Stripping Down Social Media and Smartphones

In 2018, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat have become such essential staples to our day-to-day lives that discussing the impact of social media is more likely to induce eye rolls rather than fascination and curiosity. We know the facts, and we’ve witnessed them first-hand; in the last decade, social media has fueled an unprecedented increase in our virtual connections with one another, to the companies we love, and to the news we follow. Today, more than three billion people globally use some form of social media. Americans, on average, spend over two hours on social media daily, and approximately 90% of companies advertise their products and services through social media platforms. Yet, widespread social media usage has been linked with shortened attention spans, increased levels of anxiety and stress, and weaker memory retention. These observations rest on two assumptions: first, that the negative repercussions that come with social media use are inevitable, and second, that being on social media in today’s interconnected world is absolutely necessary.

Recent tech trends, however, have bucked these two assumptions. Let’s start with the first: we exchange our mental and physical well-being for staying online and connected. Most of the health concerns that accompany social media use actually stem from social media overuse. People fear—and justifiably—that obsessively checking Facebook throughout the day will negatively impact their real-life relationships with people and that constantly scrolling through a bottomless Instagram feed will cause anxiety and depression. Unless they quit social media altogether, they have no other choice but to tolerate the consequences.

Tech companies—the same ones that created the platforms we’re now addicted to—have recently given us another option: tracking and limiting our exposure to social media. Earlier this year, both Facebook and Instagram introduced time-management tools on their platforms. Both apps now let users see a day-to-day breakdown of the time spent on their app, as well as a weekly daily average. Users can also set a daily limit for their social media usage and have the apps send them a notification when that limit has been reached. In a statement released August 1st of this year, Facebook said that, as a company, it feels “responsibility to help people understand how much time they spend on ... [their] platforms,” and that their decision was a response to findings by “leading mental health experts and organizations.” Apple’s new iOS 12 system, unveiled in September, contains a new “Screen Time” feature, which gives users a detailed breakdown of how often they use their favorite apps and for how long. It also lets people set specific time limits on certain apps; once the time limit begins, users are blocked from accessing the apps. Both Facebook and Apple are catering to a millennial generation that is forced to choose between social media and health. At the risk of losing the battle to physical and mental health, social media and tech companies are offering a third way which promises to fundamentally change how we use social media.

The second assumption discussed—that using social media is now a necessity rather than a choice—is also being uprooted. Companies are creating products that eliminate the need for using social media altogether. These are new, simplified phones that eliminate the distractions of Facebook and Twitter. The Light Phone is one such example. According to its founders, it is purposefully “designed to be used as little as possible” and only contains essential features such as calling, texting and an alarm clock. Selling out due to high demand, its developers are currently designing the Light Phone 2, which would potentially have other functions like navigation and even Uber. Another example is Swiss startup Punkt and their Punkt MP01 phone, which restricts its users to only calls and texts. Even well-established companies like Nokia have, in recent years, ventured into the simplified phone market. Last year, it launched a revamped version of its classic Nokia 3310 model, which includes basic features like a calls, texts, and a calculator, excluding almost everything else.

The two assumptions we’ve grown accustomed to—namely, that social media is necessary and that its repercussions are unavoidable—are proving to be false. Some tech companies like Facebook are observing shifting client attitudes and are providing a way for users to continue using their apps in a healthy way. On the other hand, firms like Punkt are proving that it is possible to live without social media. Given that the two assumptions laid out no longer hold true, an industry that has plateaued in recent years may see interesting new developments.