I reached adult age (if not maturity) in 2007, the year that the iPhone first appeared on shelves and Facebook reached mainstream prominence. Looking back now, that year was a watershed moment – the tipping point when the internet would begin to rapidly mutate into the all-consuming parallel universe that it is today.
Being the age that I am, I’m one of the last generations that can remember a time when the web was a supplement to our lives rather than an inescapable feature of it. It was a quaint era when we still had the option of logging off and opting out without running the risk of alienating ourselves from society. Those coming of age today have no such experience: smartphones and social media are no more alien to them then television was to me, which has created a generational fault line.
The aging have always loved complaining about the young, and, these days, technology is the main stick that we use to beat them with. One of the biggest cliches in online content is articles moaning about how millennials can’t stop staring at their smartphones or how an obsession with social media is as destructive as drug or alcohol addiction. The future is fucked, it would seem, because the kids are more interested in sexting than actual sex – damn you, Mark Zuckerberg!
Although I’m as guilty as my dad in engaging in this sort of condescending ridicule (all while simultaneously using the internet too much, unlike my dad, which makes me both a hypocrite and a bore), I understand where it comes from.
Is it any wonder that the kids these days prefer to bury themselves in their iPhone screens than peer out the window and engage with the real world when their elders installed Trump in the White House – a man less qualified and mentally equipped for the presidency than they are? In an economy that has has been flatlining for as long as many of them have been sprouting body hair, is it any wonder that they’d rather make memes than bury themselves under a suffocating pile of college debt when so many of them will be doomed to live precarious lives as Deliveroo drivers?
2007, it should be remembered, wasn’t simply Year Zero for the iPhone and the proliferation of Facebook, but also the beginning of the Great Recession. In this moment of historical awakening, those of us under the age of 35 were sucker-punched by the grim realization that we would be the first post-WWII generation to be poorer than our parents. All those traditional hallmarks of adulthood like home ownership, financial security and stable employment would be agonizingly out of reach for the vast majority of us, leaving us stunted in a limbo of extended adolescence.
Although technology is designed to mimic slot machines in an attempt to get us hooked to Silicon Valley’s platforms and devices, the reason why millennials and Generation Z are so pathologically obsessed with the web and social media is a far more fundamental one relating to the way of the world. The financial crisis, Great Recession and the post-2009 stagnation years have decimated high and middle-waged jobs and replaced them with low-wage work in industries like retail and hospitality.
According to a 2014 report by the National Employment Law Project, higher-wage industries like accounting and legal work shed some 3.6 million positions in the recession and the so-called recovery has only brought about 2.6 million of them back. Conversely, employment in lower-wage industries contracted by two million positions but then added 3.8 million in the recovery, a net gain of 1.8 million. With 99 percent of post-recession era jobs going to people with at least some higher education, many are forced to take up the sort of shitty employment that previous generations were more or less assured of escaping via a college degree. Contingent employment – that’s precarious, short-term contract work– now makes up 40 percent of the U.S. workforce.
Now, what has this got to do with social media, you might ask, and my answer is this: previous generations could derive feelings of achievement and self-worth through career progression or spending power in a way that Generations Y and Z cannot, so many of us fill that void with social media. Every appearance of a colorful notification bubble triggers a satisfying dopamine hit in the brain, much like a bump of cocaine.
Also like cocaine, it compels us to repeat the experience. But beyond simply rewarding us with the warm glow of a neurotransmitter rush, social media feeds the ego: likes and retweets ape real world approval, while inherently unremarkable people with few skills or substantial talent can amass many thousands of followers through pithy tweets and well-curated Instagram shots – both of which are far easier to achieve than real world glory. A high follower count doesn’t simply create a visual illusion of tangible achievement, but the attention of so many people gives the impression that you really matter.
With enough followers you can feel like a celebrity online, even though you have nothing to show for it in reality. Although that’s not entirely true: some, like Zoella or countless other “influencers”, have made sizable fortunes by monetizing their digital following. Even “micro-influencers” exist these days, catering to brands that yearn for contrived ~authenticity~. Social media isn’t just a way for people to feel good about themselves (or, conversely, hopelessly depressed); for a small slither of the population that might have found work as MTV VJ’s back in the ‘90s it’s a viable career path.
Religion is often described as the “opiate of the masses” because it gave the poor and downtrodden hope of salvation in the afterlife. For today’s youth social media serves a similar purpose, distracting them from widespread political and economic hopelessness and offering some a potential route out of it. Little wonder that so many find it so hard to peel themselves away from their smartphone screens.
Next up, here's why your smartphone is ruining your mental health.