Lions in Africa have been known to use quicksand to trap prey. For example, it is when a wildebeest finds itself mired in mud that the lioness approaches for the kill.
There is an uncanny parallel between the wildebeest and today’s youngsters who encounter Instagram or TikTok for the first time, unaware of what they are getting into. Watching a funny reel on Instagram, mindlessly scrolling through TikTok videos, or waiting for likes on a Facebook post – they all deliver instant gratification.
The addiction rides stealthily on the algorithms, fueled by feel-good hormones whenever the user procrastinates on important homework to watch YouTube or take a break from an assignment to post a #bored selfie.
Dopamine rushes through the brain whenever they get a new like or a mention, resulting in a rush that is as addictive as a drug. Studies have shown that it is when users seek to be constantly rewarded with such short-lived emotional highs that it starts to affect their personality and real life social skills.
The human mental circuitry gets accustomed to frequent flashes of joy, and users find it increasingly difficult to concentrate and invest time in things that actually matter, that take time and energy to accomplish. Gratification is then not deferred, but is needed immediately and frequently.
In Nepal and elsewhere, disruptions brought out by the Covid-19 pandemic and the home isolation of lockdowns increased screen time. TikTok video uploads and downloads alone take up a quarter of Nepal’s entire internet bandwidth.
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Even as the virus wanes, social media users yearn to go viral. As young people get back to in-person classes and physical meetings, social media dependence now manifests in other spheres of life. Everyone wants fast results, top grades without putting in the work, a restaurant meal to share on IG, and to show friends how much fun I am having.
Students spend most of their years waking hours swiping through reels, clocking likes, scrolling through stories. They are getting used to making fast judgements, only to realise that real life moves at a slower pace, and friendships are made face-to-face and not on Facebook.
Of all the things that social media offers, the one thing it can never teach is patience and reflection. An adolescent then is deprived of real-life friendships, thinking and talking about career goals, going on a slow trek through the mountains – all this takes too much more effort than updating an Instagram feed or posting a TikTok clip.
Deferred gratification is when we resist the temptation of short-term pleasures in the hopes of a lasting reward and it is so much harder because it requires patience.
Just as the habitat of the wildebeest and the lion is the savannah, human habitat today is the cybersphere. Nearly 60% of the world’s population browses the net, and we spend an average of 2.5 hours a day networking on our phones. These numbers have shot up after Covid so that we are surrounded by posts, comments and notifications. We are lost without the device to access them.
Social media algorithms ensnare users in the quicksand.
Media literacy in schools would make today’s young be better informed about social networking sites, and how they cleverly reinforce preferences and reward choices. This could perhaps push them to understand the influence it has on their lives, and make a more rational use of this media resource.
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Silicon Valley mines personal data for revenue, and the more time users spend on their sites, the more money they make. They call it ‘Improving user experience’ but that is just a euphemism for the algorithm that engulfs users in the quicksand.
To be sure, there is much to be gained from sensible use of social media: promoting an enterprise, catching up with friends or advocating for a social cause. But how do we maximise its usefulness and avoid the swamp?
- The first step is a self-realisation and determination to improve our use of social media. You first need to want to kick the habit.
- Mute notifications. We have been conditioned to react instantly to notifications. Checking a notification feels like unwrapping a present and getting a shot of dopamine. But what starts out as a quick check ends up being a binge watch of videos. Muting cuts this distraction at the source and short-circuits the algorithm.
- The third step may be the hardest, and what makes the difference between taming the lion or being tamed by it. The best course of action for the wildebeest is to remain still. The more it moves, the more it sinks in the ooze. The more you are online, the more social media tracks you, keeping you engaged through clever customisation. Minimising use helps extricate users from the bog.
Think before posting, don’t share unverified posts, resist double tapping just because you have nothing better to do, and self-examine your own social media use. Like many things in life, it is ultimately your own choice.