Toxic, and They Know It

Photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash

“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.”

For the past three years, Facebook has been conducting studies into how its photo-sharing app affects its millions of young users. Repeatedly, the company’s researchers found that Instagram is harmful for a sizable percentage of them, most notably teenage girls.

“We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” said one slide from 2019, summarizing research about teen girls who experience the issues.

“Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” said another slide. “This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”

Among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of British users and 6% of American users traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram, one presentation showed.

Georgia Wells, Jeff Horwitz, and Deepa Seetharaman, The Wall Street Journal, “Facebook Knows Instagram is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show

This confirms what we already knew intuitively and experientially.

The question then, is, “What will we do about it?”

If you Mute a Person’s Online Presence Think About These Things

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 Week on 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.

Jacobs answers:

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).

What Would It Take For Me to Quit Social Media Forever?

An algorithm will probably bury this post. You should share it everywhere! But you are under no obligation. Never. Obligations are nowhere to be found among the terms and conditions of this website.

Alan Jacobs writes:

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?

I do.

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?

Sure would.

Another world is possible. Ditch social media. Build another network. Your own.

The Things You Do In Private, Like Enjoying Your Life

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

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.

Punting Facebook…For Now

Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash

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 haven’t watched The Social Dilemma, but I’ve heard enough to make me want to run from social media.

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.

I’m only left to wonder.

For now, I’m out.

The Internet’s Effect on Real-World Relationships

Image by amrothman from Pixabay

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.

p. 130

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.

Doomscrollers

Photo by ROBIN WORRALL on Unsplash

Doomscrolling. Now that term does a lot of work.

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?

Doom to the left of you, doom to the right. Here I am, stuck in the middle with doom.

The Prodigal Drone

Here is a fun story. Several weeks ago we took our family drone for a flight in the front yard. I messed the whole thing up, and thought J’s Christmas gift was gone forever. I shared this on Nextdoor.

Drone Story

I’m happy to report that our drone found its way home. A neighbor found it in his backyard, posted about it on Nextdoor, and another neighbor who had seen my post connected the two of us. It took about three weeks. But we were reunited.

And it felt so good.

How I Limit Social Media, and Why

Social media has undeniably changed the way we relate to the world. Online, we each manage our “personal brand.” News networks feature the President’s tweets prominently on their chyrons. Twitter and Facebook have been scrutinized for their role in public debate, particularly in how they can effect our political discourse. And there is evidence that too much time on social media can have a negative impact on mental health.

I was an early adopter of the major social media platforms. I signed up for Facebook with my college email address, my first Twitter updates were sincerely about what I was doing (things like “taking a walk” or “eating grapes”), and I can remember Instagram before the ads, videos, and the “discover” feature. I signed up for Snapchat when my students began using it. I made some cool videos using the face filters. At least I thought they were cool.

But in more recent years I’ve sought ways to limit my social media usage. Why? Mainly because of what I’ve observed about social media’s effect on me. I’ll admit I’ve wanted to be “online famous” for my photography or writing, but thank God that never happened. I’ve gotten caught in stupid online arguments and I’ve allowed the thoughts and opinions of strangers on the internet to darken my mood. I’ve been jealous of what other people show online, whether it be their possessions or their perfectly stylized life. I’ve sought confirmation of my own biases and nurtured negative views of “those people” over there, who are often the very people (neighbors, enemies) whom I believe I am called to love in Jesus Christ.

Online engagement is spiritually formative. When social media is a habit, it becomes part of the ongoing, continuous process in which we are becoming who we will be forever. And while I’ve done my best to make social media work for me, to tailor it toward life-giving and positive ends, I’ve found there are limits to the various platforms. Each, in its own way, can yield some good, but there are negative side effects that come with daily use.

I started by deleting all social media applications from my phone, and keeping all but one application (Twitter) off of my tablet. That keeps my usage way down.

I only access Facebook on my web browser, and I try to check it only once a day, and to never scroll. I don’t want to be a voyeur, though there is an element of voyeurism in all social media. It’s like one great big never ending episode of “The Real World.” When I do access Facebook, I only peek at notifications and make sure I don’t have any new messages. I sometimes fail in the “once a day” rule, and I still think once a day is too much for me. I also fail, at times, to remain at the top of the feed. I do not like what Facebook has become, but I maintain a presence there because of the friends and family members who have connected with me on the service, especially those I’ve befriended through Christian fellowship.

Twitter is, by far, my favorite social media service. It’s how I track trends and news. But I’m not a fan of the timeline algorithm, and I sometimes get annoyed when political takes trend. I love it when I’m watching a live sporting event.

I limit updates to Instagram to one day a week. I install the application on my phone on Wednesdays, post my image for the week, and then delete the application. I enjoy photography and I have friends who actively use the service, and see the images and words I share as a way to encourage and offer a little slice of life to others.

I left Snapchat for good when my friend Oliver ditched the service. Technically I still have an account, but I haven’t logged in for over one year.

My rules are in no ways laws, and I’m constantly tweaking how I use each service. There is a part of me that would like to simply leave social media altogether, as Jaron Lanier suggests in Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. But I can’t bring myself to do it. For one, I’m a writer, and social media is one means of connecting with readers. But also, there is the gravitational pull of social connections. Even though I’m Facebook friends with people I haven’t spoken to in years, I value maintaining the thread, keeping open a channel in the event that if there is a need to communicate, I can.

I also have privacy concerns about online use, or how we freely give mega-corporations information about our lives, with little idea of how that information could be used to harm or manipulate us. That’s a concern of mine, not only for me, but for my family, whom I sometimes share pictures of or stories about. Building a scrapbook, or keeping a journal, may actually be the safer and wiser path.

These days I’ve found that I’m a little more present, a little happier, and a little less anxious. I get most of my news from my local paper, the Waco Tribune-Herald. I call my mom about once a week. I spend time with a small group of friends. And when I attend a sporting event or a concert, I watch, or listen, and try to take it all in. To see it with my own eyes, hear it with my own ears, and to treasure what is happening in the moment.

I’m OK with the transient nature of the experience. I don’t have to capture it. I can just be part of it. I don’t need to tell others what I’m up to. I don’t have to always know what other people are thinking. I don’t need to try and improve my status by sharing my latest take, or my most recent witticism.

I save that stuff for the people I’m with.