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How is modern technology shaping our society?

First developed in the 1830s, the telegram provided the world with the means to instantly communicate over long distance. Though admittedly more laborious in its workings compared to modern-day technology, the telegram through the use of Morse code, enabled people from as far as one side of the Atlantic to communicate rapidly with those on the other side. Until this point, letters which were the main form of communication, often took days or even weeks to complete a journey from one point to another, and were often unreliable.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, and most citizens of the world are enmeshed in the web of content digital networking. A February 2020 study estimated that 5.25 billion people owned a mobile phone, meaning that 67.04% of the world’s population has the means to instantly communicate with anybody anywhere in the world. Being without your phone in the modern day has become something almost unthinkable: a concern for many these days is being detached from digital devices. People are known to experience acute stress and anxiety when uncoupled from mobile devices and studies have reported that when without their devices, people tend to exhibit withdrawal-like symptoms.

Technology is constantly changing. With its continual development and change, one factor always remains unchanged: our dependence on technology. It is this exact defence that drives development and leads to the exploration and invention of new technological devices. Modern technology has morphed our modern society: a prime example of this is seen in the development of the railroads back in the 19th and 20th centuries. With railways becoming more common worldwide, the introduction of modern common-time zones came about. This drew regions far from one another on national levels closer together as a unit, and provided the ability for citizens of the world to have a reliable time network: that person who before may have been thirty minutes ahead in Dublin won’t be half an hour too early for his train to Cork.

The world has become smaller with the invention of modern technology. The age we find ourselves in means we are all, essentially, a phone’s throw away from one another (excuse the pun): a person from Coolea who has now emigrated to Melbourne is no longer a lost cause to the international waters. They are now merely a FaceTime away. Living has become more manageable and accessible with technological advancements.

However, with our reliance on technology, has come what many claim to be an over-reliance on technology. It is easy to hear somebody these days express their anxiety about the amount of time they are spending on their mobile phones. In fact, you or one of your friends have likely felt a weird anxiety, followed by a denial of sorts, when the screen time notification on a Sunday afternoon informs you that you have spent, on average, four plus hours a day on your phone. A late 2019 study by ComReg detailed how Irish people spend more than four and a half hours per day on their smartphones. At this stage of our existence, this is not surprising. Now factor in a global-pandemic; another Twigby survey on Us participants noted that phone usage has increased from the beginning of Covid-19 lockdowns, and users have reported spending up to 36% more time on social media than ever before.

Your phone is a means to stay informed these days, but aside from being a source of news, the majority of our remaining time is spent scrolling – often mindlessly – on social-media networks. Right now, this is no surprise – there’s not much else to do when the country finds itself in Level 5 for a third consecutive lockdown. It is worth wondering: is our increased amount of time on social-media networks taking a negative toll on our mental health and wellbeing?

Social media can be great, but what happens when we over consume? What happens when we digitally bite off more than we can chew? Before I deep dive into more facts and statistics, my personal experience with social-media over the past few months is one where I am often left feeling dejected. Feelings of inadequacy and isolation tend to permeate my existence when I see celebrities and other famous people having a good time, out and about in their (often sunny) locations. Not only this, but I notice (and my housemates, who I have interrogated for this article, feel similar) that I now experience sharper F.O.M.O when I see people I know, who are likely living the same way I am, posting about the good day they’re having when out for a take-away coffee or a walk with a friend.

Though social media is reassuring in that we can instantly connect with one another, it simultaneously has the tendency to expose many of our deepest insecurities. By now, many of us are aware of the manifold façades of happy pictures posted on Instagram, we are likely guilty of contributing to it ourselves. People love taking pictures, but people love taking pictures even more when they know other people are going to see them. That’s what drives platforms like Instagram, VSCO, Facebook and dare I say it Tik-Tok. Vanity drives us. The thrill, one of the cheapest of all, of seeing your crush or even the person you hate viewing your story of you having a good time is exactly how these platforms manage to cause us to be more reliant on them.

Chamath Palihapitiya former Vice President of User Growth at Facebook stated he feels “tremendous guilt” over exploiting consumer behaviour for the social-media conglomerate. Palihapitiya explained that “the short-term, dopamine driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.” Dopamine functions in our brain as a chemical messenger involved in reward, motivation, memory, and attention among many other things. Dopamine rewards our beneficial behaviours and drives us to repeat them.

Every time we positively respond to a like, a mention, a comment – any notification at all – positive associations become stronger. Social media has often been cited as being comparable to cocaine in its addictiveness. Our mobile devices have provided us with the means for a practically unlimited supply of dopamine rushes, which is likely why many people find it difficult going anywhere without posting about it. Is the trip up the mountain, or the swim at sea, or your brunch fully worth it if you don’t simultaneously receive validation in the form of views or likes online? Is the rush of likes just as good as the experience posted about itself?

Instagram is one platform that preys on our need for social validation. Harvard University has reported that “Instagram’s notification algorithms will sometimes withhold “likes” on your photos to deliver them in larger bursts. So when you make your post, you may be disappointed to find less responses than you expected, only to receive them in a larger bunch later on. Your dopamine centres have been primed by those initial negative outcomes to respond robustly to the sudden influx of social appraisal. This use of a variable reward schedule takes advantage of our dopamine-driven desire for social validation, and it optimises the balance of negative and positive feedback signals until we’ve become habitual users.”

We’ve all heard of social media influencers. You likely follow a few of them, you likely also hate-follow a few of them. It’s normal. Influencer marketing is a growing industry in which social media users are “ranked according to measure of influence and compensated for promoting products online.” Influencers are everywhere. They often do exactly what it says on the tin. By promoting and documenting almost every aspect of their lives, they influence many of their followers, and those few devotee followers often attempt to replicate many of their behaviours.

Yet many influencers promote standards which are unrealistic. This is also something people are becoming more and more aware of these days, but doesn’t mean it’s any easier when it comes to seeing beautiful people living beautiful lives in beautiful lighting. Influencer content is reported to often impact adversely on psychological well-being, materialism and body-satisfaction. On top of this, a handful of select influencers are seen to be jetting off to Dubai, when non-essential travel is banned on the island of Ireland. Most of these scenarios, when seen through your phone screen as you sit at home likely repeating the same day again and again are the cause of anxiety for many.

Which leads to another question: Are we overexposed? Social networks are often theorised as providing too much information too incessantly. What does all this information at hand do to benefit us when we start beginning to know much more than we need to? Not much, in fact once we go beyond the threshold of information we necessarily want to know, we then proceed to absorb much more information we simply don’t want to hear or never need to know at all. This can be overwhelming at the best of times, and cause much anxiety when we aren’t feeling the best in ourselves.

It can be difficult to distance ourselves from technology, considering it essentially permeates every aspect of our lives. Though it might be impossible to completely live tech-free, there are many methods you can implement into your life to reduce your use of your phone or laptop which might be beneficial to your lifestyle.

Turning off notifications is one way which prevents you from constantly glancing at your phone. This doesn’t mean turning off your notifications for everything, that would likely impede your life more than benefit it, but you can disable notifications for specific apps instead. Phones decrease the amount of sleep we get too. Simply keeping your phone charged in another room and not looking at it for an hour before you go to bed will help you fall asleep quicker. Sticking with screen time limits can also be beneficial, and will give you more time throughout the day to do the things you always say you’ll get around to doing eventually.

Worth wondering is if this age of sharing will eventually reach its crescendo? Will we, as people, tire of the oversharing and constant networking we all participate in? Throughout the years, history has shown things come and go in waves. Is the same likely of the social media platforms we devote ourselves to day in, day out. Will there reach a period when the constant sharing slowly dwindles out to become nothing? Is there the possibility that we will revert back to a society which shares the bare minimum with one another? This may be entirely unrealistic, given how technology is constantly evolving to facilitate the invention of even more technology, but it’s not impossible.

What do you think? In this age of overexposure, are we leading ourselves to an era of secrecy, where we try hard to keep the workings of our daily lives hidden from one another? If you have any opinions on this, feel free to email deputyfeatures@uccexpress.ie with your thoughts.