Social Media: The Age of Distraction5 March 2021
“TV’s ‘real’ agenda is to be ‘liked,’ because if you like what you’re seeing, you’ll stay tuned. TV is completely unabashed about this; it’s its sole raison.”
The American author and cultural critic David Foster Wallace uttered these words in the early ’90s. Wallace was a staunch critic of the materialism of Western culture. He believed that Western culture thought pain was an evil in itself and that pleasure was the ultimate purpose of the individual.
In Wallace’s eyes, unlike in cultures where pain is a symptom of a genuine problem, the Western psyche seems to compulsively view pain itself as the problem. To Wallace, television is a mere extension of the cultural drive to anaesthetise oneself—watching sentimental and substance-less television is like taking Panadol for a toothache instead of dealing with the decaying tooth. Popular television aims to make money by appealing to as many people as possible, aiming towards spectacle instead of actual insight or personal value.
According to Wallace, the West was gradually becoming an economy that elevated the ideal of the individualistic consumer: one who gratified their urges when they wanted, who aimed to accumulate commercial goods and achieve material prosperity. Of course, this model of behaviour is excellent for stimulating the economy and increasing production. However, it neglects that side of the human spirit that yearns for quiet, solitude, and self-reflection. The slow, silent death of this side of the human spirit leads to neurosis and an ever-increasing psychological uneasiness that needs to be quelled by consumption or distraction.
Due to his unfortunate death in 2008, Wallace is not alive today to observe how the proliferation of smartphones and the internet has not only increased this phenomenon tenfold but globalised it. If mindless television reflects the West’s hedonistic philosophy, then social media and smartphones are simply more invasive, efficient tools to program this philosophy into citizens. Sites like Instagram, Facebook, and Reddit are masterfully designed to maximise the time users spend on their platforms while earning revenue from advertising. They are engineered to entice the user as much as possible by presenting them with intermittently rewarding stimuli throughout the day. Renowned behaviouralist B.F. Skinner demonstrated that if rats only sometimes received rewards for actions instead of always receiving them, the behaviour was far more difficult to discontinue even if rewards stopped completely.
The human brain is not engineered to receive hyper-stimulating information sporadically throughout the day (Christakis et al., 2018). The slot machine is a useful analogy. Playing on a slot machine for half an hour carries little risk. However, carrying a slot machine in your pocket and pulling on it twenty times throughout the day is a completely different behavioural pattern. Similar to pulling on a slot machine, intermittently checking social media throughout the day can worsen mental health issues, and reduce attentional capacities, slow learning and information acquisition.
Apart from the well-documented neurological harms, what other effects on our lives may smartphones have? The average smartphone user spends roughly 140 minutes on social media per day. Across our lifetimes this will equate to over five years spent staring at social media. As we move into old age, we may regret not having accomplished more or left a greater impact; 40 years down the line, smartphone addicts may rub their eyes and wonder where all the time went.
However, if we know that we suffer from problematic smartphone use, we can take measures to reduce it in our daily lives. I must admit that I too have suffered from digital addiction, mostly in the form of video games and YouTube. Like any addiction, I have personally found that small changes in habits can create sustainable improvements to promote healthy use of technology.
First and foremost is finding enjoyable activities or hobbies that don’t involve screens. For myself, these are either hanging out with friends, or sports such as bouldering or boxing. These activities force me to get out of the house and away from screens.
The second piece of advice is to schedule more time in which one cannot browse social media or the internet. Before studying, I write down the period in which I will study and force myself to set aside all distractions for that time. I no longer take my phone into the bathroom or to the gym, or when I walk my dog. I also aim to delay screen usage for at least half an hour after I wake up—my mornings usually begin with a coffee on my veranda, staring into space. Spending time “doing nothing” provides me with a crucial mental reset and the opportunity to introspect and think about problems.
The ability to focus is like a muscle; it can be trained and improved or neglected and atrophied. Breaking free from digital addiction is not easy, but if we make gradual changes every day, it is achievable. And combatting this addiction is better than the alternative of a wasted, distracted life. Instead of spending hours a day staring at glass screens, we can direct this time towards activities that reward and enrich us, and create a life we can be proud of.