Even as I try to piece together this sentence, I can feel my focus fall prey to the magnetic pull of social media.
I could just refresh my Instagram feed once more and microdose on the dopamine of likes or repeatedly cringe-watch 30-second Reels, I find myself thinking. Or, I could go on Twitter and scroll through dark humour memes or a rant that accurately captures the darker reality. Or I could head to Facebook to find out which of my friends has a pandemic birthday coming up, or lust after luxurious apartments I can’t afford on one of those flats-and-flatmates groups. My fingers are itching to hold my phone, and my thumbs are ready to scroll. After eyeing the object of my desire from a distance for a few seconds, I give in.
And just like that, a task that shouldn’t have taken me long to do is put off for another minute, hour, day.
I didn’t always start out so obsessed with social media. Sure, I liked my daily dose of doomscrolling, and I definitely didn’t fail to post about my gluten-free gluttony.
Now, repeatedly refreshing my social media feed is my 2020 version of opening the refrigerator every ten minutes, just to see if a snac(k) has miraculously materialised.
As Instagram Lives substituted real life, it dawned on me a few months ago that I could no longer wake up without unlocking my phone and diving headfirst into the vortex of social media.
Hitting snooze on my morning alarms was succeeded with double tapping on Instagram posts. My breakfast reading routine was replaced with a Twitter feed. Even getting a good night’s rest wasn’t nearly as important as scrolling through Reddit threads to check which bird was the newest government spy drone.
But at the same time, staying active on social media saved me from some of my saddest, listless and most demotivated days. Social media slid in as a substitute for my social life, as memes became a coping mechanism, and “Bored in the house” videos became my brain’s bop. The relentless news updates kept me abreast of which governments mishandled the public health crises, all while giving me a platform to call them out. In fact, for almost the entire year, especially for those of us who didn’t have the means or health to physically protest, social media became our outlet, allowing us to express our outrage, and in some cases, even effecting change.
Even as I cut myself off from the world, social media buzzed with the blissful sound of birds, and equally cacophonous Gen Z content creators. Even as my Zoom fatigue made interactions on video calls seem unbearable, I still knew exactly what everyone was up to via AR-filtered selfies and the random relatable shitposts they shared on their feeds. From banana bread recipes to people spamming my feed with their Maldives footage, for me social media wasn’t just a place where everyone lived their best lives. It was also a reminder that the outside world existed, and maybe things weren’t at their worst all the time. So what if I spent an hour scrolling through my Instagram Stories archive? It was the memories I was addicted to, not the app.
So even though those around me labelled my texting thumb a sign of obsessive behaviour, was it actually the only thing keeping me sane? Was my addiction a coping mechanism or was that just a lie I was telling myself, like a substance abuser might do?
A recent study conducted by psychiatry students and roping in de-addiction experts pointed out that given the uncertainty and anxiety that have surrounded these unprecedented times, the context of overusing social media assumes far more importance than ever before. It uses the global context to conclude that it is imperative to differentiate between “addictive behaviour” and someone who is “extremely involved”, given the circumstances.
Similarly, a 2019 research paper on the psychology and dynamics behind social media use found that while problematic use of social media can be a dysfunctional way to cope with an overwhelming situation, using it in a healthy way can help a person feel less stressed and contribute to more positive mental well-being. In fact, research has also found that social media is also a form of accessible therapy for many, especially for those who can’t afford the exorbitant costs attached to professional therapy, by allowing people to express their problems and find their communities in a digital safe space.
“Many like to equate social media addiction with people wanting validation through likes or what they post. But they forget that social media addiction can also be about constantly checking your phone every few minutes for new updates,” Hvovi Bhagwagar, a Mumbai-based psychologist tells VICE. Bhagwagar agrees that given the meteoric rise in our screen times in 2020, it’s safe to assume that social media has emerged as a publicly acknowledged coping mechanism, one that has helped people feel hopeful and manage their massive stress. However, she adds, it probably isn’t the most effective way to deal with pandemic panic. “Spending a lot of time on social media is not healthy because it is the best version of a person’s life rather than a realistic one. It hands out hope, but the virtual world is not proof of what’s out there.”
Bhagwagar says that while social media has helped us get through the uncertainty thrust upon us in the early months of lockdown, it has now contributed to increased feelings of FOMO-fuelled anxiety. “I’ve seen cases, especially with young people who live at home, feeling trapped and insecure after seeing people go out on social media. This pushes them to do risky things like sneak out, and compromises the transparency of their interactions,” she stressed. While there is not enough evidence about the long-term effects of social media on mental health, it’s well-documented that overdosing on it can lead to a lack of concentration, feelings of irritability, and a hit on performance and productivity.
However, it’s not all gloom and doom. According to Bhagwagar, the increased usage of social media can also help us navigate to a healthier relationship with it. “Unlike drug or alcohol addictions, social media doesn’t require complete withdrawal,” she explained. “There’s a definite need to cut down on usage time, even if through an app, but the best way to treat this addiction is to find ways to channel it in a productive or healthy way. If you can’t find something you’re passionate about to divert your mind, use the time you spend on social media to create stimulating content that can help you grow or help you financially by marketing products or brands. With social media, you can turn your addiction into an advantage.”
Or, like me, you can choose to channel your addiction into an article, and hope that it helps the people who find it on their social media feeds.