• Rather than a talk shop, it is becoming a place where people live out their fantasies
Do people complain you are always looking at your phone and not paying attention to them? Are you missing deadlines because of too much time on social media? Does your entire social life revolve around digital platforms?
Do you feel you are missing out when not on social media? If you said yes to all these questions, your social media habits are unhealthy. Social media is, so far, the greatest communication revolution of the 21st century, but it has drawbacks we all must watch out for.
Sean Parker, one of Facebook’s founders, describes how in those early days, people would tell him they weren’t on social media because they valued their real-life interactions. “And I would say, ‘OK. You know, you will be,’” he said.
Most of us think our use of social media is normal and healthy. According to research by The Addiction Centre, an online informational guide, individuals who visited any social media site at least 58 times per week were three times more likely to feel socially isolated and depressed compared to those who used social media fewer than nine times per week.
Putting the findings into context, 58 times per week translates to about 8 social media visits a day. Nine social media visits a week is just slightly over one visit per day, which most people today would regard as too little social media.
Rather than serving as a means of communication, social media is becoming a virtual reality landscape, where people live out their fantasies. Nahashon Kimemia, an aspiring social media influencer in Nairobi, says many of the popular personalities on social media are actually quite lonely in actual life. “On social media, they seem to be having fun, going places and doing fantastic things, but their real lives are not so interesting,” he says.
Why is social media so alluring?
Studies have shown that the constant stream of retweets, likes and shares from social media provide a psychological “reward” that can create addiction. When one’s content gets a surge of public attention, the individual experiences a psychological “high”. The tendency afterwards is to post more such content to keep getting that sense of euphoria.
The search for relevancy on social media tempts some people to engage in dangerous or illegal behaviour, or say deliberately provocative things, to garner a response from online audiences. This explains the presence of “trolls” on social media, people who deliberately make outrageous statements to provoke a reaction. US President Donald Trump is associated with such conduct, as are several prominent Kenyans.
Why social media platforms want you online
The core duty of social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, is to get people online and – very crucially – keep them coming back. Social media offers a cheap, convenient technology for friends and family to stay in touch. Billions of people across the world log onto social media each second to check out updates from their friends, read the news, catch up on their favourite sporting teams, indulge in celebrity gossip or shopping. People post content for the whole world to see at very little financial cost. This is the main attraction of social media.
Statista, an online data firm, puts the current number of social media users across the world at 3.6 billion. That’s 46 per cent of the world’s total population. Any media platform with such huge numbers of people will attract advertisers.
In 2019, Facebook earned $69.6 billion (Sh7.5 trillion) in advertising revenue. That’s more than double Kenya’s current national budget. Twitter’s financial report indicates the company earned US$3.5 billion (Sh374 billion) in 2019. The advertising revenues of social media companies already exceeds that of many traditional advertising agencies, some of which are almost a century old. The social media platforms attract that much money because of their huge audiences.
Social media is a very useful part of modern interpersonal communication. Lots of small businesses today owe their continued existence to social media platforms. However, too much social media can affect real-life relationships. Good news is that there are things each individual can adopt to control their use of social media.
Six ways to control social media use
1. Turn off notifications: This is the first step to take. Sound notifications from social media apps can be very distracting. By default, every app is designed to send notifications unless you disable that feature. If you are not running a business on social media, it is not necessary to pick up your phone each time there’s a chime. Leave notifications on for apps that carry important messages, such as work emails.
2. Set time-frames for using social media: Draw up a schedule where you allocate a few minutes each hour to catch up on social media. If you have multiple social media apps, you can set up a rotational schedule, where each hour you spend 10 minutes on one app. The next hour, 10 minutes on another app. A schedule eases the anxiety of “missing out”.
3. Don’t feel under pressure to respond immediately: Among the features invented to keep users engaged is the, “message status,” (the blue tick for example), “last seen” and “online”. Lots of people feel obliged to respond to a message because the sender may see the blue tick and get offended if the response is delayed. Others fear appearing “online” to someone they do not wish to engage. There’s so much anxiety about “last seen” and blue-ticking that there’s an entire industry of apps designed to hide one’s presence on social media. Bottom line: you have the right to decide how to use your phone. Nobody should bully you into chatting with them.
4. Rediscover offline hobbies: What were you doing before social media came along? Rediscover your hobbies. This will not only cut down time spent on social media, it will give you something interesting to talk about when you get back online.
5. Get a watch and an alarm clock: These traditional instruments of keeping time seem to have lost relevance in the age of mobile phones, but they are a great way of not checking your phone.
6. Quality over quantity: Less is more. It is better to spend short but ‘quality’ time on social media, catching up with friends or with the news, instead of ‘quantity’ time, burning up data bundles on unproductive activity.