June 23, 2024
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June 23, 2024
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Your Life Is Waiting, Your Phone Is Not

The social media blackout that occurred on October 4 for Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp was not only surreal, it was a wake-up call.

Yes, I know this occurred a number of weeks ago and I’m aware that people have resumed their lives as the apps returned to functioning within hours. But it continues to impact me and countless others concerning the recognition of our relationship with our phones.

Waiting at the DMV? Pull up your phone! Sitting at dinner with friends? Pull up your phone! Engaging in a work meeting or emotional conversation? Subtly pull up your phone!

While I know this isn’t everyone—many of us are adept at sitting in silence, reading a book, feeling grounded in the space around us, engaging in conversation or simply by not having a smartphone—it is more common than not that our phones are nearby, waiting to be scrolled on.

When the apps resurfaced on October 4, one word stood out in my mind as I, in muscle memory, reopened Instagram: icky.

I felt icky. I recognized and knew in my gut that my free time was not being used in a way that aligned with my values. This does not mean that in the days since this happened, I’ve deleted these apps or have drastically shifted how I spend my time on them. It does mean, though, that I’ve incorporated more activities and techniques that allow me to be present in the space around me, especially when I have only a minute here or there and scrolling down a social media app feels the perfect use of that small window of time.

It means that I recognized that for me, the apps made me feel like I was in touch with friends, but I actually hadn’t spoken to many people in some time and so I stopped scrolling and started actively reaching out instead.

This recognition was then reinforced by recent CNN and Wall Street Journal articles noting the way Instagram is negatively influencing individuals’ relationships to body image and how it contributes to the development and perpetuation of eating disorders. The articles also indicated that Instagram is aware of this, and there was a cry for some type of major shift.

Instagram prides itself on being able to flag content; I recall attending an event at their offices years ago when they introduced the feature specifically to address and report concerning posts that glamorized eating disorder behaviors. And yet, the business article showed examples of how the app continues to contribute to the disordered relationship people can have with their bodies: usernames include pro-eating-disorder messaging and suggestion pages highlight other content by creators promoting this deadly mental health disorder.

Apps like Instagram, SnapChat and TikTok can allow people to connect, share inspiration, tell stories, have a voice and presence—especially those who may feel too nervous to engage socially in-person or struggle with social anxiety. Social media can act as a platform to practice and participate. But these apps can also promote editing—not only what is shared but also actual content/images. They can invite popularity contests and a user can find endless other profiles, public profiles, that may not be appropriate and may be triggering.

A staff member with whom I used to work, when sharing the WSJ article, called on other parents to engage in the “unpopular” behavior of not allowing their teens to use these social media apps because of how much is out there and how detrimental it can all be.

This is not new. In recent years our local Bergen County school principals invited parents to be mindful and create guidelines about ages for even providing a phone to children. Yes, we want children and teens to be safe by giving them a way to communicate. We also want them to have access to socializing—and texting and using social media are ways that many of them do just that. But if the main goal is safety and connection, perhaps it is time to examine how much safety and connection these applications are truly promoting and also to look at aspects that can promote danger and isolation.

I’m not here to suggest how to parent or what to allow. I am here to encourage all of us—parents, teens, adults—to consider how we feel when using our phones and whether we can engage curiously with trying out change, trying to incorporate and fill up our lives with more activities and interests that cause us to think, and lead to introspection or connection, or relaxation.

Generally we allow for and build up better relationships with ourselves and the world around us when the pie-chart of our lives contains many different interests, activities, and roles, and when we can take the time to connect not only with others but with ourselves. So perhaps you can take some time to recognize how social media impacts how you feel about yourself and others and how you relate to yourself and others—and practice flexibility. This may lead to boredom, to anxious thoughts, or perhaps to improved mood. You can handle this all—ask for help, engage.

Your life is waiting.

Temimah Zucker, LCSW, works with individuals ages 14 and older in New York and New Jersey struggling with mental health concerns, and specializes in working with those looking to heal their relationships between their bodies and souls. Temimah is an adjunct professor at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, an advocate and public speaker surrounding eating disorder awareness, and a Metro-New York supervisor at Monte Nido. To learn more or to reach her, please visit www.temimah.com.

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