In 2022, I started tracking my daily screen time. I had been experiencing inexplicable fatigue, an aching neck, irritability, and trouble sleeping. I felt like a bag of potatoes, drained and exhausted all the time.
I suspected that my excessive use of electronic devices into the early hours of the morning might be to blame. How could my neck not ache after spending countless hours hunched over watching videos online until I passed out? After religiously checking my screen time which was clocking in at 11 to 14 hours per day, I discovered that I spent more time on Twitter than any other app.
When asked if there was anything he desired at the height of his success, American writer Charles Bukowski responded with an answer that resonates even with non-famous people living in the digital age who are prone to social media addiction or intense usage:
“The only thing missing now is more privacy than I would like. I would like to be alone more. Like the phone rings too often. There are too many cameras and all that and I kind of accepted but it’s not me.
When these things are gone, I go back to the room, and I become myself again. Often, I’ll pull down all the shades like I used to just lay down a room for five or six hours just alone.
Just lay in that bed and get something back, some kind of juice. Just being away from people – some of the most marvellous fulfilments a man like me can have.”
Unlike Bukowski, we can be alone in a room often. However, it is difficult to resist the urge to check our phones for the latest news.
Constant social networking is inescapable in the digital age, especially for Gen Z and millennials. Employers use platforms like WhatsApp, which were initially intended for personal use, to conduct business.
Gaming has become a communal activity that fosters social connections. Streaming a show or movie can be done communally. Music streaming apps also offer social features that allow users to participate in remote group listening sessions. In other words, digital platforms that are not specifically focused on social networking are becoming additional social hubs. Connection is an innate need that various digital platforms are capitalizing on.
An article published in the Journal of Human Behaviour and Emerging Technologies in 2020 discussed three main attributes of social media addiction:
- Excessive concern about social media
- A strong motivation to use social media as a driving force
- Devoting a lot of time and effort to social media results in the impairment of other aspects of life such as social activities, school, work, relationships, and overall well-being.
For all three of these criteria, I recognized in myself. My relationship with social media was intense. Even though I did not have a large following or posted often, I had managed to still form an unhealthy relationship with Twitter.
I cared too much about perception and the opinions others held on an array of issues. I internalised the external and, in the process, abandoned my ability to reason independently. I was addicted to the feeling of being connected to something bigger than myself.
I was addicted to the feeling of being in-the-know.
Social media, particularly Twitter, can provide much-needed escapism. However, it's critical to distinguish between addiction and heavy social media use:
“Whereas intense social media users remain in control, those addicted to social media will continue to compulsively use social media even if their social media use results in unwanted consequences, such as lack of sleep or relational conflicts (...)”
In 2022, I couldn't fathom life without a platform that provided me with everything from entertainment and news updates to drama, debates, opinions, and a sense of community. Until my friends pointed out that I was unable to be completely present when we were together, and that even when I wasn't fiddling with my phone during our face-to-face conversations, I was still making references to people and hot topics from Twitter as if they were common knowledge.
Many people consider themselves introverts, people who derive more pleasure and can recharge better when alone. As a self-proclaimed introvert, I used to believe this to be true for myself as well. I thought I revelled in solitude and didn't need or want to spend too much time with others.
However, this belief was in contradiction to my screen time, particularly the hours I spent on social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram. Perhaps I was honest in my belief that I recharged more in solitude and enjoyed time with myself because I was exhausted all the time, even though I hardly went out or had people over. The problem was that I didn't realize that being online while physically alone was still an engagement of mind with other people.
The truth is, I was surrounded by people digitally, constantly having social interactions that drained my energy. This was not solitude. It was a distraction and social stimulation fostered in a digital sphere, which has a similar effect to face-to-face encounters with people.
Digital engagement became a form of escapism, and spending too much time on it felt like abandoning my mind by my own doing. An avoidance of engaging with solitary thoughts and emotions.
And so, the weaning began: the final quarter of 2022 was spent trying to finally log off Twitter and never return. It took a few tries to eventually deactivate my account, but it finally happened.
It's hard because we as Generation Z are known for being constantly connected to the internet. We are the first generation to grow up with social media and mobile devices, and have used these technologies to stay connected with friends and family, learn new things, and express themselves.
BBC discussed the impact of this always-on phenomenon:
"An always-on approach to technology and content consumption means that unwinding often takes the form of withdrawal, or catching a break from the extroversion of social media."
This means that Generation Z often feels the need to take a break from technology to relax and recharge. Lamenting how this always-on connection is a source of stress and anxiety. The constant stream of information and stimulation is overwhelming and creates a barrier to naturally allowing time for solitude.
Digital users are realizing that being alone physically but still online is not the same as being truly alone. While you may be physically alone, you are still surrounded by people in your virtual space. This can make it difficult to truly relax and disconnect from the world.
For some, being alone is synonymous with loneliness, an anguishing experience they cannot tolerate for long. For others, solitude is a peaceful experience that they need but cannot have due to their inability to resist social media and other digital platforms that foster social connection. To borrow from the wisdom of Bukowski once again, the absence of humanity has led to being alone with everyone at each point of our individual lives.