Do millennials struggle more with social media’s dark side than other generations?

As an older millennial myself, this is something I’ve long wondered. A recent piece on the Guardian, bearing the title ‘We millennials have more ‘friends’ than ever. So why are we so lonely?’ adds an interesting perspective.

Here’s a pertinent quote:

Having grown up with (and to at least some extent been shaped by) social media, millennials have been especially vulnerable to its worst psychological effects, such as creating an illusory impression of connection and the sense that everyone else is living an impossibly rich, varied and active life.

Before I begin, let me stress that I can’t speak for all millennials here. I’m extrapolating from an observed trend.

I’ve spoken to many individuals from older generations who are far more capable of using social media as a simple tool with remarkably little psychological imprint on their overall well-being. Could this be because greater maturity acts as a shield against the attention traps and psychological loopholes social platforms use throughout their design? Do older people have more real friends and richer social interactions in the physical world? Are they just online less than we are? Perhaps a lifetime of being exposed to advertising has had a galvanising effect too.

But I’m not so sure. In my experience, young people are often acutely aware of when they are being manipulated and controlled by the attention economy (which, when online, is almost always). And while some young people undeniably lack a rich real-world social life, I don’t think anyone would claim we’re a generation of shut-ins. No, the difference seems to be in the response.

I’m generalising here, basing my points on circumstantial evidence and personal impressions (although I plan to study this more formally). I’ve observed that older people who are heavy users of social media, and savvy with it, often have a surprising ability to put these platforms from their minds when they aren’t using them. Put another way, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram et al. seem to have less of a hold on older people. The experience can be completely different for some people my age and younger. I think we are incapable of viewing the internet and all the various platforms as just a set of tools. Because we grew up alongside them as they developed, in our heads we think of them as all-encompassing aspects of nature. Like the sea or the sky. Or perhaps as extensions of (replacements for, God forbid?) our own minds and souls.

When millennials struggle with social media’s dark side, our response is often anxiety, overwhelm, numbness, and a constant feeling of jitteriness and being unable to focus on anything. These effects can last for hours or days, even when offline. Even if our phone and computer are switched off. This isn’t just me – I’ve heard the same story from countless people, both my own friends and relatives and people I’ve chatted to online. Hundreds of articles about the phenonenon are only a web search away.

It’s a complicated picture, and I think many factors are at play. The nature of the work that many millennials do, which often relies so heavily on social media in one way or another, must play a role. If our identities are entangled with what we post on social websites – places designed to trap us and force us to do free work for internet corporations – then what does that do to how we perceive ourselves? No wonder young people get just a bit anxious when a carefully curated tweet only gets two likes. We can’t help but see that as a reflection of our own worth. Magnify that to the scale of our entanglement with social media, of our poisononous relationship with likes and metrics, and perhaps we’re starting to see the outlines of the problem.

How do we know what we actually think about anything if we’re constantly being bombarded by the thoughts and opinions of other people – and corporations – at all hours of waking life?

To be clear, I don’t believe this reflects badly on my generation. We are not workshy or feckless. Hell, we often work multiple jobs for low pay in an environment where it feels that everything we do is tied to our own value as human beings. We’re not just dumb consumers of whatever nonsense the internet throws at us either. But we’ve been manipulated by tech platforms since childhood in ways that are only just starting to be talked about – in some cases only just starting to be understood. Methods that far exceed other means of control or corporate surveillance that have existed at any other point in history. That’s got to leave its mark on the psyche. Perhaps every generation has its own unique form of collective damage; maybe this is ours.

This is why I believe it’s important to speak up about these issues and to strive to learn more about them – to, yes, raise awareness, because many people remain unaware. There are greater problems in the world, but the mental health of an entire generation deserves to be taken seriously. The anxiety and overwhelm some millennials feel some of the time in association with social media is a real problem. When I see older people flip out at millennials on Twitter and tell them to ‘get off the internet if it’s bothering you so much’ I think it’s a lot like telling someone with clinical depression to get a grip and start smiling more.

Further reading

Author: Alex Roddie

Writer and editor.

3 thoughts on “Do millennials struggle more with social media’s dark side than other generations?”

  1. I have to commend you on that closing line, you nailed it.

    I’m a young Gen-Xer myself, and at this point don’t have any social media accounts. But from what I see all around me your comparison to depression or even addiction, is spot on. Once someone who is susceptible to the attention-grabbing techniques social platforms employ gets sucked in, they’re in. Full stop. Getting out isn’t as simple as “put down the phone.”

    I’ve watched people literally start to cry when a friend jokingly took their phone while trying to pull their attention back into a discussion in the real world. It broke my heart to see what was happening to that person’s ability to focus on the world around them and not the one in their device. And I doubt the friend who took their phone had any idea what an effect their actions were having. It was like taking a junkie’s works away and watching withdrawal set in. Not pretty.

    Yours is a voice of reason in the sea of mostly futile ranting I’ve found on these subjects recently, and I mostly wanted to say thank you for that. And to ask if you had found anything useful in the realm of help for people who might be able to see what their phones are doing to them and want out? Since we know it’s not as easy as just putting the thing down and walking away…

    1. Jesse, thank you for taking the time to leave this comment. I completely agree with all that you’ve said. Getting out certainly isn’t easy, and genuine consent does not exist – I certainly didn’t know what I was getting into when I signed up for Facebook back in the innocent days of 2006. The tobacco industry makes a decent (albeit imperfect) metaphor. Awareness is, thankfully, on the rise.

      At this point my social media use is limited to Twitter, which I still dip into every day, and LinkedIn, which I’m cautiously experimenting with but don’t like very much. I have not actively used the core Facebook product itself for over two years now – I’m effectively locked in to Messenger, though, as many of my friends and family refuse to use anything else. I recently left Instagram. More importantly is how I try to use the platforms I remain active on in an intentional and informed way. It’s very much a work in progress, and I’ve yet to find a completely satisfactory solution. The most important steps were switching off all notifications on my phone, then – much later – removing (and blocking, via the Freedom app) access to email and social media on my phone altogether. Life is a lot calmer now.

      Unfortunately, deleting all my accounts isn’t an option for me due to the nature of my work. I’m entangled with the attention economy, sad to say.

      There is help available out there, but piecing it all together can be challenging! A good starting point is, an organisation that hopes to unify all of these voices. Early days for them yet, but I remain hopeful.

      I also recommend some of the books I mention in my reading list, linked from the top of my blog. I need to update the page, as I’ve read a few books since it was last updated, but the most important two I’d suggest are ‘Digital Minimalism’ by Cal Newport (full of practical advice and a real sense of hope) and ‘You Are Not a Gadget’ by Jaron Lanier (a bit more philosophical, but provides an excellent grounding in the theory).

      I want to do more to help others who struggle with this stuff. This blog is a bit of a side project for me, but I am also working on two books about attention, solitude and online culture in an outdoors context. Watch this space! And thank you for stopping by – I really appreciate it.

      1. I’m with you on the entangled part. Most of my writing (I’m a freelance writer) these days is on either the topic of content marketing, which includes an often heaping dose of social media marketing, or emerging technology. I don’t use social media for my work, but I write about it A LOT.

        That said, I am also on LinkedIn, for freelance networking and some of their learning opportunities. I have a hard time calling it “social media” though, but that may just be a coping mechanism 😉

        Remaining hopeful may just be the key we all need to remember.

        I’ve read both of those books, several times actually. Both authors tackle the topic in their own unique way, which is part of what I love about the growing backlash–it encompasses many different people from many different backgrounds. That means many different perspectives on the same issue, and in my experience, that’s when solutions are found.

        Keep it up Alex, and let us know when those books are ready so I can add them to Newport’s and Lanier’s (and Rushkoff’s) on my shelves!

        – Jesse

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