While there is no sign of our collective obsession with social media fading any time soon, there is also a growing determination by some to cut all ties and go on a technology detox.
It sometimes feels as if new platforms for posting, sharing and pontificating are appearing by the day. With so many outlets for people to share their opinions and views of the world, and with few controls and little in the way of fact-checking, it is perhaps no surprise that social media is increasingly being blamed for playing a part in a range of situations affecting society, from Donald Trump’s victory in the recent United States presidential election to the growing incidence of depression among teenagers.
The stream of information and urge to be connected all the time can be overwhelming and take a toll, particularly on celebrities who have millions of followers. All of their online activity is under scrutiny, and any perceived transgression faces a vocal, intense backlash. This leads some to delete their social media accounts, or disable them temporarily.
American model and reality-TV star Kendall Jenner made headlines last week when she deactivated her Instagram account. She is back now, but told talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres she needed a break.
“I would wake up in the morning and look at it first thing, I would go to bed and it would be the last thing I looked at,” she said. “I felt a little too dependent on it, so I wanted to take a minute.”
Some stars resolutely refuse to get involved with social media. Actress Angelina Jolie, for example, told People magazine she has not signed up to Facebook, Twitter or Instagram because “it’s beyond what we understand”. Fellow star Sandra Bullock described it as a “false projection of our lives”.
Some UAE residents are also switching off social media for good.
Shruthi Rameshan, the owner of Dubain production company Avega Dance Creations, quit cold turkey three months ago and says she found it ”liberating”.
“I’m having the best time,” she says. “I don’t even miss it. I’ve disabled the apps from my phone and actively update myself through real conversations with people now.”
Rameshan says she decided to test whether she could stay off social media without compromising her connections to friends when she felt she was drowning in a deluge of virtual communications.
“I felt overwhelmed by the amount of information out there,” she says. “It’s almost like a pseudo connection that you have with other people.
“When scrolling through Facebook, you think you are involved in your friends’ lives, but you aren’t really. And then you unconsciously begin comparing yourself and your life to others.”
Najat Hage from Abu Dhabi found herself reaching for her phone every few minutes to check social media about two years ago. Such an obsessive habit prompted the Canadian mother of two to disable Facebook.
“I’m not anti-social media,” says Hage, who still has an Instagram account through which she posts photos of her children every few months, for the benefit of her family back home.
“It was just taking up too much of my time,” she admits. “When we are in the cab or the doctor’s office, we have our nose buried in our phones, checking our social media. It’s just not a productive use of time and I was doing it often.”
Dr Annie Crookes, associate head of the School of Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt University Dubai Campus, says it is not always the amount you use social media that is the problem, but the way it is being used.
“It has a negative effect when it starts taking over from a more face-to-face social interaction or other things you do in the day,” she says.
“So obviously, if you are distracted at work because you are constantly checking social media, then that’s taking away from your functional part of the day.”
Crookes says that if you start exhibiting antisocial behaviour in real life, that is another red flag.
“If you find yourself interacting more with people online and find that easier than doing it face to face, when in the past you used to enjoy that more, that would be a sign that you need to step back and reassess how you use social media.”
Crookes says one of the issues is that people often want to be part of every available network.
“They feel the need to be on all platforms otherwise they feel like they are missing out,” she says. “Then they are bombarded with all these different messages and it gets too much.”
Rameshan says she now has more time to pursue passions that are fulfilling and make more meaningful connections with people offline.
“I find that I have a lot more time, so I carry a book or music with me wherever I go,” she says. “I also actively try to make conversation with people around me in public places. There is an entire refocus of priorities.”
Social media can be very self serving and create a false reality, things Dubai resident Sami Zahid Qureshi wants to avoid.
“People are very narcissistic on social media,” says the 40-year-old management consultant. “It’s all about what I did and what I saw – it can be socially disruptive.”
Qureshi says he is on business networking site LinkedIn simply for industry insights and job leads.
“I’ve instead signed up to journals and news sites that come to my email,” he says. “So I have a curated stream of information that I’m interested in.”
Some analysts have suggested that social media was at least partly responsible for Donald Trump’s victory in this month’s US presidential election.
Online echo chambers are created by our own personal preferences and the social-media algorithms that assemble our newsfeeds, create a bubble that promotes fake news and leaves no room for opposing ideas.
An analysis by website BuzzFeed after the election found that the top fake election news stories generated more engagement on Facebook than the top election stories from 19 major legitimate news outlets combined.
Hage says media literacy is a huge problem and many people don’t really know or understand where the news they see on social media is coming from.
“Friends often quote something they see on Facebook, but if you ask them the source they are clueless,” she says. “So they don’t even know if it’s true but they believe it anyway.”
To avoid that sort of bias, Allen Kenneth Schaidle, alumni relations and fund officer at New York University Abu Dhabi, sticks to following real news sources rather than using social media to stay informed.
“It’s quite simple to stay up to date on current events without social media,” he says. “I usually read a book every week, either on a subject I’m interested in or on current topics. Then, I listen to NPR in the car and BBC in the mornings while preparing for work.”
Schaidle also subscribes to news alerts from major international newspapers.
“Humans are social creatures – computers often just get in the way of the most meaningful discussions,” he says. “Instead of typing to individuals, I make time to meet them.”
Crookes also points out that being plugged into social media constantly is blamed for increasing levels of depression, especially among young people who can be easily influenced by the distorted reality presented online.
A small-scale study of teenagers by US TV news channel CNN last year found that the heaviest users of social media were checking updates more than 100 times a day. This year, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine concluded that the more time young adults spent on social media, the more likely they were to be depressed.
“It is a normal social process for young people to compare themselves to others and position themselves within a social group,” says Crookes. “But in virtual reality there is a manipulated representation of your social network and the comparison becomes unrealistic. They see a hyper-positive life, which isn’t always the case, but the message that comes across is ‘I can’t really compete with that’.”
She says the only way to break free is to set social-media boundaries. “There should be times in the week when you are not on social media and don’t feel guilty about not being on it,” she says.
“It’s that time when you are actively present in the real world and mindful about things happing to you in reality.”