Screen Time - A Global Addiction to Connection in the 21st Century
Walking down your average street in your average city these days, chances are high that you’ve seen your fellow humans going about with their heads bowed down, engrossed in whatever important information or content is being viewed on their mobile phone at the time. Not many people could have predicted that something as innocuous as a mobile phone could bring about such drastic changes in the way we consume information and communicate as a species on the whole.
But such is the blockbuster story of the smartphone, a device that, whilst carrying all the promise of a bright, technologically advanced future has also brought about issues and challenges that we are still getting to terms with, and whose long-lasting societal effects are yet to be truly revealed.
A little history
Whilst the invention of a portable telephony device goes back many decades (1973, to be precise, with the first attempt by Motorola), what can be deemed as the first iteration of a smartphone came over 20 years later with the arrival of IBM’s Simon Personal Computer (catchy name). However, seeing as the internet had barely started to proliferate in the public domain in the mid-90s, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that consumers were able to wield 3G-connected devices capable of sending and receiving photographs and videos, emails and messages at a reasonable speed.
The start of the 21st century saw the dominance of a certain fruit-named device, the Blackberry, which, for a period of time, was the smartphone to have and was ubiquitous in the business world. However, the true paradigm shift came in 2007, when the late Steve Jobs revealed the first-ever iPhone. For the time, it was a revelation, a small form factor that would easily fit in the palm of the average user, complete with a dominant screen and a single home button. That aesthetic would be the way forward for Apple and many other models from other companies that would emerge in its wake. Whilst the initial offering was limited in a number of ways, it would usher in the smartphone revolution and, it can be said without too much exaggeration, the world truly wasn’t the same after that.
As the adoption of smartphones began to grow, so did the market itself with a new player emerging in the sphere the following year. Having acquired Android Inc in 2005, Google stepped into the arena and was working on an operating system for mobile phones, but it hadn’t originally included the possibility of those phones using their screen for input (the thinking was geared toward devices with physical keyboards, like the Blackberry). The iPhone launch soon necessitated a rethink at Google and the first Android mobile operating system made its debut in 2008 with the HTC Dream.
The rise of Facebook and social networks
Coincidentally, it was roughly around the same time that another big game-changer was starting to make global movements in the digital sphere, Facebook. Even though it was just three years old at the time, the originally college-only social network began to allow users from all around the world to join, as long as they were 13 years or above.
I’m old enough to remember just how exciting it was to be able to connect with friends and family, not just locally, but from all over the globe. Thanks to platforms like Facebook, dormant friendships have been rekindled and long-lost relatives discovered. Distances and continents seemed to shrink, and the sense of a global village was palpable, for a time.
Besides the still-reigning king, Facebook, we would see a number of social networks blossom, including Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube and most recently, TikTok. You also have various messenger services which have made staying in touch with your friends and loved ones easier than ever before. Apps like WhatsApp, Viber, Telegram, Messenger, Skype and Zoom all offer the ability to users to send and receive messages and media of practically every type, along with audio/video calling functions.
The Generation Gap
When we look at the different age groups that are actively using social media, we can divide them up into 5 distinct generations:
- The Silent Generation (1928-1945)
- Baby Boomers (1946-1964)
- Generation X (1965-1980)
- Generation Y/Millennials (1981-1996)
- Generation Z (1996-2012)
Those born after 2012 are known as Generation Alpha, a relatively new term used to describe those individuals that are the first truly 21st century generation, having been born into an already completely digital world. Being portable or otherwise, these kids will never know a world without smartphones or tablets, of being connected all the time.
As we go back in time with each passing generation, we can see a general trend of lesser interaction with social networks, however, all groups have shown an increase in engagement across the board over time. Those born in the later stages of the 20th century, specifically Gen Y and especially Gen Z, have shown a much greater aptitude and overall engagement in the digital era, as compared to Gen X and the Boomers respectively, and especially so with those born to the Silent Generation.
Looking at the empirical evidence, the so-called Millenials (Gen Y) have had the best groundwork to adapt to the changing face of technology, as their childhood was, on the whole, an analogue affair, but they matured in the digital age. They can remember a world before the internet, when kids would go out and play without any technology on their person (with the possible exception of a Nintendo Gameboy). The Millenials gradually adapted to all the technological changes that came at the dawn of the new century and beyond.
As a member of gen Y myself, it wasn’t until late 2009 that I acquired my very first smartphone, the iPhone 3Gs. I distinctly remember, out of all the things that impressed me about the device, it was the ability to check my emails while on the go that seemed a revelation at the time (yes, Blackberry users can snigger at this fact). No longer did I have to wait until I got home from work (or vice versa) to be able to stay in touch with friends, family and colleagues.
The takeaway is that, just as humans have done so for millennia, we’re all adapting and using the technologies that are presently available, and for the most part this has been a positive experience. Just think about how many times you’ve found yourself reaching for your phone to ask Google or Siri for directions, the time, the weather, recipes, or random facts about that actor whose name you can’t remember.
And let’s not forget about the fact that these days many of us are carrying around devices that can record crisp video in 4K, and take high-resolution photographs that are good enough to print. Just a few years ago, in 2015, filmmaker Sean Baker shot his film Tangerine entirely on 3 iPhone 5S phones. The devices we carry with us today would seem like science fiction a mere 30 years ago.
And so, while so many have benefitted from all the advancements that have occurred in the past 20 or so years, our dependence on the same technology has also served to magnify the potential problems that arise from migrating our social interactions and friendships into the digital sphere.
The social dilemma
Thanks to the way that most social networks function, the interactivity between users is done through shared posts, be it a photograph, video or text and these posts can be liked by others in your network (friends/followers/contacts). Each time we get likes for the content that we have shared activates the release of dopamine (the feel-good chemical) in our brains, which is the same kind of pleasurable feeling we might get from eating food, having sex or engaging in social interactions.
As we get more likes, the dopamine shots keep on coming, but conversely, if a particular post isn’t as liked, the opposite will likely be the case. And much like it is in gambling, the unpredictable nature of whether a post will be liked or not is precisely what brings people back to the network (besides the social aspect), looking to once again reach the emotional highs of a post that is liked by many.
The unfortunate byproduct of this is that people begin to equate their sense of self-worth and social standing with how others have reacted to the content being shared. This is especially true if the post itself is linked to the individual, that is if it is a portrait or a contentious selfie.
With so much choice at our fingertips, as a species, it would be safe to say that we’ve never been more connected than we are now, but conversely, this has also brought about a number of different problems that have affected a range of age groups in adverse ways. This dependence on technology and being constantly connected has seen an increase in depression, anxiety, loneliness, self-harm, and even suicidal thoughts, especially among younger generations.
The problems arise
It is important to note, that even though we’ve been immersed in social networking for the better part of nearly two decades, there is still not enough research being done to properly investigate the adverse ways in which individuals can trigger or influence any of the above from developing.
Most humans are social animals that crave to be part of a collective, centuries of evolution have shown this to be the case, and it was almost a given that these feelings of belonging have been translated online. However, as we entered the digital sphere, individuals had to establish their “new” presence online, and effectively create an online version of their persona and how they want it to be presented to the world.
Appearances have played a key role in the negative effects felt by individuals online, as people from all over the world were able to upload a tailored view of their life and lifestyle, revealing the vast differences that existed between individuals, be it physical or otherwise.
Whilst this might not necessarily affect the older generations, it is the younger Zoomers (and most definitely the Alphas) who have shown to be most susceptible to feelings of inadequacy about their appearance or some aspect of their lives when compared to those seen online.
When being exposed to images or videos that, at least in their eyes, represent a “form of perfection” and by extension, if that particular post is liked by many, that person’s popularity is seen as another blow to their self-esteem and sense of self-worth.
This of course was only further complicated by the introduction of filters aimed at beautifying and improving the look of a given individual. Thanks to Snapchat, which had acquired Ukrainian startup Looksery back in 2015, it was the only company at the time that was dabbling with digital tools designed to apply live filters to photographs and videos and alter the appearance of the users.
It wasn’t long before one of the main selling points of Snapchat was precisely those features, and a mere 7 years later, this technology is widespread and just about every social networking platform offers them (and they keep getting better and more sophisticated with time).
Many offered filters are humorous or akin to putting on a Halloween mask (but in digital form), however, a staggering number focus on the general appearance of people (and especially women), offering various makeup effects, narrowing of cheekbones, alteration of lips, eyes, nose, hair… the app Lensa is particularly noteworthy for this, and we covered the functionality and features in-depth in our review.
Imagine you’re having a particularly bad hair day, or if your nose has been red from a cold, and then you see that perfectly timed photograph of a friend or acquaintance on their Seychelles holiday. Their skin tones are perfect, their faces perfectly symmetrical and they’re surrounded by crystal clear blue waters. It seems unrealistically perfect – because often, it is.
By now, most of us have clued into the fact that few people will reveal anything other than perfection to their friends or followers, however even though this might be fairly obvious it doesn’t stop people from having negative feelings about their own appearance or status in life, as a result.
Another very common effect felt by individuals using social media is FOMO – or the fear of missing out. We’ve all been there, and unfortunately, places like Facebook or Instagram have only exacerbated this. A typical scenario might involve someone opening up their app in the morning to check on what people have been up to and realising that a group of friends were out and about last night, dancing in a nightclub or drinking away on a nice terrace with city views in the background. Why wasn’t I invited? Why are they having all the fun and not me? These questions might sound childish, but it has, without a doubt, gone through everyone’s head at least once, but chances are, these feelings have crept in more often than not.
Well, you didn’t completely miss out, as you were able to see what those friends got up to, but it is only a small slice of what actually went on. This feeling of FOMO is yet again magnified as the person is then keen to check their phones or tablets more frequently to make sure they don’t miss out on anything else, this time around. They might even spend the rest of that morning (or longer) thinking about why they weren’t there and what it was that might have made the group exclude them. Or, in an even more extreme case, you might feel the same about people that you’ve only known in an online environment.
Another byproduct of social networks is that instances of loneliness and isolation are actually magnified, as opposed to what the expected logical outcome might be of taking part in a “social” network. Humans, as we’ve already mentioned, are social beings, and even though we are interacting with people from all over the world, nothing can replace a real, face-to-face interaction with another person or group.
Face-to-screen engagement, even when it’s being done in a video call, can never reduce stress or boost your mood as when you’re in the same room with that person and looking them directly in the eyes, especially if they are someone who you care about (and vice versa).
Curiously, a number of people have reported using social media precisely due to feelings of loneliness, anxiety, depression, stress or even boredom. However, if that person decides to soothe their pains by going online and engaging with their peers digitally, they are only further increasing the same feelings. It is, essentially, a vicious self-propagating cycle.
Perhaps the most serious and severe threat to the psychological well-being of younger generations came in the form of cyberbullying. As children, it is a practical certainty that we all experienced some form of bullying in our lives. Whether it’s verbal or physical, it is, unfortunately, an almost inevitable part of growing up. How we deal with such instances (along with the support of our friends and family) is crucial in the formation of our characters and the way we interact with others in adulthood.
However, while traditional bullying might have been localised in your school or playground, bullying online can be far more disastrous and widespread. Since the early 2000’s there have been numerous cases of cyberbullying, however, it wasn’t until the later part of the decade that the issue started to gain national (and international attention).
In 2010, Tyler Clementi, an 18-year old student who had been secretly filmed being with another young man in his college dormitory, had the same footage broadcast by his roommate on Twitter. Having left his computer (and webcam) on in their shared room, his roommate was able to record Clementi during the encounter. Compounding the issue of homophobia and the sensitivity with which it was handled, would eventually lead to Clementi taking his own life by jumping off the George Washington Bridge.
Across the border in Canada, we had the case involving 15-year old Amanda Todd. In 2010, the teenager (who was 13 at the time) had an interaction with an individual with a fake profile, who had requested she bare herself on camera. After complying, screenshots were made, and it didn’t take long for him to blackmail her, threatening to release those same images online.
Not long after, the police came to her home at 4 in the morning, informing her of the fact that her images had been distributed over the internet. Following the incident, along with an accumulation of others involving both physical and mental abuse by fellow schoolmates, she recorded a video detailing her experiences and posted it on YouTube on September 7, 2012. A little over a month later, Amanda had taken her life.
Both incidents had served as a wake-up call, not just in North America but around the world, as people were starting to get an insight into the fragility of our most vulnerable, especially when it comes to their interactions online and the dangers that it can bring, both from those person’s like Amanda Todd’s blackmailer and by her peers.
Their unfortunate and tragic deaths resulted in both countries seriously looking into the effects of cyberbullying, with the Canadian House of Commons introducing a motion to study the scope of bullying across the country, while in the US, we saw the introduction of the “Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act” in Congress.
The situation today
Even though these tragic events occurred more than ten years ago, we’ve had an additional ten years of technological progress, where connections and connectivity have become even more intertwined. Teenagers and young adults today rely heavily on social media to stay in touch, and such overdependence has come at the expense of critical social skills and competencies.
Most tend to neglect the process of making actual phone calls for sending messages (be it in written or entirely emoji form), while their interpersonal interactions suffered. Being able to start a conversation or reading non-verbal cues from others are critical elements in social situations that have been affected by this excessive digital engagement.
Of course, it would be remiss not to look at the positive aspects affecting the younger generations today, for social networking can offer the kind of support that might not be present in their everyday lives. Those who might have experienced exclusion or are suffering from some kind of disability or chronic illness can find others online who might be going through the same, and as such, gain a support network that can help them in building friendships whilst dealing with their respective issues.
Likewise, by being able to engage with their peers, across geographic barriers, they’re also exposing themselves to new ideas and subjects that might not have been possible otherwise. They’re kept in the loop about current events and can contribute their own opinions or gain further insight, thus increasing their sense of belonging. Social media is also rife with distractions and humorous exchanges, especially through meme culture, which can further help boost those that might be experiencing sadness or depression.
The road ahead
It is difficult to gauge just how far our technological progress is going to influence the generations that will come. Looking at the world today, it is difficult not to approach the whole subject with caution, and it seems the more we continue to reach for our phones at any given moment, the deeper the rabbit hole goes.
In October 2021 we saw Facebook (the company that in the meantime also bought Instagram and WhatsApp) rebrand itself as Meta. The clue is in the name, and it is the intent of the powers that be, to create an entirely new world in the online sphere, or the metaverse, as it is known.
You wouldn’t have to spend long looking at the companies that Meta had acquired over the past few years to realise that virtual reality, augmented reality and AI will be playing a huge role in the world they intend to build.
However, the concept of living in an online world isn’t all that novel. Second Life, which turns 18 this year, has been offering people just that – an opportunity to live out an alternate life in a virtual world. Even though the number of subscribers peaked in the mid-2010s, people can still join the network today by downloading the application to their desktops.
So while the biggest players on the planet are busying themselves setting up the world for a second Second Life, perhaps, what we should be doing is stepping back, looking up from the screen and shifting the focus on our first life, it is, after all, the only one we have. For now.