The obsession with social media and addiction to smartphones is a touchy subject, especially in today's classrooms (where I'm constantly telling students to put away their devices), and it's only going to become more complicated as technology rapidly advances. But what is happening to our young people when they make such platforms part of not only their everyday lives, but as part of their existential being? And what does what they post or follow say about their outlook on life?
The new book The Happiness Effect by Donna Freitas explores these ideas and much more. Through extensive interviews with hundreds of college students, Freitas lets us hear from them directly. They discuss what and why they post, the delicate politics of "liking" a photo, how their friendships change, what it's like to be addicted and then to quit, and much more. And all of it made me thank the Lord above that I'm not 19 again. The stress that students put themselves under by participating in such ridiculousness is almost incomprehensible. Interviewees admit that they know involvement in social media can have disastrous consequences, yet they can't pull themselves away from it. They know it tends to make them more depressed, and they know what they see online is almost always completely fake (or at least incomplete), yet they devote countless hours to curating and polishing a profile that hopes to garner a glimmer of esteem that they clearly lack without it. It's ironic that we admire people for "being real," comfortable with themselves (their looks, their beliefs, their attitudes) and unashamed of living honestly. But we voluntarily immerse ourselves in a world in which truth is long gone and appearance is all that matters.
The book focuses on happiness because students admit in their interviews that they feel tremendous pressure to promote versions of themselves online as being successful and happy. They hide the darker sides of life. The consequence of this is that when everyone online looks like their life is fantastic every single day, viewers tend to think their own lives aren't as great. So they worry about what this may mean for their personhood and they dive into the vicious circle of posting an enhanced version of themselves that others may enjoy viewing. This ultimately leads young people to having a complete misunderstanding of reality and a constant battle with themselves about who they really are. It's quite a sad state of affairs.
Though I talk to my own students about some of these ideas, I've never heard them all in one place, as in Freitas's book. It's almost overwhelming to read the levels of insecurity today's students have brought upon themselves. If you are a teacher or a parent, or are in any way interested in what technology can do to individuals and social structures, check out The Happiness Effect. And, yes, reading an actual paper book instead of a screen can be enjoyable.