New Delhi: There are roughly 400 million Indians on WhatsApp, 241 million on Facebook and 120 million on Instagram. For comparison, the total population of the United States was 327 million, 212 million in Pakistan and 109 million in Ethiopia in 2018.
Facebook — the tech behemoth behind this digital revolution, with over 2 billion active monthly users — is now, in essence, the largest country in the world. The social networking company (including the platforms that fall under it) has its own code of conduct, functions on notions of membership, cultivates unique social mores, branches off into subcultures and groups, houses a digital marketplace and even has a flag equivalent — a trademarked logo, identified globally and synonymous with its digital identity.
In theory, the surveys and studies carried out by the likes of the World Health Organisation (WHO) on the prevalence of mental health disorders like depression worldwide (which India topped last year), should also assess the impact of our parallel online citizenship. Today, social media has an unparalleled effect on not only how India’s youth spends its time, but also on how it sees the world.
“You can’t leave it, because it’s become more than just an activity of sharing now,” Shranya Gambhir, a 24-year-old former Teach for India (TFI) fellow, tells ThePrint. “Facebook has consciously reinvented itself, changing its purpose to become a platform of opportunities and professional networks, and a consolidated calendar for everything happening in a city, country, the world,” she says.
“It’s a strange mix of needing to escape the real world, but then also needing to escape the digital one — which is very real in its own way. My friends and I often delete Instagram through the day and download it at night, to limit how much time we’re spending on it,” she adds.
In a week that marks the anniversary of two significant landmarks — a year since the #MeToo movement (5 October) and World Mental Health Day (10 October) — social media has become an important prism to understand how the youth grapples with the anxieties, as well as the opportunities, that come with being the tech generation.
A rabbit hole of envy, pressure and validation
When Dehradun-based Vrinda Batra moved to Paris three years ago for her masters degree, she used social media as “a way to keep in the loop about what’s going on at home, about what’s going on in my friends’ lives as well as the general changing dynamics of India”, but the seemingly innocuous activity became “like a weird rabbit hole I just kept going down. I’d spend hours and get so cut off from my surroundings. It was a bit scary”.
At least 10 young, urban respondents ThePrint reached (on social media, by the way), highlight the sense “of getting sucked inside a vortex” — “a seemingly endless reel of other people’s lives played out in front of you”, as Delhi-based Jahanvi Kocchar, with a background in advertising, describes it.
“Sometimes an entire day is spent on a screen sending cute memes, stalking someone, stalking yourself, editing a picture for 50,000 years, writing something you’ll never put up,” she says.
It’s not just about what you’re seeing, but also what you feel compelled to post. “A lot of the pictures I put on Instagram do give me a sense of catharsis — like I’ve somehow been able to express a feeling I couldn’t previously articulate,” Gambhir says, but almost immediately laughs. “But, yeah, why would I need to post it in front of an audience? Obviously it’s not just about catharsis, but something that lies between the release and having others observe and appreciate it — you want validation for this, it’s not private.”
“It’s like a drug dealer that’s always available,” explains Kocchar.
Using Facebook, it turns out, is actually quite similar to being addicted to cocaine, albeit less intensely. A research by Harvard University researcher Trevor Haynes found that when people receive likes or comments on social platforms their brains release the pleasure-giving chemical Dopamine.
In 2018, Chamath Palihapitiya, the former vice-president of User Growth at Facebook, admitted to a room full of Stanford students that “short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works”.
Just a year prior, a small study conducted at the University of Bergen found that 73% of their subjects felt a sense of anxiety and panic on realising their phone had been misplaced. The fact that internet de-addiction centres are a thriving business, even in India, and ‘phantom vibration syndrome’ — wherein one hears their phone to be continuously ringing, even when it’s not — is now a real, clinical disorder and points to the deep-rooted hold technology has over our mental health today.
“Social media allows us to create, and constantly strive to sustain, an alternate reality or image of ourselves and our lives,” Ankita Khanna, a clinical psychologist and art-based therapist at Children First, explains to ThePrint.
“The standards of this alternate reality/image are set by our (often biased) perceptions of other people’s constructed realities – our aspirations for who we wish to be,” she says, “And often finding an avenue for those aspirations to be ‘put out there’ with little basis in reality.”
“I think it really does give me anxiety when I look at the way people present their lives on Facebook and Instagram,” Ananya Rae Chandra, currently studying law at the London School of Economics and Political Science, tells ThePrint.
“Everything is always perfect. The perfect relationship, the perfect shot of some famous location, a perfect flat lay. And we know real life just isn’t like that.”
It’s not all bad but it needs moderation
Just as the boundaries of our country, depending on your position of privilege within the social framework, provide us with different measures of frustration and fulfilment — social media isn’t all bad. Many believe that social media is no different from real life, in which you would only share a superficial layer of your life with your acquaintances, saving the grittier details for your closer friends and family.
Ishan Sharma, a musician based in Switzerland, says that social media applications help foster a sense of belonging.
“It’s all about how you use it,” he says, explaining that it helps him keep his listeners “posted with my music exploits and me with theirs! And it helps to build a community.”
“Not to say there’s not a bad side to social media but it’s only a reflection of its users at the end of the day,” he adds.
Everytime someone says “smartphones are making this generation stupid & addicted”, I feel like countering “they’re keeping them alive, safe, a little less lonely, a little more accepted, collaborate, find solidarity, be seen, find work, be with people similar to them, find roots”
— Rituparna Chatterjee (@MasalaBai) October 2, 2019
#revolutions come at a cost
For those willing to go up against trolls in their endeavour to support a cause, voice their opinions and provide allyship, social media can be a powerful tool. The hashtag revolution of the #MeToo movement gathered enough momentum to make a union minister resign — without a single hunger strike or overnight sit-in.
While the cost of this small victory wasn’t necessarily the physical labour of protest, it did exist — both for those who led the movement and those who didn’t want to participate at all.
Nisha Bora, who named painter Jatin Das, recalls that when she read about other women’s instances of sexual harassment – “suddenly a penny dropped. I remember thinking one day ‘Oh, I went through this with Jatin Das, I remember the revulsion.’ Suddenly a lot of things started to come back to me – it was buried very deep in my memory, and I had never really asked myself why I don’t watch a Nandita Das film, why I don’t read any of her articles – but then, I started to process it.”
The flipside of opening such floodgates, however, is that not everyone is ready to constructively channel this barrage of truth.
“The scale at which stories of sexual harassment, assault, rape and coercion were being shared on social media, also resulted in a number of women becoming re-traumatised,” Delhi-based psychologist Ann Philipose tells ThePrint.
“Two clients of mine had emotional breakdowns in therapy. They just weren’t ready to address what had happened to them, but with the amount of involuntary information coming their way without any filter, the experience was fairly triggering for them,” she says.
It’s not just those directly impacted by a societal shortcoming that suffer from acute mental and emotional fatigue. Sudhamshu Mitra, a 27-year-old researcher in Bangalore, tells ThePrint that he spends a majority of his weekends, as well as evenings after work, promoting awareness, engaging on social issues to kickstart discourse using his social media handles.
“But yes, I’m tired,” he says. “It can be exhausting having to deal with the emotions that come up while addressing such issues. Whether it was creating infographics/websites for the #MeToo movement or Narmada Bachao Andolan, or for a campaign that highlighted the false promises of the incumbent government before the 2019 election – the constant engagement with a reality that is saddening and depressing really sucks the energy out of me.”
Even Superwoman, or Lily Singh, the widely popular Indian-origin Youtuber and comedian with over 14 million subscribers took a break from YouTube in November last year, because she was “mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually exhausted.”
“The weight of empathy and constant reminders how much work still lies ahead of us as a society often makes me immobile,” Mitra says, “but with social media, there’s a constant pressing need to do something, to respond, to push back, and honestly, I’m still trying to find a balance.”