I remember the first time I went viral—it was junior year of high school. The tweet was a simple commentary on my deteriorating organization skills. The caption read: “me back to school freshman year vs now” and showed an old picture of my neatly labeled freshman binder set compared to a folder, pencil, and pretzels. My tweet took off, and was quickly stolen by the meme accounts that once populated Twitter, which pushed the meme further throughout the web. A few weeks later, my Facebook friends spotted my name from the labeled binders in the meme as it finally made its way to that platform. It was an exhilarating experience that gave me the first taste of what my relationship with social media would eventually look like.
Most of us are quite literally addicted to social media. This addiction manifests in the same way as any other addiction, controlling our moods, creating withdrawals, shaping our mental health. For people my age, we were the trial generation for this new invention. When I got my first taste of virality, I could not stop checking my notifications. Favorite after favorite, retweet after retweet, quote after quote. I personally did not even find that tweet to be my funniest, but I was thoroughly entertained by the validation and attention I was receiving. I experienced on a larger scale the feeling we all get when someone likes or comments on our posts. We may feel heard, proud of our words or validated by strangers who relate to us. There are so many drivers to the psychological forces of social media, but most center around being perceived by others in a positive light.
Our virtual replications of social validation have shaped our minds in ways we are still coming to understand. While we wait for the academic papers to explain why our mental health is in the gutter after spending a quarter of our lives staring at a screen, I can begin to reflect on the toll this toxic relationship has taken on me. My peers and I grew up mainly with Instagram as our platform of existence. Other social media was popular for jokes and chatting, but if you wanted to ~know~ who someone was, you’d go immediately there. Instagram felt relatively intimate, but also public enough to feel important. If I wanted people to catch a curated glimpse into my life, I would post there. Then I could receive a quantification of how many people enjoyed that aspect of my life, in the currency of likes. It was at that point of my life I felt a pressure or urge to document more activities. That evolved into seeking out activities purely for the sake of documentation, rather than the experience.
When you have access to sharing your life with strangers, it builds a reliance on their imaginary perception. My virtual existence grew and evolved in tandem with my physical existence, both providing the social networks that gave me community. I was able to connect to a queer community through Tumblr, discuss TV shows in real-time with strangers on Twitter and share pictures of my life with tangential friends on Instagram. These networks felt like tools that increased my horizons, instead of limiting my life. I would spend reasonable amounts of time on them, much less than my friends, and most of my interactions were snapchatting or video calling my friends. But as I grew older, these networks grew different.
As the popular Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma discusses, the main goal of social media from the company’s side is to keep users on the app for as long as possible. Instagram and Twitter began to use algorithms for their feeds and adding more explore options, vastly increasing the content we were exposed to. The environment that was once limited to communicating with our real-life friends opened up more to a larger world. I began to feel perceived by the “public” more so than my followers. And with all the changes that were made, social media continued to become more and more addictive. Within myself, I noticed this addiction came with mood shifts. One tweet or thread could make me cry laughing, or enraged with anger. I felt the burden of intense social interactions without the comfort of knowing these people personally. It’s isolating, intimidating and distracting from my physical life.
When this pandemic started, we lost most of our physical lives. The constant human exposure we felt on campus as college students was replaced by Zoom meetings and Facetimes. The reliance I had on social media became my endless existence. It became my only perception of the world, my only avenue into the consortium of people that comprise the “public.” And I felt empty. I tend to blame this current mental health crisis on the social isolation we experience, but maybe the replacement we have found is more damaging than the absence itself. A virtual existence with the world feels lonelier than a physical existence with a few.
About a month ago I deleted the Twitter app off my phone (not the account, I check back in occasionally) after using it almost daily for the past 5 years or so. My head is quieter now, and I view myself differently—in that I view myself less. It’s a small change, but I noticed large decreases in my anxiety and improvements in my mood. I made time to consume information in other mediums—podcasts, books, zines—that let human thoughts breathe naturally. I’ve set time limits on my other apps, and will hopefully phase them out of my life eventually. The grasp social media took on my life was a slow, lengthy process that cannot be removed instantaneously—but through small steps, I can change my habits.
I can’t fully know the consequences that my lengthy relationship with social media has had on my psychological development, but I know it’s changed the way I view my existence in the context of this world. Sometimes it can function as a tool for communication, but often it is a burden as tiring as upkeeping our physical persona. Maybe after a break, I will have the energy to present myself constantly to the world, and to receive the entirety of the world in my fingertips. But for now, I’ll enjoy the peace.
Nathan Heffernen is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.
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