By Nash Wills, Co-Editor
If you had to go cold turkey and give up technology—smartphones, laptops, tablets, email, social media—starting tomorrow, how long do you think you’d last before giving in to temptation? I started asking myself this question a few weeks ago when I read an article about a detailed study done last year on smartphone usage amongst young American adults. The findings were frightening. On average, the subjects were using their phones for 5 hours a day over the course of 85 separate instances, the majority of which lasted for less than 30 seconds. When asked to predict what their usage rates were after the study’s completion, almost all guessed a number that was around half the actual outcomes. Completely unaware of when or how it had come to pass, these average people were spending close to a 3rd of their waking hours ensnared in a virtual reality. Technology had seized control over their lives. They had become addicted.
Being born on the back end of the Millennial generation, I, along with most of my friends and colleagues, are part of a dying breed: the increasingly diminishing group of people who can recall a time before modern technology. I remember the seemingly historic struggle with my parents over getting that first LG flip phone, and I remember when a select few people started getting smartphones during my senior year of high school. It’s easy to forget about this era, but only 10 years ago smartphones didn’t even exist. Even as recently as 2011, only a third of Americans owned one. Now, however, that device, which up until a short while ago was unknown, has become indispensible. And that 2011 figure…well, it has skyrocketed to 85%.
Each minute of every single day, YouTube users upload around 400 hours of videos, Tinder users swipe through over a million profiles, and there are hundreds of millions of Facebook “likes.” Internet sources are publishing and updating fake and highly partisan articles at a nearly constant rate. This never-ending stream of new developments, fluctuating polls, and news stories feeds the addiction and supplies us with adrenaline-driven emotional moments of joy, panic, and outrage. And if you’re a part of the 44% of American adults who gets their news from Facebook or other forms of social media, don’t fool or flatter yourself into thinking that you have much of a choice, or that you have control over the things you click on. The ever-perfecting algorithms that power these outlets are designed to invoke an emotional response that keeps you coming back for more. This comes to fruition as a personalized flow of information, stories, and opinions from friends, family, and outlets that only serve to reaffirm pre-existing beliefs—including fake news. Because gossip and information, like sugar, sex, and drugs, has always been a source of addiction for human beings, you can be sure that our uncontrollable impulse to absorb this stuff isn’t going to slow down any time soon.
So how is this all materializing and what will its effect be on the future? The answer isn’t very comforting. The proliferation of so much misinformation through unreliable sources is creating a situation where people are becoming immune to anything that contradicts their beliefs, dismissing it as “biased.” In the wake of the recent presidential election, this phenomenon has become more evident than ever before. A recent study by BuzzFeed.com discovered that 20 fake election stories on Facebook generated more engagement during the final week of the election than did legitimate news from 19 major outlets combined. If these trends continue, the outlook for future generations will be bleak. Stanford University released a study last month that found that 82% of middle schoolers could not distinguish a real news story on a website from a sponsored content post or a fake news story posted by a business or blog. When it comes to social media, it’s not truth that prevails, but rather emotion and potential for proliferation. And when a majority of a populace is either uninformed or misinformed, democracy begins to slowly break down.
What should you be doing as an individual to protect yourself against technological and social media addiction? Here’re two simple suggestions: First, you should take the time to become consciously aware of just how much or how many times you pull out your phone to glance at something per day. If you’re checking to see what’s going on in the world of Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and LinkedIn multiple times each hour, then you can probably afford to cut back. Second, if the majority of news that you recite or refer to comes from social media, then you’re doing something wrong. Take the time to find credible and unbiased online outlets, newspapers, and magazines.
And to end on somewhat of a positive note, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal saw 300 and 400 percent upticks in subscriptions in the aftermath of the presidential election.