I now use the same filtering software that my family uses to block pornographic sites to block Twitter. I still maintain an account. A colleague posts links to articles I write for me. I acknowledge good uses of Twitter as a bulletin board to share long-form articles, book recommendations, timely weather information and announcements. I’m still on social media sites like Instagram about once a week or so.
But I don’t ever want to go back to how I used to use social media. I think social media is, for the most part, bad for society. It damages democracy, debate and social discourse. It malforms us, leading to spikes in depression and anxiety, especially among girls and young women. I believed these things even when I was on Twitter every day, but I felt trapped, pulled in like a tractor beam. I used to say that I was staying on Twitter, even though I thought it wasn’t great for me, to try to make a difference there. I thought, perhaps pompously, that I could be the change I wanted to see on the internet. What I’ve realized, though, is that the main change I want to see on the internet is for people to be on it less. This has been the big revelation for me, one so obvious that I’d missed it for years.
I used to think I could have a strong online presence and still have a rich life offline. I thought I could multitask, toggling seamlessly between the online and material worlds. But every hour, minute or second I spend online is an hour, minute or second that I’m not cultivating something — a relationship, a quiet moment, a connection with nature, a chore, a passing conversation, a daydream — in the physical, analog world.
The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt pointed out in The Atlantic last July that nearly two out of three Americans believe that the changes brought by social media are for the worse. Still, he says that in his field there is a “quasi-moral norm of skepticism: We begin by assuming the null hypothesis (in this case, that social media is not harmful).” I’d argue that a similar mind-set is true of Americans more generally. We tend to approach technology as a neutral tool and only later understand how it forms us and changes us. No one wants to be seen as a Luddite.
Technology promises greater ease, convenience, connection and newfound joy, and we often believe its promises from the start, embracing it with excitement and optimism. By the time we see the downsides of a new technology, the damage is done. We feel we can’t undo — at least not without great cost — the ways technology has shaped our homes, cities, worship, work and lives. Our initial naïve embrace gives way to a sort of technological fatalism. So-called progress, even if it harms our children or our health, feels inevitable and unstoppable. This seems to be where we are now with social media. Most Americans are aware that study after study shows that it is harming us, especially young people. Yet we feel trapped.