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Social Media Distractions : How long will we choose to live in denial?

About a month ago in India, WhatsApp announced its updated privacy policy. As a normal user of WhatsApp, I clicked on the agree button without even reading the policy, I never gave it a second thought, in my mind WhatsApp was an essential communication tool and I saw no other alternative to reaching friends and family. Until I spent some time watching videos and reading in detail on what this privacy policy change really meant, and it hit me, how callous my approach had been to my own data privacy. It was a wake up call that was long due and suddenly I started noticing things with which I was not ok with but had gone along so many days/years just to fit in. WhatsApp later pulled back its change as many people started migrating to other apps, and soon people forgot about it and within days everyone was back onto WhatsApp. My blog today is not about one app, it is about social media in general, including Facebook, Insta, Pinterest, Twitter and even Google and how we are slowly being herded into unconscious addiction. The worst part is we are so confident that we are free to choose and that we are mentally strong enough to control our attention towards social media but the truth is further away. This policy change was just the trigger I had been waiting for, personally to force myself to address an issue that exists, and not pretend any longer.

I am like any of you , if you own a smartphone. In the morning, even before my eyes open, my hands are searching for my mobile phone, it is the first thing I check. Because I do not have a clock in my room, my excuse is I need to check the time. I unconsciously spend the next 10-20 mins on the phone, checking WhatsApp messages, scrolling mindlessly on other apps. Most of my friends stay abroad and hence overnight the group chats are filled with forwards, vidoes, photos and general nonsense, admit it, no conversation of any deep value takes place on social media.

You dont message your therapist, you talk to them, hoping you see the difference here.

So continuing the day, anytime I am off my work screen, my hand automatically checks my phone, while eating, while drinking tea and even on a walk. I am a zombie, like most of you, and off late I cannot fall asleep until I watch a dozen YouTube videos. Yet, I claim I am not addicted. Stop reading right now and reflect, are you in denial too?

Post the privacy update on WhatsApp, I started really looking at their operation model, anyone who has my number can add me to a group without my permission. I have an option to exit, but if I do not check this group for a few hours, say, the amount of time my number is available to all random people added to that group. This started happening to me, as local vendors, clothes shops and grocery stores I visited, started adding me to their random sale groups. How did they get my number? In India shopkeepers ask for your mobile number for billing purposes, and that’s how they used mine. Similarly I found myself being added to multiple groups of extended friends and family and school friends and colleagues and before I knew, there was an unknown WhatsApp etiquette to be followed , if you exit any of the personal groups, the friends would get upset, call me and convince me to join. I tried reducing using this app so many times but it didn’t help, does that mean I am weak minded? No way, I am one of the strongest willed people I know. When I stepped back and took a hard look, it struck me, the app is not the problem, but the app enables anyone to contact me at any time of the day, the accessibility has left us with no boundaries.

Out of the 200 odd ppl on various groups, only a dozen or so add value to my life, the rest are there to share their fake happy lives,or just need someone to fill their boredom, none of them do it on purpose, they are all nice people. But the question is what am I trading in return for this accessibility? My mind is constantly searching for a distraction, I cannot focus, I need my phone always with me, I have an urge to keep checking notifications and I never realized until I stopped and observed myself. Scientists are saying our mobile phones are our pacifiers, they provide a Dopamine release every time you get a notification ping or every time you refresh your feeds, with every like and comment. This is the same theory used by casinos to addict people to slot machines. No amount of will power is going to make you immune, these algorithms are built to hook you and hook you hard. This is the power of influencing and the hundreds of so called influencers online. We have stopped having an opinion of our own long ago, we only think we do, we are accepting opinions of the influencers that’s it.

I decided to delete WhatsApp, and for an hour I was thinking how I will keep in touch with friends. I had forgotten something called an SMS/text message that is free with all phone plans, that is how we used to stay connected before WhatsApp, before the internet existed on our phones. I had an Orkut account back then (many kids will not know what this is, it was a precursor to Facebook), a Yahoo avatar for chatting and I would spend limited time checking emails and chatting and in general online, it was not being bombarded onto me 24X7, I could control when and how I wanted to use the internet, and that was when we truly had a choice. Plus there are other alternative apps now for connecting with friends and family abroad. And more than that, I asked myself “Why do I need to be constantly connected with everyone?” Can you see how a want has been converted to a need?It is so subtle that it is scary.

The reaction from my friends and extended family shocked me even further, some of them were concerned about me, thinking I am depressed or want to socially isolate, some of them praised me for my bravery to take such a step and some of them fought with me for being too extreme, claiming that social media/phone addiction is similar to avoiding alcohol, why avoid the party just dont drink? Now, all of them are dear friends and mean well, but what shocked me was, how did a communication tool become so ingrained in our social fabric that going off one app, causes such alarm and that we are unable to imagine another way of living? When did we equate fun to being on social media? That we cannot understand that it is just a tool and that every person has a choice to decide?When did social media start dictating our quality of human interaction?

I am not depressed or sad or socially isolating myself, if anything I am trying to go the other way, WhatsApp and other apps have socially isolated us. When was the last time you called a friend on his/her birthday instead of just sending a lousing GIF or message? I am guilty of this too. Is that what we call quality social interaction? When did we reach such a sad place in technology advancement and how have we let ourselves become lab rats for big social media and online tycoons? If you still think I am overreacting, challenge yourself to sit quietly in a corner without phone, music, conversation or any distraction, just you and your thoughts for 10 minutes straight? You will be amazed at how restless you get. We are so discontent, we constantly need stimulus after stimulus of cute cat videos or political rants or propaganda,or a scrolling hours and hours on Pinterest, missing out that lovely sun outside the window. I find myself only either working for my office, eating, sleeping or scrolling on my phone , there is nothing of value I am letting myself do. We all complain we have no time, but it is not true, the pandemic added to this and people just filled every waking hour or minute watching series on Netflix and Amazon instead of learning something or enriching their lives. Are we so scared to face our own thoughts? To give so much time on artificially connecting over social media than rather living a life?

I have deleted my profile on WhatsApp and slowly plan to go off other social media apps,I am not going off grid, there are still other ways to be online and stay connected, but not on my mobile phone. I do not give permission for anyone to contact me at any time, if you are a close friend, and if you need me, call me or text me and I am there. I am going to give time to quality connections, even with friends abroad, I am planning to write emails or connect over video calls rather than just texting on the surface. Trust me, if you take this step only people who genuinely care will find a way to stay connected. I have seen way too many fake happy marriages and fake lives on social media, and I bet you have too, let us cut out the clutter. You need not be everyone’s best friend, you were never supposed to be.

With my research, what I have learnt so far is social media companies do not use our data, they are not interested in our data, rather we are the commodity they sell. We are a demographic sold to the highest bidder and what they need is our attention. So I refuse to participate, nothing is for free in this world, if all these apps are for free, you are trading something of much more value than you bargained for. Now does that mean they are all evil? Not at all, they have helped people find medical assistance, blood banks, organ donors, finding roommates, finding house on rent , selling stuff and a lot more using these apps. I reconnected with a lost friend over Facebook who I was searching for 17 years. So it started off as a good thing, the trouble is, it is unregulated and growing into something far more harmful than intended. The issue is the companies do not stop there, it is getting to a point of subconscious manipulation, with sublingual messaging by tracking your every move. We all want to deny it because of course none of us want to acknowledge we are vulnerable and this gullible.

I know I have touched on various aspects of this issue, from the lack of focus, to addiction, to Dopamine release, to personal space, to the erosion of our social fabric, the truth is this is affecting all parts of our lives.

I am going to experiment and I will share more as I move along:

  1. I am starting by slowly removing these apps from my mobile phone

  2. Setting aside time to check some of these apps only on my laptop, at a designated time of the week to browse

  3. Trying to minimise my YouTube addiction by setting a reminder on the app

  4. Tring to reduce the constant need for “artificial” connection, if I miss a friend I will call and talk

  5. I want to try and move to a basic phone, I cannot do it immediately but I am planning on it, a phone must be a phone.I miss my first phone a sturdy Nokia 3310 I think, I forgot the model name, battery would last days and I thoroughly enjoyed texting and talking to friends on it, the voice quality still beats fancy phones. If you notice, the latest phones have terrible reception and voice quality and one cannot talk for long unless using headphones.

This is a personal experiment to test my addiction, how this social detox will improve my life and mental health? Will I feel less restless? Will I be able to focus and do things that matter?

The social experiment is to observe how my friends, family and acquaintances react to my decision, and this will show me how far our dependency has creeped. Will they be ok with texting me using SMS or a call? Will they be ok emailing me photos or setting a time for a video call? Will they get upset and showcase their own insecurities? Will they even stay in touch because they cannot see the alternate ways to stay in touch?

All I know is the more comfortable and convenient life has become, the less we are living it, the gadgets, the overnight amazon delivery, the million odd things we “need”, they are stopping us and distracting us from facing the real questions of life and keeping us trapped in a loop.

Are we already so deep into the matrix that we do not even realize it? Or is there time still to identify and make choices. There is no right or wrong here, I do not claim to be any authority on what is right, I am merely observing and I ask you to do the same. Observe, if any of your friends want to try a social media detox, be open to the idea, even if they come back after a week, it is alright, if you do not try you will not know. Do not discourage people from experimenting, and if this intrigues you, give it a try. This is not a life or death situation, it is a choice of living and a choice of which medium to use to communicate, let us not make it complicated.

I will be sharing more on how I predict the future of humanity will look, where I will dive into a choice we will need to make at some point, either to stay in the grid or off the grid and the earlier we start thinking about this the better. I hope this blog post is not drab or scary, I mean this to be thought provoking, let us start a dialogue with open minds, every coin has a flip side, every good has a bad side attached to it.How do we find a balance? And more importantly is there any balance to be found?


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