted Instagram from my phone. I initially returned to Instagram once per month. Facebook was a daily check, usually to drop my notifications to nil and to make sure I did not have messages. I still have a Twitter account. My blog posts push there. But I have no intention of returning. I think I’ve been better off without those voices in my head.
The pandemic resulted in my return to Instagram, at least for a stretch. I reinstalled the app on my phone and kept it there. I’d post videos and I made it a habit to share one image a week that I captured with my phone. I still enjoy photography. But I eventually would get sucked into the “Explore” tab, where I’d see videos that maybe caught my interest, but mostly that were not edifying. At the midpoint of the summer, or around then, I deleted Instagram from my phone.
Why am I punting Facebook?
I check it more than once per day, and mindlessly flit there via my browser.
I’m starting to scroll. I don’t think that is good for me.
I’m concerned about taking part in social media ecosystems that foster addictions in others. My presence in these digital spaces fuels the desire of others to engage in those spaces as well. I’m worried participation in these digital environments may violate the command to love my neighbor as myself.
I think social media engagement increases mental noise and prevents me from focusing, thinking freely, and expending energy on other, more productive ventures, like writing, art, and building.
I have reservations about chronicling the life of my family, and particularly my children, on services that are sucking up information about them, too. Maybe my kids don’t want my online “friends” to know certain things about them.
The written word is disembodied and can be depersonalized. If you know me, you know how I would say this sentence. You factor my character. You might even hear my voice. I’m connected to people on social media that I don’t know, or who I don’t know as well as I used to. I think this changes how I read. I don’t think I’m as charitable as I would be if these readings were complemented by in person interactions.
I think Facebook’s website has gotten slower, clunkier, less aesthetically pleasing, less user friendly, more cluttered, and isn’t as fun to use as it once was.
I think our technological overlords are not honest or transparent about the ways they monitor us, how they use our data, and what their products are designed to do.
So why don’t I deactivate and delete my account altogether?
It’s strange. First, I think there is a gospel imperative to seek connection and then maintain connections with others, even if that connection is by means of an imperfect vehicle. My Facebook Page keeps me connected to some who want to read what I write. So does my Twitter feed. I’d prefer that everyone subscribe to my site via email. But some prefer to collate information via social media networks. Some comment there.
Second, I’m trending toward a digitally hermitic life, but I’m not there yet. I’ve given serious thought to writing primarily at this website, posting photography here, making art and building other things at home which I may or may not share online. I like the web. I like having my own space. But I don’t like the social media ecosystems.
Third, like everyone, I experience the human desire for connection. There are certain high school friends, and even some teenage friends, that I’m glad I have loose ties with. When I see posts from my boyhood next door neighbors, my heart is warmed by the knowledge they are doing well, that they have found success or have family they love.
Lastly, at some level, social media does help me keep my finger on the pulse of trends–at least the trends the algorithms want me to see. That’s the trick, really. My feed runs through a value-grid, one I do not determine. Facebook does. Twitter does. Certain speech is buried. Some content is elevated. And I never know exactly why, or which, or even if it has happened.
In Daniel J. Levitin’s The Organized Mind, he writes about ways we engage with our “social world,” noting a handful of ways the internet is changing those interactions.
While he concedes that matchmaking has been around for centuries, when turning his attention to dating and relationships Levitin observes:
The biggest change in dating between 2004 and 2014 was that one-third of all marriages in America began with online relationships, compared to a fraction of that in the decade before. Half of these marriages began on dating sites, the rest via social media, chat rooms, instant messages, and the like. In 1995, it was still so rare for a marriage to have begun online that newspapers would report it, breathlessly, as something weirdly futuristic and kind of freakish.
I wonder: what are those numbers today? This 2017 study by a Stanford sociologist found that online dating is now the foremost way most U. S. couples meet. What has led to this immense shift? Levitin states, “This behavioral change isn’t so because the Internet itself or the dating options have changed; it’s because the population of Internet users has changed.”
In other words, the internet is where people live. Molly and I didn’t meet on the internet, but we became better friends because we corresponded via email and chatted on AOL.
Pros and Cons
Levitin concedes that “the Internet has helped some of us to become more social and to establish and maintain an larger number of relationships.” But that’s not all. “For others, particularly heavy Internet users who are introverted to begin with, the Internet has led them to become less socially involved, lonelier, and more likely to become depressed.”
When we’re online, we miss a lot of cues, a lot of signals that we learn to interpret and respond to as we build relationships with others. Maybe we’re adapting. But maybe not. How has this effected young people? Levitin writes, “Studies have shown a dramatic decline in empathy among college students, who apparently are far less likely to say that it is valuable to put oneself in the place of others or to try to understand their feelings. It is not just because they’re reading less literary fiction, it’s because they’re spending more time along under the illusion that they are being social.”
I’ve been debating and thinking about the effect of the web on human relationships for a while, making applications to the church. I don’t think the internet is going away, and I see a lot of positives. I wouldn’t be connecting with you right now if I hadn’t learned how to publish to the web.
But I also see the negatives. I think social media, on the whole, is toxic, a corrosive acid that eats away at the social fabric. Our dependence on the smart phone and our addiction to notifications keeps us in a constant state of shallow thinking and distraction. Face to face, in person relationships are richer. Conversations are better when phones are in another room, and not in the middle of the table or on top of the desk.
Discerning the Times
As I said, however, the internet isn’t going away, and our use of various web based tools is currently rewiring the human brain, redefining the boundaries of our relationships, and making connections possible that could not have happened in another age.
We need to understand what’s taking place right now, and offer wisdom that is applicable to our times. Awareness of ways the internet is changing us is step one.
What is it? Doomscrolling is that thing we do when we open social media, flick fingers and thumbs, caress our screen upwards and downwards, tactile, gentle, eyes fixed and looking, looking, looking upon all that is horrible, no good, and bad. Sure, we occasionally land on a cat meme or an uplifting video. But more often we look for things that upset us. We look for things that confirm our deepest suspicions that the world is unwell. We look for things that outrage us. We look for DOOM. No, not that Doom.
I have been a habitual doomscroller. I’m a little better now.
The human brain is wired to fixate on problems. The internet is a portal to all kinds of bad news. Social media aggregates everything that is wrong with the galaxy. With so much disaster at our fingertips, with so much that is hideous, loathesome, sickening and offensive, we find we can’t look away. We all love a good pile up; we compile car crash videos.
Doomscrolling drives up anxiety, we’re told. Let me simplify. Scrolling drives up anxiety. Social media drives up anxiety. News drives up anxiety. The big problem is that most of us carry around a little device in our pockets that keeps all of that anxiety right within our reach. Wait, turn that around. We put ourselves right within reach of all that anxiety. We let it grab us, usually with red little circles with numbers in them, though even if we’re not looking at our phones, we feel them calling out to us, telling us to unlock our screens, and check to see, to stay current, to scroll and scroll and endlessly scroll, world without end.
Lulu Garcia-Navarro offers a few gentle guidelines for slowing your doomscroll. She says we can: 1) set a timer, 2) stay cognizant, and 3) swap vicious for virtuous cycles.
Ten minutes a day is enough doom for anyone. Don’t you think?
When you’re scrolling your feed, remain focused on why you opened the doom portal in the first place. Don’t fall down a doomhole or chase a doom trail.
Share a photo of a beautiful sunset, not a doomrise. OK, doomer.
Or, better yet, delete all social media, or at least buffer your updates. Ditch your feed. Reach out to friends directly. Call people on the phone. Have conversations. Don’t carry your phone everywhere. Turn off notifications. Change your home screen to grayscale.
Does the prospect of abandoning social media terrify you, fill you with dread, evoke a sense of inevitable and impending doom?
Using your cell phone for longer than initially intended
Spending a great deal of time using and recovering from excess cell phone use
Inability to cut down or control cell phone use despite trying to do so
Urges or “cravings” to be on your cell phone
Using your cell phone in situations that make it physically hazardous, such as texting while driving
Continued cell phone use despite adverse physical or psychological consequences of use
Withdrawal symptoms when not using your cell phones, such as restlessness, anxiety, and anger
Feelings of panic or anxiety about losing your cell phone
Feelings of irritability, anxiety, stress, and other mood changes when unable to respond to or receive messages
Checking your cell phone obsessively for emails, calls, and texts
Using your cell phone in inappropriate places like church or the restroom
Missing out on social opportunities and face-to-face interactions so you can use your cell phone
Loss of interest in favorite or long-held hobbies and activities
Frequent and constant checking of a phone within very brief periods of time
Using your cell phone frequently to achieve satisfaction and relaxation, or to counteract negative moods
Thinking you may have heard your cell phone ring or felt it vibrate when it hasn’t
I carry my phone everywhere, check it too often, use it to cope with boredom, and fall down too many rabbit holes. It’s my camera, my radio, my encyclopedia, my news source, and my direct line to friends (and strangers).
I was reading John Mark Comer’s book The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry and he mentioned in passing that setting your phone to grayscale could help you break the addictive habit of checking it impulsively, so I’ve given it a run. This Wired article tells you how to do it.
I also deleted Instagram from my phone after installing it shortly after the start of the pandemic, and I’ve kept to my rule of having no more than one screen with which to interact (no swiping). My main application use is for listening to podcasts, tracking nutrition, staying disciplined with fasting, and for phone and text. I haven’t had an email app on my phone in years. I keep notifications off. That decision made me a happier person. Most of the time my phone is in “do not disturb” mode.
So much of life is being present, aware, and focused. Cell phones are energy-takers. Social media applications are designed to consume more and more of your time. And most of what I can do on a phone I can do on my browser, at a computer, when I sit down to work.
Thus far, the change is working. But I still have more paring down to do. The goal is a simpler life. Less stress. More room for the expansiveness of thought, creativity, and soul.