By H. Sabet
I visit Vancouver’s city park during the most stunning sunset and every. single. person. is staring down at their phones. Not just the majority, I mean everyone. Necks craned, dim glow of the sun reflected in their sickly pallor, they’re transforming before my eyes. It has begun. We have begun the mass techvolution into zombies. Except that this virus we are infected with is more scheming than a zombie virus. Not only do we willingly take the virus in, we are addicted to it, and we find more and more ways to let it in—continuously crafting new platforms to infect ourselves, to inject it straight into our bodies, to eat our brains.
The virus takes many platforms, always flattened into a screen. And screens are everywhere—homes, phones, cars, pockets, bedrooms, offices, airplanes, permanently melded to our hands and eyes. More than half of the world’s population, about 4.4 billion people, are active internet users. Of people who are even internet-using age and within access of internet, that’s basically everyone. Almost half uses social media, about 3.5 billion people. In North America, about 80% of the population uses the internet and social media. Why wouldn’t governments and every other advertising company and corporation want to buy, trade, and steal our information, our souls from facebook and other social media platforms? It’s the perfect tracking and trapping device.
Americans spend most of their waking hours staring at screens—phones, computers, ipads, tvs. That means we spend more time staring into the face of our phones than the faces of our loved ones. Screens and social media have become psychological addictions; a significant amount of internet users are unable to control how much time they spend on screens. Because social media provides immediate rewards with very little effort required, your brain begins to rewire itself, making you desire these stimulations often, craving more of this neurological excitement after each fix. Internet addiction disorder (IAD), also called problematic or pathological internet use, is characterized by an individual’s inability to control their internet use, which may eventually result in marked distress and functional impairments of general life such as academic performance, social interaction, occupational interest and behavioral problems. (Lin & Zhou et al, 2012)
Studies indicate that internet addiction is associated with structural and functional changes in brain regions—atrophy in white and gray matter—that influence and impair emotional generation and processing, executive attention, decision making, and cognitive control. Internet addiction disorder shares psychological and neural mechanisms with substance addiction and impulse control disorders such as alcoholism and opiate addictions. (Lin & Zhou et al, 2012)
Research also shows impaired dopamine function and reduced numbers of dopamine receptors. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter—a chemical released by neurons—critical to thinking, moving, sleeping, mood, attention, motivation, and seeking reward. Dopamine causes you to desire, seek out, and search. It increases your general level of arousal and your goal-oriented behavior. Dopamine receptors crave reward and surge every single time you get a reward. For example, a line of cocaine increases your dopamine levels to 400. Receiving a notification on your phone causes your dopamine to spike to nearly cocaine levels. After several lines /notifications, aka boosting our dopamine levels multiple times, our new average becomes much higher. All that we are then driven to do is that which will increase our dopamine level further. It’s why we immediately pull out our phone or feel the urge to check it the second we get an uninterrupted moment. Even when you don’t get a notification, you may feel as if you did. Phantom Vibration Syndrome is our brains perceiving an itch as an actual vibration from our phones and is experienced by ~90% of people at least once every two weeks. Technology has begun to rewire our nervous systems.
This intense reward dependence explains why people addicted to drugs and screens may lose interest in hobbies, socializing and sustaining healthy daily life. And why teenagers would rather stare into the snapchat oblivion, text friends or play fortnite than complete homework, chat with family over dinner, or adventure outside with friends. This impairment to our dopamine levels not only kills our motivations and desires, but also our instincts for survival. A study by Kent Berridge on rats whose dopamine neurons were destroyed showed they could still walk, chew, and swallow. But the rats lost their anticipation and desire to have food and would starve to death, not eating food when it was right under their noses.
Screens are neurologically destroying our ability to focus and to store information to memory. How can we focus on anything when there is this quick and easy fix, this immediate high with such little effort required and virtually no barriers to attaining it? This crippling instant gratification k hole is obliterating society’s efforts to achieve long term goals for the betterment of the planet and future generations. That instagram-ification perpetuates a deep capitalist monster within us all: I see it. I want it. I have to have it. *click* I bought it. Wait, I want that other thing. *throws original thing away*
We are playing a constant game of catchup, in constant competition with others; how to be as successful as their fake selves are, how to be as beautiful, as smart, as happy. Humans are social creatures; we thrive on real social interactions. But in cyberreality, we constantly seek social validation that is not even real. The emotional and psychological stress that we encounter from screens every day—fake news, fake world of perfection, fake social “connections”—actually weaken our immune systems and damage our mental health. By constantly raising our cortisol levels, stress suppresses our immune systems leaving us more vulnerable to infections, disorders and disease. It is no coincidence we are societally at a greater risk for anxiety disorders such as phobias, OCD, major depressive disorder, etc. According to the World Health Organization, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. Almost 75% of people with mental disorders remain untreated in developing countries with almost 1 million people taking their lives each year.
Not only do screens stress us out, but the experiences that we miss out on because of them, which normally lower our stress levels, are no longer happening. Think about the last time you were at a park. Were you more likely to see a caretaker engaging and interacting with a child or just staring into a screen like a zombie while vaguely pushing them on a swing? And when is the last time you took a moment to recognize and relish the sheer number of plant species around you? Engaging with loved ones and noticing the natural world are two of the best coping mechanisms for stress, which have been hijacked by screens.
Very little research is known on how these changes to brain structure and function are affecting the evolution of our brains long-term, but I think it is obvious. Undeniably, excessive screen-time appears to impair brain structure and function. Much of the damage occurs in the brain’s frontal lobe, which undergoes massive changes from puberty to mid-twenties. Frontal lobe development largely determines success in every area of life—from sense of wellbeing to academic and career success to relationship skills. Not only are our brains evolving rapidly with each generation, they are evolving within our own lifespans. The minds of young people, who are particularly addicted, are exceptionally malleable putty playgrounds for this zombie virus. If you’ve ever seen a baby, a young child, or a teen use a touch screen, you know what I’m talking about.
A survey by the nonprofit Common Sense Media found that 95 % of 13-17 year olds have their own mobile device and 70% of them check social media several times a day (up from 34% in 2012). More than half say their devices distract them from homework or people they’re with. At least one in four children between the ages of 13-18 are affected by anxiety disorders. Research shows that untreated children with anxiety disorders are at higher risk to perform poorly in school, miss out on important social experiences, and engage in substance abuse (Anxiety and Depression Association of America). Why don’t we have DARE for screens? We have drug prevention programs for all sorts of substance use, but no educational programs for screen time and internet addictions. The media is all up in arms about vape use among teens…the news—always quickest to judge and dramatize the symptom without addressing the actual root of the problem. Adolescents are more likely to seek coping mechanisms like vaping if they are struggling with the stress, anxiety, and depression that screen use generates.
If we have never taken the time to speculate, individually and societally, on screens’ influence over the quality of our lives, you can thank screens for that. Screens destroy our ability to create original thought—to think. We are eternally stuck on intake autopilot, constantly scanning the news, checking emails, scrolling through photos and curated stories. We have outsourced our ability to think. To whom do we outsource? To search engines. To headlines. To a cousin’s dumb conspiracy theory thread. To pinterest and yelp. We no longer do the work to form original ideas, we leave that to the screens. Even the act of creating visual art has been monopolized by computer generated imaging.
Screen use also contributes to the obscene economic inequity in the US. On a worldwide scale, Oxfam research showed that the top 26 billionaires own the same wealth as the 3.8 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity. The number of billionaires in the world and their net worth is climbing every year, while the net worth of lowest income populations is dwindling. Technology drives our economic inequity in that it favors a small group of financially privileged individuals by highlighting and amplifying their talent and luck. The Kardashians and many other celebrities make up to one million dollars for posting ONE photo to instagram.
Possibly the gravest effect of technology that is rarely talked about in the neurological conversation is the detrimental environmental impact. If our brains are too busy responding to and being motivated by screens, our reward systems no longer respond to nature in the ways they have for thousands of years. We are no longer motivated to go outside and form caring, nurturing relationships with the wild and one another. With this detachment from natural environments and wildlife, we feel more pleasure, have a higher surge of dopamine hearing the ding of a text message than we do hearing birdsong. We’d rather chase the high of capturing the right photo of our trip than actually experience a unique, precious life moment with loved ones. No matter how many photos you take of sunset, it’s never as beautiful as the real thing.
With this detachment, we are able to trash our only home. To destroy our precious and limited resources without thinking twice, numbing ourselves to the destruction of the planet and humanity. Remember when kids/we played outside in backyards, ran through sprinklers, collected bugs in jars, roamed the streets with friends until dusk, and biked around the neighborhood together? It aches to think about the sheer joy of it all. “Bothering to care about saving the world is based on the love I feel while experiencing the sky, plants, animals, dirt and people.” (Jesse Palmer in “We’ve reached a Turning Point–Disrupt and Decarbonize”, Slingshot Issue #128) It is up to parents to facilitate the amount of screen time, or to never give your kid a screen, to encourage a love for the real, natural world and foster true connection with the present moment.
If you haven’t already boycotted facebook, you are part of the problem. Straight up. Sorry not sorry if that’s a harsh reality. (Also instagram because facebook owns instagram). The list of facebook fuckery is endless—racist political interference, complete and total invasion of privacy, selling our personal information (and our souls) to the devil. The NAACP, with more than 500,000 members across the US, called for a boycott of facebook and instagram to protest their suppression of African-American turnout in the 2016 election. The protest #LogOutFacebook was “a way to signify to Facebook that the data and privacy of its users of color matter more than its corporate interests.” They also returned the monetary donation that they received from facebook. With such an influential group paving the boycott path and channeling the mounting collective outrage against facebook’s abuse of privacy and data security, it feels more and more possible for other groups and individuals to follow suit.
Though it may seem unrealistic or challenging to quit screens or social media altogether, it’s really not that crazy of a concept. If we know that cigarettes are unhealthy and addictive, smoking a few cigarettes a day versus a pack doesn’t somehow magically make cigarettes healthy. Telling yourself that you can moderate the amount of time you spend scrolling facebook or instagram (even though you’re probably lying to yourself) doesn’t change the fact that any time spent on your screen is altering the health and wellbeing of your brain and body, of those whom you love, of society and the planet. In a TED talk, Amber Quinney describes her 30-day turned 6-month social media fast— “For the first time in a long time, I felt free. Free to think, free from judgment, free to focus, and free from this busy, noisy information-hungry world.”
I have not been active on social media for about five years. When I’m experiencing something rad or seeing something beautiful, I no longer feel that urge to pull out my phone and capture the perfect, most impressive photo to post. More and more, I notice myself wanting to detach myself from my phone and enjoy the present moment. When I’m at the beach, I want to taste the salty spray on my skin, wriggle my toes in warm sand, plunge into a crescendo of waves swishing into sunset. I saw a fucking golden eagle at work the other week, about ten feet away, and I FORGOT to pull my phone out of my pocket and take a photo—I was so entranced by the moment. I hope I never go back to being an active social media user.
I am still addicted to my phone—to Spotify, to searching information, to my fucking email. But it is a consciously defiant and deadly act. I am moving toward a life where that dependency is not a requirement of me as a functioning human, and away from a career where sitting at a screen for eight hours is the norm. I used to work a job where I was expected to sit in a chair and stare at a screen for most of the day. Now I teach children at a wilderness survival school where I am outside all day and phones are highly discouraged.
A surprising downfall of leaving social media is the sense that people act as if I am dead. That I have ceased to exist or at least do anything cool or remotely exciting. It’s funny because I’ve been doing ten times more exciting things since allowing more time and space in my life for the things I actually want to do. Rather than being sucked into techno-consumerist blackhole oblivion, I decided to kick the toxic negative feedback loop that social media created in my mind.
Sure screens may have some positive contributions to relationships and society, but my argument is that the bad not only outweighs the good, but that the bad subverts the good in insidious way—by strengthening our believed reliance on devices and weakening our trust, competence and belief in our own capabilities. We think we need social media to stay connected with friends and family, yet we never take the time to reach out personally, make a call, or plan a visit. We believe we need GPS maps to navigate, but we have been navigating for centuries without them. It’s just that now we don’t know exactly where we are going or how to get there.
The more we believe in the good of screens, the less we value our own work, our own thoughts, our autonomy. Rad things like #metoo can happen, but I believe the credit is due more to a generation empowered to name and call out injustice than a social media platform. To womyn and people who evolved to an awareness wherein sexual harassment is no longer accepted or normalized. I called out sexual harassment at work long before #metoo because I was like wait, I don’t want to feel uncomfortable like this at work and shouldn’t have to. The ripple effects of a hashtag have had significant impact, but what does it say about us as a society if it takes a hashtag, a mass assimilation, to create change? Why can’t the change come from within communities of womyn and people communicating, reflecting and supporting one another at the workplace, in schools, at home? It wasn’t until after I came forward at work about my discomfort that other coworkers started to report similar experiences. What does it mean if your cyber voice is only heard if it is saying the exact same thing that everyone else is saying? If your words suddenly matter and hold weight in a mob mentality matrix, but only if your hashtag gets enough likes to even be seen in the first place? How do we create change within a world that evolves with the masses, while resisting with the minority? How do we organize without technology?
Let’s get creative. Whatever that may mean in your communities, lifestyle, experiences. Use word of mouth—remember that!? Letters, meetups, potlucks, clothing exchanges, art and wine nights, shows. Recycle flyers and ads into resistance art. Write papers, zines, poems on napkins, and music. Hand them out and perform them to people staring at screens. Teach through simple acts and sweeping ones. Volunteer. Tend to a community garden. Significantly increase your time spent outside—hold meetings and gatherings in a backyard, pass out papers in a park, take a walk around the neighborhood to hand out zines and posters. Tend to a community garden. Go on a hike and identify new edible plants that you can sustainably harvest to feed yourself and a friend. Practice regular silent sit spots outside—starting with a few minutes every few days to ten minutes a day. Ask coworkers to join. Camp at a park where you can meet other radical outdoorspeople. Organize your own critical mass bike tour with friends. We can’t let the true act of organizing, the essence of coordinating, planning, mobilizing, revolting and reviving be flattened and deadened into screens. Encourage and support analog organizing—don’t assume everyone has a phone or expect everyone to use social media for outreach.
Everyone’s always trying to tell me, whether explicitly or not, that change is inevitable and that people have always tried to resist the inevitable—that TVs have taken over the world and screens are the future. But the cyborg evolution is not the future for me. I want to be a conscious member of the resistance, the evolutionary minority, the subspecies that moves to the countryside to start a radical community, nurture life on an artist commune where screens are extinct. Where our minds are free and our hearts still flutter at birdsong and pulse to the beat of the wild.