Smiling into the abyss: what is Facebook doing to our mental health?

Lazy and unconcerned, or buckling under the strains of late capitalism? A manifesto for the selfie generation asks whether we can break our addiction to social media. Book review.

Phoebe Braithwaite
25 April 2017
Instagram Star Pamela Reif. Jan Woitas/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Instagram Star Pamela Reif. Jan Woitas/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.In January, an interview with marketing consultant Simon Sinek went viral on Facebook. Raising the hackles of millennials everywhere, he branded them “tough to manage, entitled, narcissistic, self-interested [and] unfocused.” You can imagine my delight when my mum sent the video to me: “this might explain why you have so many problems,” she said.

Sinek puts the pathologies of Generation Y down to “failed parenting strategies”, the nasty shock of realising you can’t have something just because you want it, and the unhappy pairing of entitlement and low self-esteem millennials carry about with them. According to Sinek, these problems have been compounded by growing up in a Facebook and Instagram world: “we’re good at showing people that ‘life is amazing – even though I’m depressed’.” Absent from Sinek’s account is the politics of why millennials might feel this way. Are we just sluggish, lazy, stupid and unconcerned? Or, as Marcus Gilroy-Ware argues in his new book Filling the Void, are we buckling under the strains of late capitalism?

Social media monetise our distraction. We let them burrow into our lives, and now we’re hooked. These platforms are designed to bypass all impulses to self-control. 1.79 billion of us log onto Facebook each month, Gilroy-Ware reports. According to the digital agency We Are Social, the average social media user spends two hours and thirteen minutes on social media every day – nearly 15% of our waking hours.

But technology is amazing! We keep in touch with our friends and family all over the world; we can do a million new convenient things like swap unwanted possessions, read the news all the time and order takeaways; we can make our mums bitmoji avatars and fashion grandpa an elf costume, just in time for Christmas. And memes are really funny and, damn it, sometimes they stem the tears for a minute. You can even get an app called Moment which monitors your screen time and encourages you to log off (it has in-app purchases).

Filling the Void offers a broad account of the ills of social media: how Facebook and Twitter are corroding journalism and the dissemination of news, their algorithms mysteriously determining the reach of content, their cynical advertorial interests censoring videos from Black Lives Matter and the BDS movement alike. We are addicted. Our phones are interrupting our sleep, distracting us while we’re driving, and even, in a few unlucky instances, causing us to fall off cliffs mid-selfie.

Corporations are creaming off our data for nefarious purposes, namely their own enrichment, and we can’t seem to whip up the energy to stop them. Indeed, we gleefully comply with every new function Facebook introduces (“Love”, “Haha!”, “Angry”) oblivious to the new powers it provides, enabling sites to bore deep into our preferences, personalities and personal relationships, while we believe ourselves to be in the business of pure self-expression: “this illusion is exactly what gives the timeline its power”, says Gilroy-Ware.

Filling the Void gathers urgency in its discussion of what social media is doing to our mental health. Here, it owes much to the late Mark Fisher, whose 2009 book Capitalist Realism has become to many an urtext about how capitalism is harming our culture and our brains. Borrowing Fisher’s concept of “depressive hedonia”, Gilroy-Ware transposes this analysis, which describes a more pervasive state, onto the specific context of digital technology, where it is of course at home.

Fisher says: “Depression is usually characterised as a state of anhedonia, but the condition I’m referring to is constituted not by an inability to get pleasure so much as by an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure. There is a sense that ‘something is missing’ – but no appreciation that this mysterious, missing enjoyment can only be accessed beyond the pleasure principle.”

This will resonate with those of us habituated into the practice of compulsively scrolling through an Instagram or Facebook feed – a dribble of dopamine just keeping you aroused, yet not perhaps fully conscious. Gilroy-Ware calls this an “emotional hamster wheel”: “whereas chemicals known as opioids are responsible for the feeling of pleasure itself,” he writes, “dopamine is responsible for the motivation to seek pleasurable rewards.” This bit of pop science is important: it tells us that social media, much as we had long suspected, can engage but not ever fulfil us.

A note of poignancy underwrites Filling the Void: a reminder that the happy, syrupy scenes filling our social media feeds are becoming more absent from our actual lives than ever, as the roots of loneliness, depression and social atomisation grow deeper. “It was like the person was looking for something that was not really on offer...”

Gilroy-Ware is making a case for de-habituation – arguing that the proper place of writing in our culture is in jolting us out of any dazed assent, and, in this instance, refusing to accept widespread addiction to social media as normal. “Herbert Marcuse spoke of an artistic alienation, born of making “romantic” artistic work in a society that is at odds with the truth that the art expresses; but my young students...are alienated in yet another way: rather than expressing themselves, or some otherwise inexpressible truth, they want to do creative work that is almost entirely in keeping with the dominant values of society. This is entirely understandable given the cultural pressures to which they are subjected...”

It was like the person was looking for something that was not really on offer...

Gilroy-Ware’s observations cut to the heart of his crucial claim: that capitalism, more than simply influencing culture, has become culture: “to achieve its ultimate ends, capitalism must be the culture of those that live under it”, he says. That we are immersed in the culture of capitalism, which invariably short-circuits our attempts at resistance, begins to communicate something of how stuck we are – a feeling which is all the more acute when you find yourself knee-deep at 1am in the backwaters of a stranger’s timeline.

There is, still, something uncomfortable about the use of “young students” which, while well-meant, implies the author’s apartness. Gilroy-Ware is clearly appalled at the ever greater co-option of creativity for pumping out capital, and is distressed that we youngsters are so readily complicit in this dilapidation. And I sympathise. But what are the options? Though the capitalistic tendencies of the young are mediated through new filters, are they any more mercenary or naively uncritical than their forebears? The proliferation in “creative industries” is just the latest iteration of a process by which our economies are reorganised around the needs and whims of finance capital. It’s not the young who let this come to pass – but boy are we paying the price.

If smartphones and social media are bad for our health, they are especially bad for women. People talk of the uberification of social services, and the memefication of culture; but what social media enable is the pornification of swathes of experience, the completion of a process by which the objectification of women becomes internal, and we learn to see our bodies not as the means of carrying out our lives but as products to be constantly modelled and made.

If, as Gilroy-Ware argues, “pornography is the site at which patriarchal capitalism extracts value from sexual objectification”, this process started long before the advent of social media, but he sidesteps some of the bogeyman sensationalism that often dogs debates about new media by discussing technologies as “a reflection of the cultures in which they are used, rather than determinant of those cultures”. In other words, the social media phenomenon is not some singular thing that is frying our brains and corrupting our culture, but the extension of longer trends and trajectories, and these channels must be discussed in terms of the exacerbating force they exert.

Filling the Void offers a series of practical recommendations about how we can reprise control, from deleting our apps to deliberately scrambling the data social media sites are harnessing. While these recommendations could easily become a little admonishing, in Gilroy-Ware’s hands they are more often imploring and sincere, sneaking past our defences to insist we can do better. I followed some of his advice, and I’m glad I now spend less of my day looking at Kylie Jenner's butt. Maybe I’m a bad case, but I’m still addicted to scrolling, and I waste hours of my life looking at (side-splitting) memes I've already seen. And I wonder, fatalistically, whether a culture shift on this most compulsive of habits is really likely to take hold.

Still, Gilroy-Ware reminds us of Mark Fisher’s belief that: “emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a “natural order”, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously impossible seem attainable.”

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