Until I wrote openly about Twitter addiction and completely stepped away from the platform, I didn’t realise the extent of what it was doing to my mental health. At the time I knew it was a problem, but while I was there still using the platform, I didn’t realise how much stress it was causing and how that was spilling over into other areas of my life. Since stepping away there has been a big difference. That’s not to say that I am living in a utopia, but living away from an audience and sharing all of my deepest struggles is soothing. I don’t wake in the night right now feeling dread surrounding what I’ve said online. It’s calming to wake with a blank slate each day, eased from the pressure of digital life.
There is a lot of pushback towards speaking about social media and other behavioural addictions relating to the online world. I think that a huge part of the problem is that many of us don’t want to admit we have a problem, perhaps through fear of being mocked, invalidated or otherwise. When you admit to having a problem with compulsion it’s perceived as a sign of weakness or self-indulgence. Rarely do we ever consider the wider, systematic causes of these problems, nor the reasons people have for defending the likes of Twitter and other platforms. Where there are people who have carved careers out of the online world, or situated within one of the many ivory institutions that hold the authoritative voice on these spaces, it’s little wonder that we live in a culture of silence around this issue. So it is this that is the problem. If the discourse remains punitive against individuals, and research conducted around digital addiction is situated in a context of silence and denial, then it is feasible to see why we don’t acknowledge any of the problematic areas of social media and what it does to us.
As some may know, I write a lot about the attention economy. It is a specific area of interest for me because having experienced the profound negative effects it has had on my own life, I can see how this affects others too. I can see how it consumes us, how we become different people, at times losing ourselves and sharing every little thing about ourselves to please algorithms and audiences. The question raised from this is, who or what can we really trust in a world that fixates us solely on being seen and raising our own status? I wrote an article earlier this year about attention being survival, now I am not so sure whether that is the case. Do we truly need attention to survive if that attention is potentially harming us and leading us to do and say things that only make us more vulnerable? The attention economy is a side effect of something bigger though, it’s only part of a world where user-generated content is the pathway to profit.
And it isn’t just constrained to the addictions and compulsions that some of us have as a result of these platforms. It’s what they turn us into, collectively. Only this week, as a lost submarine vessel takes headlines around the world with five people held captive, within not more than a few hours another garish meme appears and goes viral, making parallels to Titanic the film, and mocking the situation of these people and their families. A few years ago, such type of content might have appeared in the wake and aftermath of such an event, but now it’s a rapid race not only to find these people beneath grave circumstances, but also a digital race for virality. At the time of writing this article, these people are not yet found, but the memes trivialising their circumstances and what could very likely end in lives lost have been created and shared within minutes. These very memes are the very metaphor for where we are today. A travesty happens in the world, yet online where attention and visibility is everything it’s simply another performance prop, another prompt for content, another event to make a joke out of. Because it is this content that goes viral.
We are breeding a culture that disinhibits any form of collectivism and community, because on platforms such as Twitter the only community to be found is that which is focused on individual gain, status and piggybacking off others who are already prominent. It may appear a dismal outlook, yet it is an important perspective to have to be able to understand why social media platforms are exploiting us and turning us into people who laugh at travesties, or use world events to do little other than say something in a performative quest for attention. It’s neoliberal capitalism at its loudest, but no one is talking about it. Perhaps because we’ve reached a point where too many of us have become dependent on it. Its greatest protection is its culture of silence, denial and disinhibition.
The solutions to these problems are actually clearer than we might expect. At an individual level, we first need to acknowledge this world we are a part of, and not blame ourselves by recognising that social media is a profit-based endeavour that shapes who we are. It is not realistic to say that we should all stop using social media, but greater awareness of its harms is needed. Awareness that goes beyond the usual “safe base” harms associated with social media such as trolling, cyberbullying, or even simplistic attributions such as “it’s all Elon Musk”. Because there are other deeper problems also such as those I have raised above. If we can do that, we might begin to start carving out a more promising outlook for a digital world that helps us to feel better about ourselves. One that allows for discussion beyond theatrics and emphasis on followers.
We can all insulate ourselves by switching off or telling ourselves that these things are not about us, I know this well. But social media platforms are all about us because as users of these spaces, every time we create and share content we are working for attention, giving ourselves up to a world that we feel that we cannot change. Yet the truth is that it can be changed, starting with us changing how we use social media. By giving it less content, stepping back from the unhealthy attention-orientated behaviours that it promotes and starting to focus more on what it is actually doing to us – the anxiety, the worry over engagement being lower than usual, the questioning over something you may have shared. It’s all of these small things that are symptoms of who we are as digital citizens in a world that doesn’t work for us. We are the ones who work tirelessly for it to continue existing in this sorry state. Once we begin to recognise this and challenge it, maybe this will be the start of the recovery from our collective disinhibition and denial of the problems it causes.
An earlier version of this article was published on Aunty Social World.
Laura Barrett is an MSc student with a research specialism in cyberpsychology and online communities.