Arts and Culture

The Phenomenon of Social Media

THERE ARE SO many problems in the contemporary world that at the Prayer of the Faithful at Mass, I hardly know what to mention. Where do I begin and how much detail should I give?

I have similar problems in writing a weekly column. There are no lack of problems to write about, but I am limited by time and also by my own ignorance. I can see the problem, but sometimes, I cannot see a solution. One area of contemporary life that I have become more and more preoccupied with is social media.

Often when friends and I get together, the conversation turns toward the phenomenon of social media. All of us know that something is wrong, but our knowledge is largely anecdotal. We share stories about seeing a man and woman sitting at a table in a restaurant, each of them on a cell phone, or having dinner at someone’s home with at least one or two people regularly checking phone messages, or students on campus walking while staring at a phone.

At St. John’s University on the first day of class, I stress that after the opening prayer, I don’t want to see any phones. I point out to the students that looking at a phone while I am lecturing is both rude and distracting for me. This last semester in three courses only once or twice did I have to remind a student of what I had stressed on the first day of class. I am not sure how strict other professors are.

Now I think that the next time I engage in a discussion with friends about social media my knowledge will be more than anecdotal. I am indebted to David Brooks for the Nov. 21, 2017 column he wrote for The New York Times titled, “How Evil Is Tech?” Pointing out that one of the key criticisms of big tech is what it is doing to the young, Brooks writes the following:

“… [I]t is destroying the young. Social media promises an end to loneliness but actually produces an increase in solitude and an intense awareness of social exclusion. Texting and other technologies give you more control over your social interactions but also lead to thinner interactions and less real engagement with the world.”

Brooks gives some disturbing statistics. He notes that eighth graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media increase their chances of depression by 27 percent. Teenagers who spend more than three hours a day on electronic media are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide. One example would be having a plan on how to commit suicide. Among girls, there is a 50 percent rise in depressive symptoms.

What does the future look like because of big tech? Brooks writes the following:

“The big breakthrough will come when tech executives clearly acknowledge the central truth: Their technologies are extremely useful for the tasks and pleasures that require shallower forms of consciousness, but they often crowd out and destroy the deeper forms of consciousness that people need to thrive.”

One of the facts that Brooks reports I found especially discouraging: He points out that the tech industry is causing addiction in order to make money. He writes:

“Tech companies understand what causes dopamine surges in the brain and they lace their products with ‘hijacking techniques’ that lure us in and create ‘compulsion loops.”

I don’t think there was ever a time when bringing up children was easy. However, the threat of big tech presents a whole new set of problems. I am neither a psychiatrist, nor a psychologist, nor an authority of mental health, but it seems obvious that many young people are addicted to social media. It seems to be extremely difficult for them to abstain from using social media. For many of them, there seems to be the need to be in contact with others throughout the day. This presents problems that parents and the rest of us have never had to deal with previously.

We have learned about other addictions, and have also learned to some extent how to battle them. No addiction is good. Every addiction can harm an individual.

What can I do about social media? Thanks to David Brooks, I am going to raise questions with friends, especially teachers, parents and young people I know who seem to be addicted. I know that I cannot solve the problem that social media presents, but I can learn more about it. The first step toward a solution is knowledge.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Profound Personalism and Poverty” (Resurrection Press).