“I’ve been feeling anxious, ain’t been feeling right.”
“I can’t cut the wires runnin’ round my head.”
If you’re an average smartphone user and social media consumer, you can probably relate to the lyrics of Disconnect, a song composed by Welsh singer and songwriter Marina with Jack Patterson of the band Clean Bandit. For the full lyrics and a respectable interpretation, head to Genius.
Disconnect is, upon first look, a breakup song. Marina sings, “I’ve been calling exes / trying to disconnect.” The song comes from a place of angst, an intense emotion that’s been triggered by the inability to escape from reminders of what once was. She wants, desperately, to simply leave her phone in another room, but cannot, in a weakened state, summon the self control to do so. This lack of self control in regards to technology is unimaginable for many people, particularly older folks, but for digital natives like millennials and zoomers, it’s commonplace. Later, Marina talks about the all too relatable struggle of falling asleep. “I go out all night yeah, I go home alone / Sleeping in my bed, head beside my phone / Looking at a screen, glowing in the dark / I just wanna dream, but I can’t seem to switch off.” At this point, a an older person might interject “if you worked harder during the day, you wouldn’t have any trouble falling asleep.” For digital natives, though, the virtual reality that social media creates is often impossible to extricate from the day-to-day realness of slowing down and experiencing occasional boredom.
Our addiction to technology begins with boredom, or rather, our addiction begins where boredom ends. When we’re alone at a restaurant, we don’t wait for our food to arrive by staring out the window, watching the others in the restaurant, or contemplating our day. In order to stay occupied, we pull out our own computer and scroll until we have our food, and often, it doesn’t end there. We eat with one hand while liking photos with the other hand, ignoring our surroundings, ignoring our emotions, ignoring our bodies, ignoring the world. This behavior doesn’t go away when we’re around people we care about, either. The habits become so ingrained that it becomes more common to find a family collectively scrolling social media than it is to see one entertaining themselves with actual social interaction.
“Feel my body shutting down, I don’t wanna hear a sound / Feel my battery running low, I don’t wanna be alone.”
In conversations about technology’s influence on our mood, there is often much said about FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). It’s contended that scrolling through social media, realizing how much is going on without our involvement, can lead to bouts of depression. While I can personally confirm that this is a real phenomenon that has a real effect on one’s mood, I believe the bigger question is, “why are we so afraid of being alone, and why do our handhelds make us feel less alone, while simultaneously leading to a profound sense of loneliness when all is said and done?
With the advent of the Internet, a fear of being alone has been created because being alone, completely disconnected from human interaction, even the artificial interaction via our devices, is synonymous with being unimportant. Social media can make us all feel like celebrities at times, but it can, inevitably, make us feel like the most unseen person in the universe. The second we are struck with sadness over a breakup with a friend or a significant other, we may run to our social media feeds to calm ourselves down. Within minutes, though, we usually realize how miserable social media is when it is being consumed by miserable people. And so, like the person singing this song, we attempt to disconnect, but it is so much more difficult than we expect it to be.
Mark Zuckerberg and others, realizing the ridiculously high value of data, have created an ad farm that, in order to continue cashing in on hours of involvement across platforms like Facebook and Instagram, is tapping in to some of our most basic desires. These are, in my opinion, the desire to be loved, and the desire to be validated in our thoughts, opinions, and ideas. When a user of social media shares an image of themselves or a child, the likes they are then notified of can easily be seen as an artificial flow of love. When a user shares a “hot take” about pop culture or politics, the shares, comments, and likes all create a feed of validation. Without realizing it, we grow addicted to a false sense of love and validation that exists, like so many other things, only because most members of society attribute value to it. We each play our part, scrolling, liking, sharing, and commenting, so that it continues. But the same tool that feels rewarding when we’re sharing our thoughts and posting pictures of those important to us can so quickly be soured when life is not so joyful, and we don’t feel like producing anymore.
I joined Instagram and Facebook at such young ages. Honestly, I can barely remember doing it. Social media has been a part of my life for a while, and I was texting long before my first accounts were established. Once upon a time, I loved online interaction. So many thoughtful conversations were had over iMessage, and I appreciated the ability to share the way I saw the world through casual photography. After I started this blog, I began to research strategies to “build a platform” and “make my voice heard.” At one point, I even entertained thoughts of becoming a famous YouTube personality. (Let’s be real, though, if you were born in 2000 or any time after, you’ve had the thought cross your mind.)
These days, the colors of that dream have faded. The idea of aggressive platform-building and content-creating seems just a little self-aggrandizing. And while I realize that it works for many people, I can say, with some confidence, that it’s not for me. I wouldn’t be bothered by fame, I wouldn’t be mad if this blog suddenly took off. But I’m not trying to have the perfect social media timeline anymore, and that is freeing.
Still, though, I struggle with being alone. I struggle with the constant desire to pull out my phone and scroll away my boredom or feelings of unworthiness. Usually, I’ve dealt with this by deleting social media or temporarily shutting off my accounts completely. But in the end, it usually just means I read the news a little more, watch a lot more YouTube videos, and randomly text friends. What I want, truly, is not to force myself to turn off the inflows of social media and content. I want to teach myself to turn inward, to turn to God, to turn to real, meaningful, in-person or telephone conversations with friends. Because this is how solitude is cultivated. This is how loneliness is alleviated.