Things used to be simpler. Gone are the days when people’s media consumption was predominantly comprised of leisurely reading the Sunday paper and tuning in to the local evening news channel. Our media diets have grown substantially, both in quantity and complexity, because there are now so many more offerings than there used to be, made possible by significant technological progress. And while there are plenty of “health nuts” these days who write listicles and film vlogs about superfoods, few of us are thinking about the impact of our media consumption on our health, despite its similar effect on our lives.
In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a book on the healthy consumption of food, author Michael Pollan discusses how, as omnivores, we have a preponderance of choice when it comes to what we eat. Despite being able to eat as much of whatever we’d like, his conclusion is a simple one: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Millennials now face a similar dilemma, as we have more options than ever in which media and technologies we can consume. Thankfully, it can be solved through a similarly simple and temperate approach.
For every year since today’s university students have been in middle school, a new social media app has come to prominence, some with serious staying power that have launched the celebrity careers of many ordinary people (RIP Vine). Middle schoolers today are hooked on screens at a younger age than millennials were, and have to navigate through all the platforms all at once, instead of year by year.
Take the iPhone, which came out in 2007 and revolutionized the way we use the Internet. Suddenly, it wasn’t just omniscient, it was omnipresent as well. In 2009, Apple launched their iconic “there’s an app for that” campaign. It came out in the age of the iPhone 3G, when there wAre only 500 apps available; as of July 2017, there are approximately 2.2 million apps. Today, apps are equipped with push notifications, begging you to engage and constantly demanding your attention. To some, this is a complete overreach; to others, being constantly plugged into the world is synonymous with having endless opportunities to engage with anyone, anywhere, at any time. Too bad the internet is full of trolls.
Middle schoolers today are hooked on screens at a younger age than millennials were, and have to navigate through all the platforms all at once, instead of year by year.
Additionally, social media companies such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat are leveraging our social instincts to become more ingrained in our daily life. We sign up because our friends do and don’t think too much about the costs—well, because all of this is “free.” But we are paying for these services, just not through monetary fees. Now, more than ever, it’s imperative that we start doing a better job of recognizing these costs.
Firstly, there is the fact that we are paying with our data, which is to the digital age what fossil fuels were to the industrial age. Thus far, companies have been extremely successful in convincing consumers to give up their privacy for fairly little. To industry giants like Google and Facebook, referring to people as customers is less accurate than calling them products. This oversight, on the part of the consumer, allows a disproportionate amount of value to be captured by the companies offering these goods and services.
Secondly, there are the less direct costs: those that affect our general wellbeing. A first memory of social media, for those of us that lived through the time of online chatrooms, is the notion of the person on the other side of the screen easily being a creepy old man. Now there is a whole show on MTV dedicated to the phenomena of “catfishing.” However, the current safety discourse surrounding social media has less to do with others, and more about how one is affected by these apps.
“The dopamine released every time someone ‘likes’ a photo of you is a type of intoxicant, plain and simple.
Social media has us constantly criticizing others while being criticized. The numerical value assigned to these superficial judgments makes us a very anxious generation, no more narcissistic than any prior cohort. Social media is a #filtered highlight reel of everyone’s life that is always accessible, even in our own lowest moments. It is only natural to compare ourselves to others—we interpret the world through a framework of who and what is around us. We can see what others are doing and whether we’re being excluded. Although it is nothing new, exclusion via social media has a more visceral effect because it is seen rather than heard, and seen by many, at that.
Too often, we get caught up in our technological “manifest destiny,” forever increasing our ability to do various things, to the point where we forget to question whether doing so is making us better off. Sure, there is undoubtedly a great amount of instant gratification created by these devices and websites. The dopamine released every time someone “likes” a photo of you is a type of intoxicant, plain and simple. And guess what? Humans love intoxicants. But, as is becoming ever more apparent, the long term effects of this diet are less than pleasurable.
It takes no more than three seconds to delete an app. But experiencing “fear of missing out” (FOMO) on a generational and cultural level, while friends are engaged online? Ludacris. How else are we supposed to keep up with the Kardashians? Also, why do so many of us care? In this age of meme culture, trends come and go like SSMU scandals; memes are what we try most to keep up with. This leads to binge-watching Stranger Things, getting chided by younger siblings for a stale reference, or having symptoms of a mental illness being thrown back at us as if the creator was in our heads. These things are unifying, yes, but they too are overwhelming.
Mindfulness in what one consumes has always been a good idea. People have been choosing good books over bad for as long as we’ve been reading. It is only until recently that the forcefulness with which media is presented to us has grown by several orders of magnitude. Starting with the widespread use of the internet, the level of access we have granted to our personal lives has continuously grown. No one can say for certain how much of our time is spent staring at a screen—we would be more than a little nervous to find out. And even when we’re not staring at a screen, all it takes is a buzz or a ring to get us to do so. Checking one’s phone is so reflexive for most people, you’ll see everyone in a room check theirs when one buzzes.
This level of consumption and engagement is not sustainable. Our generation is already showing the signs of fatigue as mental health issues become more prevalent, and the problem will likely only worsen for the coming generations. Disentangling ourselves from this web of frivolous technology is not a simple task. Phones are important communication devices, social media can be helpful for staying in touch with friends, and the authors of this piece write primarily for the internet. But if we begin to think critically about how we use these tools, we can separate the good from the bad, and hopefully begin using them to their full potential.