Belfast Telegraph

Are you tired of Twitter? Fed up with Facebook? Why too much social media makes you sad

The festive season is the ideal time to give your brain a break from the constant updates

By Fionola Meredith

I've always been a social media refusenik. To me, it seems like a brain-numbing waste of time, often characterised by childish showing-off, dumb tribalism and arrogance, as well as a ridiculous number of lies. "A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing," as Shakespeare wouldn't have put it today, because he'd be too busy uploading pictures of his avocado-based lunch to Instagram.

Now even the oh-so-caring tech giants like Facebook are starting to admit that social media can be bad for your mental health.

Researchers for the social network asked themselves - "Do people connect in meaningful ways online? Or are they simply consuming trivial updates and polarising memes at the expense of time with loved ones?" (Hey, I could answer that one for free).

Here's the key part: the researchers acknowledged academic studies showing that spending time on Facebook "passively consuming information" from the sidelines can leave people "feeling worse". This is important because up until now, Facebook had declined to engage with research indicating that the platform could cause psychological harm.

So does Facebook now advise users to spend less time on its site? Of course not. The answer, according to Facebook, is for people to post more updates and comments, not fewer. "Actively interacting with people" online is actually "linked to improvements in well-being", the company brightly insists.

But there's no getting away from the fact that scrolling through social media content can make people feel envious, anxious, isolated and depressed. In search of an elusive, drug-like hit, we are making ourselves miserable, shortening our attention spans and cutting ourselves off from one another. And we call this progress?

Facebook's admission comes after a former executive with the company, Chamath Palihapitiya, spoke out about the "tremendous guilt" he felt over his part in developing the social network, which he believes has eroded "the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other".

Palihapitiya said that when he started at Facebook in 2007, there wasn't much conscious thought given to the long-term negative consequences of the platform they were creating. "I think in the back, deep, deep recesses of our minds, we kind of knew something bad could happen," he said. "But I think the way we defined it was not like this."

Over two billion monthly users later (and still counting), Palihapitiya has woken up to the impact of social media, and it's not pretty. "The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works: no civil discourse, no co-operation, misinformation, mistruth," he said. "And it's not an American problem. This is not about Russian ads. This is a global problem."

It sure is. I don't know about you, but there's a certain emptiness that comes over me when I've been spending too much time online - I'm a journalist, so while I don't tweet or use Facebook myself, I often have to look at it for research, maybe to gauge popular reaction to a big news story.

There's a sort of queasy lassitude that keeps you scrolling mechanically, feeling bored yet at the same time compelled to keep going, in the vague hope of coming across something of interest or value, though God knows that's a rare enough occurrence.

It's mental candy-floss and too much of it makes you sick. Afterwards, it takes a face-to-face conversation with a friend, or a long walk in the woods with my dog, to make me feel properly restored to myself, reconnected with reality.

Chamath Palihapitiya has advised young people to take a "hard break" from their dependence on social media networks. He doesn't let his own kids use what he calls "this s***" either, and he should know.

So if you fancy following the ex-Facebook exec's lead and disconnecting - at least temporarily - from the vapid, soul-sucking void that is social media, Christmas is the perfect time to do it.

Switch off your devices and devote yourself to being in the moment, among the people you love. Remember what a truly unmediated interaction with another person actually feels like. Hear what a blessed silence falls when you don't have to read, listen to or engage with a hundred rampant narcissists on Twitter.

Hardcore users will undoubtedly find themselves at a loss without that "dopamine-driven" chemical reward system that Palihapitiya speaks so eloquently about.

And it's true that going cold turkey on social media is difficult for many people. But cheer yourself up with a slice or two of hot turkey, with all the trimmings, and I guarantee you that the world will immediately look like a brighter place.

Belfast Telegraph

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