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