I was a member of the last generation of children to grow up without the internet...and the first generation of parents to raise children with it. I remember well the early, heady days of the internet; back then, we all believed -- we just knew! -- that this new technology would bring the world closer, promoting new understanding that would transcend borders, ethnicities, governments. Harmony, it seemed, lay just on the other side of our dial-up modem.
Alas, that’s not exactly how the world unfolded.
My new novel, The Smash-Up, wrestles with our algorithmically-driven world. Each of my characters make very different choices about social media and the online rabbit hole, but as it turns out, none of them — not even children — can escape its consequences.
Here are seven things I want my own children to know about social media.
1. It’s fun. Let’s be real: the internet is a giant 24/7 party. There’s always something to see, someone new to talk to. It’s an endless stream of novelty, and there’s nothing that grabs us like novelty.
2. It can do great things… Before the internet, people knew only the world that surrounded them. Sometimes, that made life deeply, even devastatingly, lonely. I’m thrilled that people today — kids especially— can find support, mentors, friends, answers, community with a couple of clicks.
3. ...But often doesn’t. Snark. Cyberbullying. Trolls. Radicalization. Harassment. Scams. Revenge porn. Swatting. Need I say more?
4. It’s comforting...but also cold comfort. It’s gratifying after a long day —or during a long pandemic — to open a screen and see the faces of friends and family. But make no mistake: it is a poor substitute for full human connection. When you find people you love (and, of course, when it is safe again), meet them in person, in actual time and space.
5. You can find great art there. We humans have found ways to express ourselves since we first climbed down from the trees. Give us some mineral pigments and a stone wall, and we’ll make cave drawings. Hand us a chunk of wood, we’ll carve it into sculpture. You’ll find plenty of art in this new medium, too — some of it dazzlingly creative. Unfortunately, you’ll also find shameless self-promotion. Learn to tell the difference. Move toward the art. Every time.
6. It will suck your attention, and your time. One of the trickiest things about social media is that it’s always right there in front of you. Meanwhile, the things you might otherwise do with that time and attention remain invisible — hidden, wholly theoretical, until you actually do them. Be aware of that opportunity cost. Be intentional about how you’re spending your time.
7. It’s basically a toxic relationship. Social media creators are like terrible romantic partners. They don’t care about your needs. They design their platforms —deliberately, stealthily, and skillfully — to be meet their own. That means they want you to continue scrolling, clicking, at all costs. They don’t care if doing so makes you happy or miserable. They don’t care whether the time you spend with them makes you feel fulfilled or utterly empty. They don’t care what else you might have hoped to do with your day, or with your life. Their agenda for you is divorced from your hopes and needs. Know this. Create boundaries, just as you would in any healthy relationship.
8. It will change you. I took a big step back from social media when I noticed it changing me. I was becoming more reactive, a little quicker to anger and exasperation. My attention skipped endlessly, like a flat stone on still water, never settling anywhere deep. I liked other people less. I liked myself less. Experiment: see who you are with social media, and without it. Move toward the version you prefer.
9. You can’t escape it….Even if you reject social media altogether, you still live in a world that’s algorithmically driven. What happens on the screen has real world impact (See: Q Anon).
10. ...but you can live without it if you want. There’s a big, beautiful world out there, so don’t be afraid to step away. Lift your head. Go outside. Look up. Notice the color of the sky, or the way wind shakes the leaves. Watch birds. Meet a friend. Take a nap. Read a book, or maybe write one. Sure, your fingers might be twitchy at first, but once you adjust, you might notice that the world outside of your screen is startlingly alive and vibrant.
The Smash-Up by Ali Benjamin – a novel about social media and suburbia, Trumpism and Twitter, feminism and family – is published by riverrun.