Our world has shrunk considerably in the 21st century. It has contracted so much that we think we can hold the whole wide world in our palms by looking at our six-inch screens. We’ve witnessed an unprecedented communication revolution in the past 20 years, with the Internet and smart phones becoming ubiquitous features of our lives. We can’t even imagine how a life without them would look like anymore. And we use them a lot: on average, we touch our smart phones a staggering 2’617 times a day. Teenagers send out a text message every six minutes, again on average. When I walk the streets of Santa Monica and notice that nearly everybody coming my way is staring at their handheld devices, I always feel reminded of old black and white movies in which people smoke incessantly. Think of all those Humphrey Bogart films: barely a scene without the characters puffing away on their cigarettes. Knowing what we do now about the grave health threats posed by smoking, this behavior strikes us as odd and outdated. I wouldn’t be surprised if future generations will similarly look at us and shake their heads given the unacknowledged mental health issues caused by our addiction to smart phones.
And make no mistake, the dopamine hits administered in a steady drip by social media platforms are addictive by design. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok — all these corporations are effectively drug dealers vying for your attention to prolong screen time and run even more advertisements by you. They know exactly what they’re doing. That’s their business model. That’s why they’ve invented the infinite scroll. Yet there’s an even more disconcerting aspect to the operating practice of these platforms, and that’s the fact that these corporations harvest a staggering amount of data from their customers, creating digital avatars as to better target you and me with tailor-made ads — which allows them to ask even more money from advertisers. Even if you use their apps only sporadically, social media platforms can fairly quickly construct an extremely detailed consumer profile of you based on your location, movements, friends, likes, shopping habits, and use of other applications. Just imagine what an outcry by civil rights activists we would have witnessed if the government had issued a law 20 years ago requiring every single citizen to wear a tracking device around the neck. Yet as long as we can garner likes on Facebook and hearts on Instagram, we’re kind of OK with that. We indeed live in a brave new surveillance world.
Apart from encouraging addictive behavior and collecting vast amounts of individual consumer data, these platform also have a devastating effect on our social fabric. First of all, check your daily screen time and ask yourself what you could have done during the time that you were busy scrolling through your feeds. Think of the friends you could have actually met in person. Think of the hobbies you could have pursued. Think of the skills you could have acquired. Our smart phones have become extremely effective time-wasting machines at the expense of us engaging in something meaningful that would enrich our families and communities, like learning that instrument you’ve always wanted to play, like teaching your dog new tricks, like reading your child a second good-night story.