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My relationship with social media is abusive, but I don’t have the agency to walk out

Campus Voice is an initiative by ThePrint where young Indians get an opportunity to express their opinions on a prevalent issue.

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In December 2020, as an intern, I was handling the social media accounts of the International Gita Mahotsav. A typical day involved writing captions, curating hashtags, and shooting short videos.

In February 2021, though, winds have changed their direction. I am sitting down to write an article about the frustration social media has caused in my life. Can I call it my life’s full circle? I’m not sure.

My journey with social media started in 2014, eight years after Facebook came to India. Back then, I was a socially awkward teenager, unable to sustain a conversation beyond pleasantries. If I were a girl, Sima Taparia from the Netflix show ‘Indian Matchmaking‘ would have said I am not flexible enough. My mother was, thus, worried. She wanted me to socialise, become friends with people and so, on her insistence, I joined Facebook.

Fast forward the years, Facebook and its plethora of brothers and sisters have obviously failed to make me more social. However, I want to register a complaint: Social media has held me hostage. And nobody can help.

To this end, I feel helpless and miserable. I feel I’ve lost autonomy over my body and head. After I rise and before I sleep, every day and every night, my right thumb runs and runs and runs. My eyes unblinkingly stare on the moving news feeds of Instagram and Facebook and Twitter.

For posterity, my neck has bent forward. My poor, little brain is doing overtime every night, trying to make sense of tonnes and tonnes of information, yet most of the time, I feel profoundly blank. I can’t focus on things I should be focusing on. My memory has grown patchy; my mind has lost its analytical bent. I can no longer meander in my thoughts; I can no longer feel rage or pain or pleasure.

It seems my smartphone is eternally stuck in palm of my hand. With every passing moment, the realisation is dawned on me — filling me with remorse and resentment and guilt — that social media and its addiction is making me dumb, destroying my precious time and stealing my attention.

Am I being a crybaby? You may think I’m behaving like a man child unable to bear consequences of my choices. But I don’t think so. I have got a firm counter question in my defence. I ask: “Where is choice?”

There is no choice when it comes to social media

Fed up of my addiction, I twice tried quitting social media last year, but every time my efforts failed, bringing me back to square one. When the outside world confronted the Covid-19 pandemic last year, my world shrank into a 9×9 room. I reacted by uninstalling WhatsApp, only to receive a call few days later of my friend, informing me English classes will resume over the messaging app.

Facebook-owned WhatsApp knows of its indispensability in this dystopian digital world. And it is in mood to take full advantage. In its new privacy policy, it gave me the wonderful choice of choosing between its arbitrary changes — which allow WhatsApp to read my chats with business accounts — or abandon my classes running online through its application.

What a sham that the company in its full page newspaper advertisements failed to come up with a more ironic statement than “WhatsApp respects and protects your privacy”.

It fills me with indignation that I know my relationship with social media is abusive, yet I don’t have agency to walk out if it. Indispensability of big tech in an increasingly digital world arms these companies to design their applications to be more and more addictive for their users. After the grand arrival of ‘reels’ on Instagram, I am spending catastrophic amount of time watching pointless short videos.

What angers me most is that these big time companies of Silicon Valley are treating their users like a coal mine. Millions of users like me are being exploited for their personal data. These companies know everything about us: where we eat, who we bunk classes with, which actors we swoon over, where we live, who we love, and so much more. They have extracted every bit of information about us required to make their products more and more addictive.

And just like ruthless extraction of minerals from Mother Earth left it damaged, I fear these companies will strip humans of their humanity.

Is this the way to live? Why can’t we no longer enjoy a sunset without capturing it? It frustrates me when couples in restaurants are gazing into the screens of their smartphones than looking into the eyes of their lovers. Social media and the modern bloodsucker leech called smartphone have already taken away our ability to do nothing. It will soon strip us of our empathy and our emotions. Life without social media is increasingly becoming a myth.

This leaves me scared, angry and frustrated — but mostly helpless.

Anup Semwal is a student of Kurukshetra University, Haryana

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