Social media: We need to reassess the increasing digitisation of our lives – Alastair Stewart

One of the great philosophers of our age, Katy Perry, once wondered, “Are we crazy, living life through a lens?”

An obsession with social media and virtual life can lead to a collision with reality (Picture: Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images)
An obsession with social media and virtual life can lead to a collision with reality (Picture: Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images)

As Covid restrictions ease (“coming to an end” is dangerous karma-chancing nonsense), we are faced with a dilemma: can life go back to normal?

It is a Groundhog Day discussion. The answer is always "yes, absolutely, yes”. And then another variant and another set of restrictions lock us away from one another.

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A return to normal is not quite what we think it is. Thanks to the internet and social media, we have lived through digital avatars like Facebook and Twitter for decades.

Life is lived in silos, anyway – what we share and read on social media has left us more cut off, not united as the idealists would have encouraged you to believe. Lockdowns compounded the problems; they did not create them.

A return to the office is just one resolution to a more prevalent issue. Professional settings relying on Zoom or Teams is an extension of email taking over from letters and in-person meetings for every single subject. In-person has not been our norm for a long time.

Even back in the halcyon days of the early noughties, with MSN Messenger being the de facto teen-communique of choice, the writing was on the wall for the next 20 years.

The “2021 Facebook outage” even has its own Wikipedia entry, as if it was one of the most significant events of last year.

The downing of Instagram and WhatsApp left people with a visceral feeling of being cut off – how do I contact people? How do businesses run and operate? The apparent irony that many were expressing these concerns while using their phone is not lost.

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Before the pandemic, I attended my first social media wedding. The emphasis was less on the day or the time immemorial photography but quick-fire social media hits.

Weddings, of course, necessitate an inevitable staged drama. This was the first wedding I had attended where guests were staring at their phones and endlessly tinkering with colours and the format of photos as events were ongoing. It was an absurd spectacle to observe.

Rather famously, Winston Churchill initially objected to the presence of television cameras at the 1953 crowning of Queen Elizabeth II.

In a speech to the House of Commons, he said, it “would be unfitting that the whole ceremony… should be presented as if it were a theatrical performance”.

Churchill understood then that what is seen through a screen spoils the magic of real life. Yet that is very much our surreal world now.

When I was teaching abroad, the toxicity of unpoliced social media was damning. Students would report online bullying and say it was part and parcel of their lives.

Children who had their phones removed as punishment were ashen. They needed to know what was happening on the motorway of gossip and information they had been abruptly forced off. It physically hurt them.

After Chromebooks were introduced to classrooms, basic skills suffered – first-year students with laptops who took notes and created presentations had to re-learn how to write quickly in exam scenarios.

The ubiquitous presence of technology warped their view – they could not understand the notion of book-based research or reading for pleasure that was not accompanied by the steadying hand of online summaries.

Academics and many users agree that social media has an addictive quality that erodes people's quality of life. Some studies speculate that a social media 'hit' explains the decline in drug use among millennials.

Whether checking your phone for the latest Twitter update before bed or fretting in anticipation for that next Facebook 'like' you get, most people wear their hearts on their router.

It is not just sharing information: horrible diagnoses, deaths, and emotional news are shared in tweets and posts. The bad and good can have an incredible impact on our days.

Adults and children are plagued by the same problem, fear of missing out, and are driven to stare. Everyone else does it, and so must I. While anonymous comments upset people, there is a general sense it is a price worth paying.

Many friendships have devolved into a silent, voiceless exchange. Social media can be a repetitive vacuum into which people take out and see their worst vices; we are jealous of cultivated good news and slightly relish in the hint of sour.

There's a higher propensity for fraud and criminal behaviour, to say nothing of the issues surrounding news authenticity and misinformation.

Covid has compounded these problems – but the end to restrictions could lead to problems. Businesses, relationships, friendships, hobbies: everything has benefited from digital and social media adaptability.

But there are now in-built tools and settings on phones to police time spent on these things. There is a danger, and it needs to be more freely discussed than it is now, particularly regarding mental health.

The digitisation of our workplaces and social lives is the culmination of a process that started long before 2019. As life, hopefully, moves on from Covid, there is an opportunity to evaluate whether certain habits should be abandoned.

Scotland, as ever, has the opportunity to lead: there should be a series of public health recommendations and guidance issued as a direct result of how the pandemic has changed our online behaviour.

To do so would be to accept the reality that there are consequences to nearly two years of near-constant virtual living, and if nothing else, it would help prepare us for the next time we need to live digitally.

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