Istanbul, Turkey - January 13, 2016: Person holding a brand new Apple iPhone 6s with Facebook profile on the screen. Facebook is a social media online service for microblogging and networking, founded in February 4, 2004. Image Credit: Getty Images

Facebook has finally acknowledged the academic studies that say social media is bad for your health. I should know: I’ve just gone cold turkey. It’s been two weeks since I last tweeted and Tim Stanley feels great. I’ve lost weight, spoken to my family for the first time in years and have started work on a book called ‘Hey Loser, Put Down That iPhone!’ There’s a photo of me on the front cover in a leotard, throttling the Twitter bird.

For too long it’s been taken as read that criticising social media is like trying to hold back the tide: change comes in, tradition goes out, deal with it. We used to worry that TV would rot your brain; before that radio, before that cinema. Doubtless, cavemothers once shouted at their little Troglodytes: “Stop staring at that fire, it’ll ruin your eyes!” But just because change is inevitable doesn’t mean that we should be morally ambivalent about it. After all, the invention of the motor car made human existence a lot easier, but it also led to accidents. So, we rolled out seat belts, traffic lights etc. And while some seem to think that the larger the technological change, the more we should be willing to nod it through, logic dictates the opposite. The internet has revolutionised our society so dramatically, so quickly, that it has become a matter of self-preservation to stop and ask what its effects might be.
Physically, it’s pretty obvious. Bending over a phone all day ruins your posture. Staring at a small screen damages your eyesight. Watching videos until two in the morning upsets your sleep. And posting a photo of your cat having a bad hair day and waiting for the clicks to come works by exactly the same system of action and reward that you see practised in casinos and crack dens. We are hooked, folks. This is an addiction.

It’s an addiction with some good side effects. Social media has made it easier to advertise, sell, run for office and stay in touch. It means that the grandma who lives hundreds of miles away can see all the photos of her family’s holiday to Egypt on Facebook. Although, if I was that grandma, I’d be inclined to type: “Looks fun. How about inviting me next time?”

And that’s where the physical problems tip into the existential: the gap between reality and online fantasy. Social media is for many an alternative to being social: it means you don’t have to speak to granny in person. Moreover, we can choose precisely what grandma gets to see of our lives; not quite the whole picture, a collage of approved angles. In the Seventies, Susan Sontag wrote perceptively of how human beings use cameras to control our experience of things: the tourist sees the pyramids, he photographs the pyramids, the pyramids have been put in their place. In the old days he would then bore us all with a slide show: Giza shot out of focus, the heads chopped off the camels. Social media now accentuates the theatrical power of the camera by allowing the tourist to airbrush and disseminate said images, to give the impression of the perfect holiday to a boundless audience. The internet isn’t just a lens into our lives, it’s also a stage for us to perform on, and the effects, particularly on young girls obsessed with body image and the scrutiny of peers, can be devastating. One sad inquiry into the death of a teenager who had been bullied at school and online found that some of the hate mail she received may have been posted by herself.

‘Big-haired Nazi

Social media encourages us to push the extreme version of ourselves: Beautiful and ugly, victim and sadist. Few people, I’m convinced, are as ghastly in real life as they are on Twitter: The anonymous person who calls me a “big-haired Nazi” is probably a sweet old lady who is just frustrated that her grandchildren won’t call. The opposite to this rule is true, too: No one is as virtuous in real life as they appear online. And yet the thing that has probably driven me off Twitter — more than the abuse or the name-calling or the demands that I get a haircut — are the people who seem to be shocked and appalled by the most banal things. If a newspaper publishes the headline ‘MP leers at woman on bus’, within seconds there is a chorus of “filthy beast”, “sack the pervert” and “this is exactly why men shouldn’t be allowed on buses”.

The prime minister will call for an inquiry into the male libido; the Six O’Clock News will announce that public outrage has forced the MP to flee abroad. In the pubs and canteens of real life, however, you’ll find almost none of this disgust and, among those who don’t even look at Twitter, a wonder at what all the fuss is about. It is out of envy for the calm reflection in those unairbrushed faces that I decided to try walking away.
Eventually the consensus will emerge that social media is unhealthy and antisocial. Until that day, someone has to take a stand by going quiet. No photos, no videos, no politics. How will social media react to my protest? I can’t wait to find out when I post this article on Facebook and Twitter. And before you call me a hypocrite, consider this: how else will people know I’m ignoring them unless I tell them about it?

— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018

Tim Stanley is an English blogger, journalist and historian.