I have decided to uninstall all the social media apps from my phone. I will retain Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter accounts, changing the passwords to make sure they are only accessible from my computer, where I will look at them less. I am deleting my WhatsApp account. If anyone asks me in future to join something requiring social media I will politely decline, referring them to this article. I am sorry if this causes inconvenience to any friends or groups I am involved in, but if you read on I hope you will appreciate why.
A couple of days ago I watched the film The Social Dilemma, which interviews people from Silicon Valley who helped to create social media and are now concerned about the monster they have unleashed. I already knew the crux of their message – how the business model relies on creating addictive behaviour, to maximise the time people spend on each competing platform. I was also aware of the mental health consequences of social media, particularly where it is used on phones that are always to hand. My wife, who works in adolescent mental health, had told me about the consequences for adolescents, which are often far more serious.
Like many films of its kind, it overstates the cause-and-effect evidence in some places (the statement about social media reducing driving amongst young adults, I know is exaggerated because we did some research on this). Social media is not the only cause of fake news, conspiracy theories or political polarisation. That said, the main arguments and conclusions are supported by solid evidence. Let’s face it, we all know that we are being manipulated in ways that are bad for us – and wider society. I knew all this before I reluctantly succumbed to buying a smart phone three or four years ago. I told myself that I would never use one for social media, so how did I get sucked in?
Activism was the main cause. Extinction Rebellion, being such a diverse movement, uses a bewildering array of communication methods. Since I joined two years ago I have used seven different social media or messaging platforms and signed in and out of many email lists. Within each one of these platforms there are often multiple channels generating a combined volume which no-one could possibly read, if they work and want a life. Two of these channels relate to the campaign against Bristol Airport Expansion. These groups are doing fantastic work, which I want to support, but I realised that trying to keep up with those channels, as well as everything else, was making me feel guilty that I wasn’t doing more. Guilt and fear of being left out are vital elements of the business model pushing us to accept our own manipulation.
Since the start of the pandemic I (like many others) have started using the ‘social’ part of social media much more. I had already noted the early signs of addiction: constant checking, irritation when somebody (usually my wife) was interrupting me doing something on the phone, impulsive urges to check things or to photograph and post online when cycling or walking in wild places. I already knew about the dopamine effect of social media; I started to wonder whether this was reducing my concentration and contributing to the boredom and ‘flatness’ I had been feeling since the first lockdown.
I have been out a couple of times without the phone. To begin with I found myself reaching for it until I got used to the fact that it wasn’t there. On the second day I began to appreciate the natural world a bit more like I used to.
But here’s the problem. I bought a smart phone for practical reasons like public transport information, weather and local facilities. If you like walking in remote areas without a car, all of this is extremely useful. So it possible to retain the practical advantages of a phone without the addictive/manipulative elements? I don’t know how well this strategy will work, but it has to be worth a try. I had Facebook and LinkedIn accounts for many years before I bought a smart phone. They can also be useful but I know that I won’t check them very often. If you want to contact me, please email, text or call.