My wife and I just returned from a two-month honeymoon in Asia where we saw a lot of wonderful things. But chief among them was the sky — something you don’t see very often when your face is buried in a smartphone. This is exactly where mine was, day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute, until I arrived in Hong Kong at the end of January and it suddenly occurred to me that the world has more to offer than Cher’s Twitter feed. (Though, I have to admit, it’s a close call).
As a result, I decided to abstain from spending every spare minute on social media and lucky me: my hiatus from ogling my phone began on exactly the same day Donald J. Trump took office as president of the United States of America — in other words, at precisely the moment when everyone’s usual drizzling of social media agony and ecstasy grew to a deluge. Far away and out of touch, I was lucky enough to stay dry. And more importantly, I was lucky enough to stay sane.
But there remained one nagging problem. It soon became clear, somewhere in Japan, where I developed an unhealthy obsession with arcade claw machines, that though I was significantly less anxious without a smartphone, I was also woefully misinformed.
Sure, I read English language newspapers occasionally, and listened to the odd podcast, but only the most zealous print media evangelist will tell you that an information diet is complete without social media, where entire communities and political movements are born and die, sometimes within the span of an afternoon. Consequently, I began to wrestle with an existential question, as only someone on an extended vacation has the time and energy to do: “What’s worse: a happy life absent the soul sucking, ego-crushing paralysis of a smartphone, or a profoundly anxious life with a device attached to your hip?”
Now that my vacation is over, and my career as an arcade claw machine master is behind me, I thought I’d put this question to an expert: specifically, to Wade Sorochan, a Canadian broadcaster who recently published a book called Unsocial Media: Virtual World Causing Real World Anxiety. The book, endorsed by the Mood Disorders Society of Canada, is a comprehensive collection and analysis of studies detailing the harmful effects avid social media use can have on a person’s mental and physical health. From the onset of “text neck” among teenagers (when adolescents develop degenerative back and neck problems typically only seen in middle-aged adults) to depression, Sorochan has compiled nearly every virtual ill into a single book. And having done all of this, his answer to my question surprised me.
Social media, says Sorochan, “is a nice place to visit, but a bad place to live.” In other words, my take it or leave it ultimatum might be totally unnecessary. A person can use the medium in moderation, he argues. With teens especially, Sorochan says, “I don’t recommend (cutting it) cold turkey if it’s an addiction. I speak to a lot of parents and teachers and if you take something away that has been such an important part of their life, it’s only going to cause issues. So to answer your question it’s all about balance.”
But I’m not convinced. If social media addiction is a legitimate addiction, in the traditional medical sense of the word, then is “use in moderation” an appropriate antidote? Studies already abound comparing the withdrawal symptoms of social media addiction to those of heroin and alcohol dependency, and Sorochan believes that the condition will appear in the next edition of the DSM-5, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Isn’t is a little misleading then, when health professionals, sometimes in the same breath, compare Snapchat addicted teenagers to heroin addicts but advocate moderation — rather than abstinence — as a way of overcoming addiction to social media?
After all, the goal of the recovering drug or gambling addict is not to wean himself off of his vice of choice to the point of moderate use. His goal is to conquer his addiction outright: to go cold turkey. Conventional wisdom, then, sets up social media addicts for failure from the moment they try to kick the habit. Nobody, it appears, wants to tell a person living in the modern world that they should just throw away their phone for good, even if doing so is probably their best bet at happiness.
Perhaps, in the end, vanity will prevail where mental health experts cannot. According to a British cosmetic surgeon named Dr. Mervyn Patterson, speaking to the London Evening Standard in 2012, “If you sit for hours with your head bent slightly forward, staring at your iPhone or laptop screen, you may shorten the neck muscles and increase the gravitational pull on the jowl area, leading to a drooping jawline.”
There you have it. Put away your phone and look up at the sky, or you will develop jowls. It’s a warning that could compel even the likes of Cher to log off for good. On second thought, probably not.
Emma Teitel is a national affairs columnist.