Have you noticed how Google seems to read our minds?
We search for something on the web and suddenly we start seeing similar things on various social media platforms. All our google searches, voice searches, location changes, all are tracked and stored by Google and we start looking at suggestions and advertisements that seem to be customised for us. Thus, it wouldn’t be incorrect to say that every click made on the internet is recorded somewhere!
After watching Social Dilemma on Netflix, I have realised that this is not a mere speculation that social media is more about psychology than technology. Dubbed as the docudrama of the year in 2020, it explores the perilous human impact of social media, with tech experts from the Silicon Valley sounding the alarm on their own creations.
As quoted in the film, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Exactly what image you stop and look at, for how long you look at it, all this is being tracked. It is a complex juxtaposition of ‘magic’ and manipulation in the world of social media apps, posts, likes, comments, tagged photos, suggestions, tweets, retweets, stories, reels and the impulse to scroll up and down through all these.
After watching the film, I realised that I have been constantly ‘manipulated’ by social media to do things that I might not have usually done. We are actually watching what they want us to watch. We are all aware about this to an extent and are still glued to our devices.
Now, if I look back, I don’t even know when it all began. I don’t know if it was out of curiosity, fear of missing out or that dopamine release. All I know now is that on most days, last thing that I do before I sleep is scrolling through WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram and a repeat of the same ritual when I wake up in the morning.
It is not just me but a whooping 3.6 billion people were using social media across the world in 2020 and it is projected to increase to almost 4.41 billion in 2025. Since its inception in 1996, social media has managed to infiltrate half of the 7.7 billion people in the world.
The average time spent on social media per day is 2 hours 24 minutes globally for users aged 16 to 64 on any device. The total of 144 minutes is a 1.4% increase from 142 minutes the previous year, and up 38% in the past 5 years.
According to Keipo’s analysis, the country with the most significant social media growth in 2019-2020 was India, with 130 million new users joining platforms – equivalent to 9.6% of their total population.
Now, what does these statistics indicate? I would say that the indication is either very disturbing or extremely interesting, depending on differing views. Technological advancement and digital inclusion are undoubtedly tool of advancement and there is no doubt about it. But how much is too much?
From the Baby Boomers to Millennials, the transition of technological development was more or less smooth. Baby Boomers or those born between 1945 to 1965 are classified as digital immigrants and they didn’t have a huge impact of technology in their lives. They lived mostly with radio, television and landline telephones. Life was comparatively simpler.
Then came the Millennials, the children of Baby Boomers and those born between 1979 and early 2000’s. They are also known as the digital natives, because in their time, the technological evolution had reached an establishment.
However, Generation Z is the first to be born into a time when that technology already existed and for them it is all permeating. They are not even aware of a life that could exist without it.
As a 80s child, I have witnessed the gradual change from the B&W TV to the LED TV, the VCR to the DVD player, the Walkman to the iPod, desktop to the laptop, from the wired landline phone to the mobile phone, handwritten letters to the typed chats and many other gradual technological advancements.
In the 90s, we saw that technology was now growing rapidly and it began to connect people around the globe. It was a welcome change that started to make our lives smarter and easier.
I remember the times when we used Yahoo Messenger to connect with friends Yahoo Messenger. Only when you switched on your computer and connected to internet, you could access it. Therefore, if you wanted to speak to your friends, you had to first coordinate the time both of you would come online and so the conversations happened.
Then there were those chat rooms, where there were chats between random people from all over the world. People made new friends on the chat rooms, exchanged email IDs. It was a new thing that people were exploring and it was interesting.
I think it was somewhere between 2000-2005, the popular social media sites began to appear and the world has never been the same again. Though the first true social media site SixDegrees.com was created way back in 1997, the arrival of Friendster in 2002 and MySpace in 2003 stirred up the social media scene. But I don’t remember these sites being a part of the daily lives at that point of time. Until here, social media was little more than a budding trend.
With the launch of Orkut and Facebook in 2004, social media was at an early stage. I remember logging on to Facebook around this time but it was just for the heck of it. Twitter and LinkedIn both existed but it was just not an intrinsic part of our lives.
Fast forward to 2021 and Facebook is now the leading social network with people with 2.60 billion of the 3.81 billion social media users worldwide. YouTube follows this with 2 billion, then WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram, all having 1 billion or more users. Today, social media is not just an integral part of our lives but also one of the most effective marketing tools for businesses.
My 9-year-old just is amazed how we lived a life without cell phones and this shows the huge transition that has come through. This change is permanent in the generations to come, only with more advanced technological additions.
As someone who is perpetually connected on social media for nearly every hour awake, both personally and professionally, it makes me wonder about the usage of social media and hence, this deep dive into its varied aspects.
For almost everything, there is the good and the bad, and these is something in between. But the problem is identifying the thin line of demarcation and finding the right balance. This is the problem with the usage of social media too.
Talking about the good part of it, the most immediate thing that hits home is the very fact that the world is connected with just a click and there is easy and immediate access to endless information. The volume of content is so exponential that we can’t miss out on information. It is undeniably a great source of information, awareness and entertainment.
Social networking sites also allow us to express ourselves, communicate, connect, ideate and create our own virtual social space, which is unique to ourselves. We connect with people beyond time zones and geographical locations. From finding long lost friends to finding the most suited jobs, from raising awareness to facilitating noble causes, social media can help in many ways. It is also the most easy, convenient and economic platform to launch, position and expand your businesses.
91% of retail brands use 2 or more social media channels and 81% of all small and medium businesses use some kind of social platform. According to Sherpa Marketing, more people follow brands on social media than follow celebrities. On Instagram alone 80 percent of people follow at least one business.
Consumers are 71% more likely to make a purchase based on social media referrals. Social media has direct impact on consumer behaviour. This puts social media platforms in a prime position for executing effective digital marketing campaigns. The best part is that social media allows two-way interaction and thus, it is more compelling and engaging. It is in fact a fast, inexpensive, and effective way to reach almost half the world’s population.
Personally speaking, when I see a dress or a jewellery popping up on my screen every time, I open Facebook or Instagram, I end up buying something or the other even if I may not need it. Hence, social media for businesses is not optional but essential way to reach your customers.
The words of Amy Jo Martin, Founder and CEO of Digital Royalty sums it all. “Social media is the ultimate equaliser. It gives a voice and a platform to anyone willing to engage.”
But, when technology overpowers human emotion, it becomes a matter of concern and that’s where the adverse aspects of social media come into question.
The power of connection in the virtual space often overpowers the real human connect. It is a common sight to see people glued to their mobiles even during a social gathering. We are so engrossed in juggling our temporary virtual reality that we often forget about the real world beyond it. Constant browsing and scrolling through our Apps interrupt our ‘in the moment’ social interactions.
We know the facts about this but are still doing this. Why does this happen? According to a new study by Harvard University, self-disclosure on social networking sites lights up the same part of the brain that also ignites when taking an addictive substance. The reward area in the brain and its chemical messenger pathways affect decisions and sensations.
When someone experiences something rewarding, or uses an addictive substance, neurons in the principal dopamine-producing areas in the brain are activated, causing dopamine levels to rise. Therefore, the brain receives a “reward” and associates the drug or activity with positive reinforcement. No wonder why those likes, comments and notifications instantly give a high, that’s the dopamine rush in the brain!
Now, the problem is that the negative reactions also effect instantly. It leads to negative self-image. It enables and promotes comparisons. We start comparing our life with others, based on the social media projections. The idea of success is limited to what is being posted online. There is a false sense of perfection that arises from what is depicted online.
Seeking social validation leads to lower self-esteem, diminished confidence and ultimately effects mental health in a big way. This increases the risk of developing anxiety and depression.
Another aspect of social anxiety triggered by online media use is the fear of missing out (FOMO) coined by marketing strategist, Dr. Dan Herman in his research paper published in 1996. The stress and anxiety of missing out on anything good, a weekend party, a promotion, a holiday, a new house, it could be anything. The sense of being normal and doing well becomes skewed and everything seems better in the lives of others.
Another study performed by California State University found that individuals that visited any social media site at least 58 times per week were 3 times more likely to feel socially isolated and depressed compared to those who used social media fewer than 9 times per week.
Studies have linked excessive social media use to sleep deprivation, anxiety and lack of productivity. This is especially true with growing kids and young adults. The impact is high and the risk is immediate as it stunts their mental growth and leads them to an inconsistent life. The competition for attention and likes can even lead to online aggression and cyber bullying, further impacting a child emotionally.
Like the manifestation of duality in everything, social media has its darker aspects too. I think it is inevitable. Have you heard of Ying and Yang? Yin-Yang is a fundamental concept in Chinese philosophy where seemingly opposite or contrary forces are interconnected and interdependent on each other. These forces give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another.
The fine balance between the two sides is the real problem. Our mind should be in control of technology but most often it is the other way round and we fail to streamline the usage, which adds to the woes.
As a parent, I try to model a life which the child can emulate. But even as adults, it often becomes difficult to disconnect from the virtual world. Forced digital detox is the solution at times by making a conscious effort of staying away from all unnecessary mobile applications. Though I am one of those ‘over sharers’ on social media, I am in control of my reaction to social media without being much affected. But my child may be not. Thus, it is imperative that we attempt to model the behaviour we want to see.
There is however no escape from technology or social media. But it is important to set boundaries to keep a check on children’s usage of the smartphone, tablet or the social media apps.
For us adults too, the key to absorbing life and living mindfully is to disconnect from everything occasionally. This will help in being more productive, more focused and above all, it is important to feel positive. It is important to have a period of time when we can abstain from using technology and reconnect with the real world. It will help us break our habits and rekindle our relationships with ourselves and the world around us.
The key to using social media is to understand the delicate balance between what is important and what is redundant. Let’s look at the way our life has gone digital in the current times. With COVID 19 and social distancing, a life without technology couldn’t have been smooth. Without social media, our isolation would have led to immense desolation.
There is the good, there is the bad and then there is you. How you let something affect you is up to you. At the same time, it is our responsibility to guide our younger generation.
Quoting Amy Jo Martin again, “Just as we teach our children how to ride a bike, we need to teach them how to navigate social media and make the right moves that will help them. The physical world is similar to the virtual world in many cases. It’s about being aware.”
[ A wonderer, adventurer and a lover of life, Ankurita Pathak is an occasional poet and writer. For a living, she works as a Joint Director in FICCI. She has worked with Hindustan Times, Asian Age and the India Today Group, prior to joining FICCI. A proud alumna of Cotton College, Guwahati, she is a post graduate in English from Delhi University. Her tryst with writing began as a 11-year-old, when her first poetry was published in the North East times. A travel enthusiast and a perennial explorer, she loves food, fashion, people and poetry. This article is published in the Mahabahu‘s historical book 175 Years of media in Assam & Beyond]
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