Unable to Connect: A Case Study in Social Media Addiction

Illustrated by Jack Li

On Tuesday, Sept. 14, The Wall Street Journal published an article detailing three-years-worth of extensive research done by Facebook to better understand how Instagram—which the tech giant purchased in 2012—affects its users. Despite Facebook publicly downplaying and withholding this data, The Wall Street Journal reported that internal investigations have demonstrated that “Instagram is harmful for a sizable percentage of [users], most notably teenage girls.” However, with or without quantifiable data, most users—chiefly its younger, Gen Z demographic—have been grappling with Instagram’s harmful effects for years.

In response to The Wall Street Journal’s investigation, The Washington Post published an opinion piece discussing the larger issues elucidated by the research. The Washington Post’s editorial board noted that in conversations about Instagram, it’s referred to “like it’s a drug” but that “we can’t study the active ingredient.” However, on Mon., Oct. 4, I got to see a real-life case study on Instagram addiction unfold before my very eyes. 

Upon waking up, I tried to begin my day the same way I have since I joined Instagram in 2011: by scrolling through my feed. I joined under the username “tigerlily5” in fifth grade—my biggest flex is I haven’t changed it since—and never looked back. The grip Instagram has had on me (and most users) for ten years is shocking. The longevity and consistent growth of the app is as impressive as it is disturbing. When I was met with a fateful “unable to connect” message and an empty feed, I shrugged it off and continued with my morning routine of perusing the rest of my social media platforms.

Throughout the day, I overheard conversations, read Twitter threads, and received texts about both Facebook and Instagram being down—something I have yet to be convinced was an accident. It was as if the world had stopped, the Gen Z equivalent to a stock market crash. Instagram users like me shuffled through other social media platforms to occupy ourselves. After Facebook and its other apps went dark at 11:40 a.m. (EST), Twitter HQ tweeted “hello literally everyone” only two hours later and received over 3 million likes. Twitter itself then experienced an influx of technical issues over the next two hours, highlighting the sheer volume of users seeking out other platforms to fill the stimulus void Instagram’s crash had generated. 

At 6:33 p.m. (EST) Facebook tweeted to share apologies and good news: 

“To the huge community of people and businesses around the world who depend on us: we’re sorry. We’ve been working hard to restore access to our apps and services and are happy to report they are coming back online now. Thank you for bearing with us.”

Within five hours, Facebook and its subsidiary apps slowly came back to life and so did the world. Companies could target their ads, photo dumps could be posted, and oversimplified infographics could circulate once more. We could all happily re-enter the Instagram echochamber of instant gratification and posturing. I could unpack the meaning of the latter, but that is a whole other article in and of itself.

The sentiments expressed in The Wall Street Journal investigation, The Washington Post piece, and countless other articles were not new to me. As a young woman, I have been acutely aware of the negative impact Instagram has on my self-image, psyche, and overall mental health. What blew me away, however, was the extent of the worldwide dependence on platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and WhatsApp. Small businesses and content creators lost revenue, family members using WhatsApp were stripped of their means of communication, and a large percentage of our world’s population confronted their inability to simply exist with their own thoughts.

One Twitter user (@TwitterOfGod) summed up the blackout perfectly:Instagram and Facebook are currently not working, as are democracy, society and a healthy sense of self.” Following the blackout, I continued to think critically about my relationship with Instagram, but it was the terrifying, empirical proof of social media’s drug-like quality that has stuck with me. Facebook and its subsidiaries have sunk their claws into virtually every aspect of our minds and they’re not letting go anytime soon.

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