The Challenge Faced by Society Today
“As I close my laptop, the coldness envelopes me suddenly; its harshness greeting me unpleasantly. Around me, dozens of students whom I hadn’t noticed earlier crouch over their desks with books and gadgets. I wonder what new knowledge they are learning. Was it Newton’s Law of Gravity, book keeping of accounting records or the French revolution? Knowledge flourished, from the lit up screens to the scrap papers with scribbled notes. The multiplied sounds of keyboards and pens clicking form a rhythmic, monotonous sound. The subtle yet clean smell of the air purifier waves beneath my nose. Hearing a soft rumble in my stomach, I hastily pack my stationery and head to the first place that crossed my mind:128 Cafe, where a savoury plate of fried rice awaits me.”
More often than not, descriptive writing is used to enable readers to imagine a situation; an author uses a palette of the five senses when painting a scene in a story. But what if the roles were reversed? What if the reader, or an average person, were given the task of describing the daily scenes of their life?
As simple as the task may sound, it could be a challenge for today’s society.
The lives of people today are, undoubtedly, fully intertwined with technology. Whether it is using a smartphone to record Blackpink’s live performance or replying to an important message during dinner– a part of our brain lives in this digital world. It prioritises capturing moments for this online world, replying to messages or emails to stay connected with other online users, and craves entertainment on platforms such as TikTok and Netflix. Unlike the stock market which opens and closes at certain times of the day, the digital realm is alive, forever. It lives and breathes in a fast-paced nature where media such as videos, articles and music circulate through the veins of the network– and at the heart of it all, social media. Naturally, people are not able to fully commit their attention to the present moment as their senses do not completely absorb their surroundings. For this reason, people today may have gaps in their memories– moments that make up this precious thing we call, life.
Is it An Addiction?
If asked whether one could live without a phone, a common response is a no and this is justified by practical reasons such as a phone is needed to make phone calls, take pictures and provide directions. However, a large majority of our time spent on the phone is, realistically, on social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok.
When the phone screen lights up due to a notification, a person’s natural reaction is to instantly reach for it; it is a natural reflex. And by the time you know it, the usual rotation of checking all the social media apps has been completed, but the original notification that started all of this? Forgotten.
Other than that, during vacations or hangouts, despite them being a prime opportunity to broaden our horizons through visiting new places and holding conversations, the number one thought that arises is: to get the perfect Instagram shot– because if there’s no picture, it didn’t happen, right? Beautiful destinations, meaningful conversations and quality time with our loved ones no longer matter unless the perfect shot is taken to capture them. Sadly, the quality of these moments are defined by the quality of the photos.
Above all, in the little, short windows of our days when boredom strikes, be it when stuck in traffic or waiting for a friend, the phone becomes our trusted friend for entertainment. Face down, eyebrows furrowed, thumb tapping on the brightly lit icons on the screen, we succumb to the irresistible urge to connect online; exchanging mundane moments of our life for exciting, stimulating content. Whether it has grown into an addiction, is for us to reflect upon.
The Dark Side Beyond Screens
Just like the Dark side in Star Wars, the people behind your favourite social media apps are hungry for power, and will do anything in their ability to keep you on their app. But what spell do they cast to achieve this?
1.Slot Machine Strategy
“What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”. Notorious for its bustling gambling scene, Las Vegas’ ultimate casinos attract people from all corners of the Earth.
Without stepping foot into a casino, children and teenagers have already unknowingly participated in a form of gambling which could similarly lead to an addiction. Social media apps such as Instagram and Twitter adapt the concept of slot machines in their pull-to-refresh feed. For every pull, the outcome is unpredictable; be it an announcement post of NCT Performing Live in Malaysia or Louis’ trip to Bali, the constant surprise users are greeted with lures them in every time. As harmless as it may seem to refresh a page, this repetitive habit among children and teenagers particularly, can lead to dark, mental health issues such as anxiety and depression because their minds have been engineered to desire instant gratification and this rush of dopamine. There is no denying that adults also experience this desire, but there is a stronger appeal to children and teenagers because their brains are still developing. According to a CNN article, Dr. Eva Telzer, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina, states that “for youth who habitually check their social media, the brain is changing in a way that is becoming more and more sensitive to social feedback over time, and this is setting the stage for how the brain continues to develop into adulthood.”
2. Catering to Short Attention Span
At the switch of a tab, one can access the worlds of online shopping, education and even entertainment in a split second. Talk about jumping multiverses! Digital platforms provide readily available resources, information and services that can be accessed at our fingertips. There has never been a better time in history to be a student with access to the limitless world of the Internet, or an artist who can draw inspiration from Pinterest or Dall-E, or even a software engineer who can self learn coding languages through online courses. The abundance of accessible resources and services found online have undoubtedly improved productivity, efficiency and quality of work in every career and field, yet its overwhelming consumption by digital natives has shortened their attention span. According to an online research, the attention span of an average person has decreased by 34% within the span of a decade and a half, from 12.5 seconds in 2000 to 8.25 seconds in 2015. Currently in the year 2023, we can only imagine how much shorter it has become.
Ever heard of the saying, “ don’t add salt to a wound”? Well, that’s exactly what social media companies did. TikTok, the trailblazer of short-form online content, soared to become the most downloaded app on the Apple App Store in 2022 and has over 1 billion active users worldwide (online statistics). As more and more users such as teenagers, musicians, athletes, politicians and chefs join the bandwagon, the attention span of society as a whole is steadily decreasing. But what are the nuts and bolts of this app that causes this effect? When a person is not entertained by a TikTok video, all that has to be done is to swipe up for the next video. Due to the instant gratification felt in a split second, users get used to this fast paced concept of entertainment and indulge in this infinity loop of endless content. With an over stimulated mind, users may then find it difficult to focus in a conversation or lecture, and that is where the problem arises, or worsens.
While TikTok’s short-form content swept the world by storm, other social media companies were quietly taking notes. Not long after, Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts were later introduced to the public, both of which had the exact same concept as TikTok; there was almost little to no effort put in to specialise their versions of short-form content.
3. Tracking Your Online Activity
“Every breath you take, every move you make, every bond you break, every step you take, I’ll be watching you.”
Social media companies are always one step ahead of us. By collecting the data of users, they are able to track suspicious log-in attempts, app crashes and most importantly, the behaviour of its users online. From profiles often visited to the duration of viewing posts and stories, apps such as Facebook and Instagram identify the interest of users, enabling them to choose relevant advertisements and posts to appear on their users’ feeds.
Take for example a coffee enthusiast who often browses the profiles of new coffee shops, as well as posts reviews and aesthetic shots of coffee; the algorithm would detect this consistent trend and provide posts about aesthetic cafes and coffee bean products and fill the Explore page with coffee-related content. There is no denying that the workings of this algorithm benefit users by compiling the various types of content they are interested in. Instead of having to search for these things, it is all spoonfed to the user. However, on the downside, this very same algorithm is also lethal as it hooks users onto the app for hours on end. Since the Instagram feed is carefully curated to suit the interests of users, every post draws their attention, spiralling them into a rabbit hole of what users might deem as entertaining; but in actual fact, it is just an overload of new information that the brain cannot fully process, and thus, is pointless.
With technology filling every aspect of our lives, from assisting us in our daily tasks to providing us tools for research, we have truly reached the pinnacle of this technological era. Other than the basic human needs such as water, air and food, gadgets such as smartphones and laptops have taken on an equal importance for one to survive, and strive, in this digital age. Despite the leaps and bounds made possible by technology, it has also adversely affected the lifestyle and mental health of people today, altering their perception of life forever. Attaining a peaceful life is now a challenge for society today because a part of our minds subconsciously lives in the digital world which never sleeps. Therefore, in order to fully optimise today’s technology and reduce its negative impact on life, consider taking a social media detox every once in a while. Pause. Clear your head. Smell the roses. Give yourself a chance to live a life without distractions, and focus on what truly matters before you. The next time you think about pulling out your smartphone, think: do you want to let this moment slip away?
Written by: Caitlin
Edited by: Poorani