Mobile technology has permeated every aspect of our society. I walk through the library and notice students scrolling on their phones rather than reading the books assigned for their classes. Restaurants are occupied by diners texting, as opposed to talking to the person sitting across from them. I incessantly feel the impulse to pick up my phone the instant I have to wait for something. My phone is inaudibly calling out for me to pick it up and respond to the craving to drag my finger aimlessly through the online black hole of social media. It is this indifference to the world around us, in favor of the endless scroll, that is a plague of our generation. This addiction to social media manifests itself in passive use, a term meaning the use of social media through “viewing or consuming information from other’s posts, profiles, or interactions without letting them know they are lurking” (Turk 8). Social media’s addictive nature and passive use makes users more susceptible to the falsified lifestyles sold within and weakens its purpose of enhancing community. The passive use of social media leads to user’s unfulfillment, a trend only reversible through a more active use of social media.
Social media was created with two goals in mind: to cultivate relationships with others and for the company itself to maximize profit. These platforms were invented in part to provide new opportunities for individuals to be involved in one another’s lives. There are numerous methods on these apps to interact with others: likes, comments, direct messages, etc. Social media’s numerous means of communication exponentially increases the number of people with whom we can easily connect to (Subramanian 72). I was initially drawn to Instagram because I wanted to share my pastimes with friends. I enjoyed posting pictures of the cookies I baked on the weekends or from the Friday afternoons I spent at the local middle school hotspots. I only followed my friends and a few accounts I was interested in. On the flip side, social media was created as a business enterprise. Social media inventors had an incredibly popular program for communication but without a form of monetization. Leaders at big tech companies turned to advertising as the most “elegant model” for financial growth (Social Dilemma). Social media makes profit by prioritizing other companies’ advertising. Thus, the importance of advertisers enabled these companies to have incredible influence on users.
In an effort to utilize advertising for monetization and profit as much as possible, social media companies were incentivized to create an addictive platform. Social media platforms provide countless avenues to look at content unceasingly. There are the posts from the actual accounts we follow but also the endless explore pages, interactive advertisements, constant online messaging, and more. The media we view and the manufactured interactions we engage in on social media act much like a “syringe of dopamine” shot into our brain (Addiction Center). The content elicits this response from us as it is crafted specifically for our particular interests. The intensive algorithm picks up on our minute reactions to certain types of photographs and videos. It tracks what we view, like, search, and comment on. Using this information, it can feed us content that it has calculated we will respond positively to. Social media users thus use the apps to provide them happiness. These algorithms have become “models that predict our actions” (Social Dilemma). These companies “compete for our attention” through influencer’s reels, posts, and stories, along with traditional advertisements found in the feed. Companies and their influencers tap into that addictive nature of social media and craft a falsified lifestyle to showcase on their pages. These intentionally formulated images we view provide an “endless stream of attention” (Addiction Center). Our need to be known is satisfied, yet we crave even more attention. We are sucked into these photos and words shining from our screen, proceeding down a rabbit hole of fictionalized media.
Social media influencers’ highly idealized lifestyles create a mindset of comparison and can produce an array of deeply felt emotions, notably insecurity. The Instagram performance allows us to “imagine different kinds of lives” (Miller 197). It is a bright paradise that “serves as an escape” in comparison to our seemingly lonely lives (Miller 197). The posts promoted on social media by celebrities showcase “exclusive lifestyle experiences” (Pellegrino). Users become obsessed with the visual utopia that is showcased on our screens. Social media functions as “a catalyst for new pressures and failures” (Miller 198). Stemming from pride, humans have a natural desire to want to live up to the unattainable highlight reel that Instagram broadcasts. It is these alluring scenes and our passive consumption of them which prevents us from halting our social media addiction. As the algorithm feeds followers crafted content which is seemingly perfect in comparison to our own lives, users yearn to be absorbed into this idyllic lifestyle. The feelings of comparison that emerge from the passive use of Instagram sets viewers into a false reality, that oftentimes can not be risen above. This comparison creates incredibly negative effects on the viewer. For example, suicide rates for teenage girls are up 75% in the years after the introduction of social media (Social Dilemma)
With the passive use of Instagram, users are not often rationally thinking outside of this showcased content. Instead, they simply yearn for their lives to resemble those online. The pressure to ‘keep up’ on social media often leads to intense insecurity. In my own experience on Instagram, I never wanted to be seen as “someone who fell behind” (Miller 198). It is the utopia-like world we see on Instagram which leads us to devalue our actual reality. These “social comparison behaviors are likely to lead to a person believing their internal characteristics are less important than external factors” (Turk 23). By aimlessly scrolling, users only notice the physical features and ignore the internal quality of the influencers. The glamorized lives of others makes our own seem inadequate.
Social media is inferior to “lasting forms of happiness” as it contributes to impulsive buying tendencies and materialism (Miller 201). Users have become the item being sold as their information is manipulated by companies to use for advertising (Social Dilemma). Social media companies use advertisements to secure purchases. The algorithm of social media promotes products that are likely to attract the viewer. It is the specificity to the users of commercials on social media which “contributes to an increase in an individual’s impulsive nature” (Pellegrino). Passive use of social media exacerbates the problem. An individual passively scrolling through the app is more susceptible to the flashy advertisement. They are not reasoning through the implications of that purchase. What is absorbed as communication about a product, in reality is the manipulation of the viewer by the company, algorithm, and influencer. The widespread use of social media has led to an increased materialism within modern society. A study within Thai social media users saw that as their online social media usage increased over the course of 3 years from 18 to 32 hours per week, so too did their online spending double during this period as well (Pellegrino). Purchasing the advertised product makes the idyllic life on social media attainable to entranced viewers. If the influencer appears happy while using the product, the purchaser believes they too can acquire this same joy. These buying tendencies may temporarily provide the user satisfaction, but in actuality it leads to a less fulfilling existence. The materialism of modern society has left individuals dissatisfied with what they have, constantly craving more. Thus, this habit is cyclical: more products will be purchased to fill the ever expanding insecurity of users. The lack of fulfillment brought to individuals through consumerism is fueled by social media.
Not only does social media induce personal insecurities, it also directly prevents and is inferior to another “lasting form of happiness”: community (Miller 201). The passive use of Instagram does not allow for a true community to be built within the app. Users are prevented from engaging in genuine interactions with others. The algorithm pushes the users from following friends to mostly viewing the posts of stylized influencers. The people behind accounts no longer personally communicate with others, instead endlessly scrolling through addictive content. Only superficial knowledge about a person can be acquired through the passive use of social media. It is impossible to learn who someone truly is through the crafted appearance of a social media account. When we are caught up in this superficial information, “we can waste precious time and become indifferent to the suffering flesh of our brothers and sisters” (Gaudete et Exsultate 50). Individuals can become more attuned to what can bring them immediate pleasure, rather than looking outside themselves. Additionally, “the ability to connect to more people often seems to enhance loneliness and isolation, two unpleasant states that we standardly think of friendship as preventing or at least alleviating” (Jeske 135). Online friendships cannot be qualified as true friendships as they are confined to a frequently utilitarian setting. Social media mutuals often exchange falsified images of their lives, rather than the authenticity that is required for friendship. Moreover, the passive use of Instagram’s lack of genuine communication means these mutuals do not really know one another. Thus, the primarily inconsequential information viewed on social media ruins social media’s original goal of growing community.
The emptiness brought about by the unfulfilling nature of social media also leads to superficial relationships in the real world. Given the manufactured communication and increased comparison potential on social media, adolescents with social media addictions are missing crucial communication development. The ages of 10 to 19 are “theorized to be a sensitive period during which young people are uniquely attuned to the complexities of interpersonal relationships” (Sherman 1027). Thus, these ages are crucial for people to attain necessary social experience. However, instead of forming real world connections, 46% of teenagers use social media almost constantly according to Pew Research. This addiction prevents users from forming solid relationships during adolescence. Without learning the skills needed to form connections with others in their youth, it will be difficult for these individuals to form genuine relationships in their future.
Social media’s deprecating effects can be alleviated if changes are made both by companies and individuals. It is crucial for companies to alter the way they advertise their products, namely accomplished by shifting away from using influencers. The influencer format is particularly harmful as these campaigns combine an idealized lifestyle with a more personal message, leading users to trust these figures who are typically just in it for profit themselves. This shift away from influencers would enable a decrease in the impact social media has on spending. The growing sustainable and minimalist movements are motivating factors for the companies to make this shift. Individuals too can alter the way they engage with social media, from a passive use to more active approach. This is possible by aligning one’s use of social media with the app’s goal as a communication tool. For instance, social media can be used to sustain relationships when in-person communication is not possible. A focus on genuine interaction, meaning not a passive use of the app, can enable this relationship to be fulfilling. While it can never substitute real world interaction, an intentional focus on communicating with real people we know, rather than influencers pushing products, can lead to a fruitful use of social media.
Modern society must recognize that social media is the reason for our increasing sense of isolation. This is because social media satisfies our inherent thirst to be known in an incredibly superficial way. Social media’s alluring advertisements serve as mechanisms for comparison. The contrast between the glamorous lifestyles of influencers and our own, seemingly mundane lives, eventually lead us to devalue ourselves. However, by utilizing our natural ability to reason with the content we view, rather than passively absorb it, there is hope to resurrect social media. Already, there are movements by companies aiming to make social media a more genuine place. These include influencer and celebrity campaigns which encourage embracing one’s authenticity on social media or the explosion of the platform ‘BeReal’ which eliminates users from the ability to curate a performative post. However, it is up to the followers themselves to interact with content differently. If we fail to do so, the comparison inflicting our modern generation due to social media will always be a “thief of joy.”
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About the Author
Abigail Adams is a rising sophomore at Fordham’s Rose Hill campus. She plans to major in Political Science and Mathematics/Economics with a minor in Theology. In her free time, Abigail loves to spend time outside and with people, trying different restaurants, and going to concerts when she has the chance! Her curiosity for how the brain works and her personal, ever-shifting relationship with social media inspired her to write this paper.