Sam Holstein

Social Media Ruined Our Ability to Enjoy Things

Millennials are often treated as a monolithic group of sweater-wearing avocado-toast-eating iPhone-buying people, but as one of the youngest millennials, I’ve noticed an interesting split in our generation. On the one hand, there are the older millennials, now in their thirties, who have mortgages and Facebook accounts and got their first phone when they were in late high school or college. On the other are the younger millennials like myself. We are still in our twenties, the last of us only just having graduated college last year, got all our social media accounts when we were thirteen, and got our first phones as early as our parents’ budgets would allow. (In my neighborhood, that happened when we were 13.)

A part of my brain that’s older than humanity itself freaked out. I had been cast out of the tribe, even if it was by my own hand, and now I would die out on the tundra, alone.

It appears to me these groups have a fundamentally different approach to social media. Older millennials, who got their social media accounts when they were 18 or 20, treat social media as a thing, like a phone or a car or a house, that they interact with. It’s a useful thing that most people have, sure, and most of them are addicted to it, but it’s still just a thing.

Younger millennials, on the other hand, treat social media as an essential part of life. Just as your arms and legs are part of your physical body, your social media accounts are part of your digital body. And just like your eyes and ears see the physical world, your phone sees the digital world. When I deleted my social media accounts, I didn’t feel like I got rid of a thing, I felt like I murdered the part of myself which lived online.

A part of my brain that’s older than humanity itself freaked out. I had been cast out of the tribe, even if it was by my own hand, and now I would die out on the tundra, alone.

Of course, since social media is not actually a part of my body, I acclimated in a few weeks. But in the few weeks it took me to acclimate, I experienced the most bizarre sensation. Going about my life, I would see something that looked especially lovely or beautiful. I would feel an impulse to take a photo for Instagram. Only, I didn’t have Instagram anymore. It felt like habitually reaching into a cabinet for potato chips only for there to be no potato chips left.

When I had social media, I didn’t notice how often I did this because the impulse was always fulfilled. There was no friction. Once I deleted my accounts, it became apparent immediately how psychologically intertwined with social media I was: Several times a day I would do this, internally reaching for something which was no longer there. I was living for the post, not for the moment.

What it means to live for the moment

To enjoy a moment for its own sake is to pay full attention to the moment. You don’t come to that moment with an agenda, trying to get something out of it. You come to it merely wanting to experience it for what it is.

It is only when we come to a moment with no preconceived notions that we can fully enjoy it. This is because while our sense organs (eyes, ears) take in all available sensory input, a region of our brain called the prefrontal cortex decides what sensory input we get to experience and what sensory input gets thrown in the garbage bin.

Neuroscientist Alex Korb explains it well in The Upward Spiral:

Every sense you have has a sensory cortex devoted to it. You have a visual cortex and an auditory cortex and so forth. These lower-level sensory cortices are under top-down control. The prefrontal cortex can tell the lower-level cortices what to ignore and what to pay attention to. It’s like a chief of police telling the department, “Ignore speeding tickets; catch drug dealers.” If you spend your brain’s resources looking for something particular, you’re more likely to find it…

…for example, when looking for your car keys, the reactivity of your visual cortex is enhanced. Maybe that doesn’t sound spectacular, but it’s like the feature on new cameras that highlights faces. Whenever a face enters the picture, the camera puts a little square around it and focuses on it.

So, when the back of our minds is trying to find something to post, your brain processes the entire world in terms of postable and not postable, drawing your attention toward what is postable and away from what is not, regardless of any other possible value.

Our brains perform this filtering action as a consequence of goal-directed behavior. If your goal is to find your car keys, your brain will helpfully point out where your car keys may be. If your goal is to post good things to social media, your brain will point out things in your environment which may look good as a post.

But what if we were to look at the world without a goal in mind? What if we were to just experience what is there?

Experiencing What Is

With mindfulness, this is possible. In case you haven’t heard about this increasingly popular technique, mindfulness is “the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment” ( Wikipedia). One of the reasons people practice mindfulness is to cultivate nonjudgemental awareness, the ability to experience the present moment without judging it.

Nonjudgmental awareness is not the exclusive purview of the spiritually enlightened; regular, everyday people can cultivate nonjudgmental awareness. In John Tarrant’s book Bring Me The Rhinoceros (and Other Zen Koans That Will Save Your Life), Tarrant shares the story of a woman who had a moment of nonjudgmental awareness:

I was with my son and a friend of his. I thought “Oh, I’ll have to work at (eliminating an undesirable behavior in my son). I’ll have to be on as a parent.” Yet when I went to look after the boys, I could see that they were perfectly right as they were and I just needed to be there and to enjoy them. They were running around and shouting and being perfect as boys. They really wanted me to hear their stories and when I felt their boy stories washing over me, it was another moment of thusness, like seeing sunlight falling across the wooden floor. Nothing was required of me… I could see now that it was just how things really are.

Anyone who has stared into their lover’s eyes and gotten lost, misplaced hours while creating artwork, or watched their child play and been filled with joy knows what it’s like to experience nonjudgmental awareness. If we practice being mindful, we can make moments like this go from one-in-a-blue-moon to everyday experiences.

Ultimately, we are faced with a choice. On one side stands social media, the creators of whom would like nothing more for you than to go about your day in a haze, scanning everyone and everything for how good it would look on your feed. On the other stands the real world, which has endless joys to give you if you are willing to do what it takes to experience them.

This is traditionally the point in the article in which the author says “You don’t necessarily have to quit social media. The problem isn’t social media, it’s how you use it,” but I’m not going to do that. While that statement is true in the most literal sense, it’s misleading. It makes you think social media is fundamentally neutral, like a trowel or a garden hose. It is not. Social media bears more similarity to alcohol than it does a trowel because social media is a drug. Social media software designers learned from casino designers and engineered their software to be as addicting as possible.

Granted, not everyone who uses social media becomes addicted-but not everyone who tries cocaine becomes dependent either, and we still generally regard cocaine as addictive.

If you’re one of the few people who can use social media without it affecting the way your brain processes the world, I’m happy for you, but I sincerely doubt you are. When people tell me they can use social media without getting addicted, I feel the same way as when drunk people tell me they’re not too drunk to drive — the only reason you think you’re still okay to drive is that you’re too drunk to know. If you think you can handle social media, test yourself: Go without for thirty days. If this is no big deal, social media isn’t changing your neurology. If it’s a challenge (or worse, you can’t do it), then you know it is.

All this to say:

Consider giving up social media for a while (longer than thirty days). Forget about what can and can’t be posted, and ask yourself: What about this moment do I enjoy?