COMMENT

We've all done it, blissfully drawn our doonas over our tired bodies, held our wonderfully powerful, tiny internet machines in our hands, and just scrolled. Sometimes for minutes, but often for hours, with social media comfortably topping the list of most-used apps.

It's not hard to see why we do it. It's so easy. Too easy. As easy as stretching your arms or stifling a sneeze. For how often is your phone more than five metres away? And where do we go when we have 20 minutes to kill, or a lull in conversation tires us for a second too long? We turn to social media. I certainly do, or did, until one drunk and snowy night in Prague.

Losing almost all your valuables in a foreign country is tantamount to disaster. In one fell swoop I was robbed of my smartphone (top of the line), wallet (containing a good number of Euros) and my jacket (on a night out in the depths of winter).

Being so rudely unplugged in Prague felt, at first, like I had lost a limb. I relied as much on my constant connection as I did on any arm or leg. Like the 3.4 billion people who habitually use some form of social media or the 3.3 billion who own a smartphone, I was unknowingly addicted to a platform I believed was enhancing my life.

The initial decision not to replace my smartphone was an easy one. I had a year left on my contract and about $600 still to pay. No student living in Sydney could ever hope to afford two concurrent plans. But once that year had ended, I made a radical decision, moving in the opposite direction. I bought an $80 Nokia and started the slow process of deactivating all my social media accounts.

Why would I make such a decision? The answer: because I had stumbled upon a far better way to live.

Loneliness is a dastardly by-product of consciousness. When, as humans, we begin to understand the universe and contexualise our tiny place within it, our capacity to feel alone dramatically increases. In a world of seeming hyper-connectivity, those feelings of loneliness and isolation escalate further.

Looking back now, I realise I was burdened with feelings of loneliness, but it wasn't until I stepped back from the online world that I realised I didn't have to be. No longer did I watch Snapchat videos and fear I was missing out. No more did I scroll through Instagram and lambast myself for not having an idealised lifestyle. No longer did I traverse through the depressingly vacuous abyss of Facebook thinking I was the only person feeling like this.

We live in the digital age, a time when it is as easy for me to talk to a Moroccan as it is to talk to a neighbour. So how has loneliness become a worldwide epidemic? How are 50 per cent of citizens in developed nations, such as the United States, and Canada, reporting feelings of loneliness, a dramatic increase over our 20th century counterparts?

These are nations which all count daily internet usage by more than 90 per cent of citizens. Is a tool meant to be bringing us closer together, really driving us farther apart? The culprit, I strongly believe, lies within the endlessly scrolling world of social media.

When my scrolling stopped, my clarity returned. Leaving the inherent negativity of intense internet usage behind gave me an intoxicating sense of freedom unlike any I had known. No longer did I retreat behind a screen into a virtual world where the toughness of life couldn't reach me. Without my social media feeds to fill my free time, I was forced to pick up new hobbies. I started learning a language, I went urban-hiking, I even wrote a novella.

Above all, I stopped feeling so alone. Once the fabricated and wholly unreal worlds of social media stopped gripping me, I truly felt connected to the real world again.

The number of teens surveyed who prefer face-to-face communication had dropped to 32 per cent in 2018, down from 49 per cent in 2012, according to a study by non-profit Common Sense Media. With the vast range of Instant Messaging services available, more and more young people are choosing to spend their time online, in the ease of their home, in a direct correlation with the rising tide of loneliness.

A recent UK survey by British Mental Health Foundation, found 42 per cent of British adults reported feeling depressed due to loneliness, with the highest incidences in the 18-34 age group. As the incidence of loneliness rises, beginning to be compared to other public health crises' of obesity and substance abuse, our most digitally-connected citizens are the ones suffering the most.

But facts are only part of the story. No matter how many numbers we can consume, or how many stories we read, nothing cuts through like personal experience.

We can see the problem all around us, every day. Furrowed faces on streets lit by the 5-inch screen in front of them, barely making it out of your way as you pass them by. Where did we lose the ability to simply walk down a busy city street, content to enjoy the sounds and the smells and the weird sights around us? When did an infinite feed of easily consumable memes and status updates become more important than talking to a friend at table, or even exchanging pleasantries with a stranger next to you?

We are creatures of habit. When social media and the smartphone came along in the late 2000s, they became a part of us. We turn to these tools not because they help us, but because they make us feel good for a moment, they provide us with just enough dopamine to keep on scrolling.

Stop, look up, break the mould and take back what we have lost, if we still can.

If this story has raised concerns, contact Headspace on 1800 650 890 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636
  • See more illustrations by UNSW Art & Design student Ferguson Stewart here.