A confession: I am one of a great many people trying desperately to limit their time on social media. Earlier this week, I programmed actual restrictions into my phone, allowing myself a measly 30 minutes per day. I’ve also mentioned it to a few friends, publicizing the decision as a way of forcing myself to uphold this self-made contract.
Although I’ve been wary of social media for a while, the decision to actively regulate my usage was precipitated by “The Social Dilemma” (2020), a Netflix documentary centered around Tristan Harris, a former Google employee and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology. He uses the ominous phrase “human downgrading” to describe the effect social media has on our minds and has spent much of his career pushing tech companies like Facebook and Apple to adopt more ethical guidelines to govern their interfaces. In short, he is trying to prevent our devices from taking control.
His concern feels more than justifiable. Necessary is a better word. In 2020, a year during which our leaders have essentially forfeited their control over the ailments of our nation (with devastating consequences), there’s no limit to the power private entities are capable of wielding over us. Although they may do a very good job of convincing us otherwise, tech companies are continually pursuing profit in ways that completely disregard the health of humans. They want to know everything about us, and they want us to become uncontrollably addicted to providing them with our data.
Despite knowing all of this, I am not doing a very good job. Yesterday, I pushed back on my own limits so much that I ended up spending almost two hours on social media. The worst part is that I had no idea.
I chalk my obstinate usage up to two factors. First, my phone has become, for all intents and purposes, a pacifier. When I’m waiting in line for a COVID-19 test or a coffee, or I’ve arrived at a class early, or I’m waiting for a friend, my arm lifts my phone with a habitual ease that only fully dawned on me this week. When did I lose control over my own limbs?
The other, more formidable factor is my worry that being away too long might cause me to miss something important. I consider this a very valid concern amid a pandemic that has forced a vast majority of university activities to go online. If I hadn’t been checking my Facebook, I wouldn’t have gotten the information I needed to apply for this very column. If I’m not constantly refreshing my email, I might miss a time-sensitive message from a professor. If I’m not active on Instagram, I run the risk of my faraway friends forgetting I exist.
This issue, like the pandemic, won’t be going away anytime soon. I don’t know how to find a middle ground in this new world, and that scares me. Perhaps that’s an indication that we’re already too far gone.