by Goldin Joghataie
Graphic design by Livia Nguyen
Throughout evolution, we’ve been used to hanging on to pieces of information from all senses that may be deemed important later for survival and daily life. For example, recalling that hidden beside a particular collection of trees is a stream of clean water, or a certain smell means that a food isn’t edible. In fact, every piece of information is relevant to us since it relates to a setting, an emotion, or people in our lives that characterize our daily experiences.
But embedded in today’s world is social media, in which we have a different type of existence—what I like to call the Mediabiome—also filled with social connections, locations, stimuli, information, aesthetics, and emotion which we either consciously compile, or randomly come across by browsing and scrolling.
These vastly different stimuli that come from our screens may have nothing to do with our tangible lives at work, home, or in our surroundings—they may also have no connection to our close circle of people. What’s most important is that we can reach a random irrelevant piece of stimuli just as easily as a relevant one, or perhaps, it might be even quicker to come across an irrelevant piece of information based on our random chances when scrolling.
Never in human history have we had so much information and so many connections to people so quickly at our disposal with such minimum effort (if any at all).
Think of closing your eyes when you’re bored and suddenly finding yourself in a pretty bakery with cute lo-fi themed music when you open them. Then you might get tired of this, close your eyes again, and find yourself in a dark alley full of loud rock music. This is the world of social media today, this is our Mediabiome, where the boundaries of place and time seem to vanish within a few seconds of typing.
I hypothesize that our brains over the years may indeed, through plasticity, start to realize that so much of our everyday stimuli coming from screens, if not all, are irrelevant to our tangible priorities. I wonder if our brains just go into this state of forgetting most of the stimuli they receive during the day since so much of it is irrelevant to our lives. Indeed, what’s the point of retention and memorization if all our questions or impulsive needs for entertainment are satiated within seconds with a quick transient search on the phone? Our brains may adapt to fit this setting of our Mediabiome, and in a way, we may be relying on an information base where recognition is more important than complete recall or storage.
Now you might say, well this proposed “Mediabiome brain” and forgetfulness may only be for random irrelevant content; the content one views can be catered and recommended based on personal taste thanks to algorithms. You’d be right. But even then, we face another issue of similar nature. This time it is not heaps of random information that can impact our brain, but heaps of the same type of information. To use an analogy, it’s like having only one type of bacteria in our gut-microbiome, when we need a balance of many different bacteria to stay healthy. To add on, it may become worse when there’s only one or few dangerous types of bacteria in our gut microbiome, or only a few types of content in our Mediabiome that may negatively impact our mental health.
We might find ourselves roaming for hours in our slightest temptations for a new online setting. Because once you have a large bag of popcorn, you might be craving some sweet ice cream afterwards, and then some oily pizza, and then some more ice cream cake. Our stomachs, however, will soon warn us of the consequences of continuing this pattern and if not, surely, we’ll run out of supplies of ice cream, or run out of money to buy more.
With social media however, there’s no limit to storage and seemingly no cost to the variety of content available. Whatever type of information one is craving or is curious about, as long as they can think of it, is available online—there is, in other words, no boredom left in our world even if we waste our time with things we are not that satisfied with.
But would you randomly walk into an alley or a random setting without any preparation or a map, just because you felt like it? You might do that once and be just fine. But imagine teleporting into random streets and meeting strangers everyday. If one does this, they may get lost, worried, or view things they weren’t prepared to see. Our lives online follow this analogy. Our mental health may end up having the need for some attention just as our stomachs would if we keep on eating buckets of ice cream. Think of how harmful this may be when our brains are still developing.
What is more is that all the stimuli, whether it’s important or not, come from the same medium—the virtual screen. That is our Mediabiome isn’t exclusive to only entertainment or the nontangible. From our work-related Excel datasheets to our current favorite TV show, music playlist, and text messages from loved ones—they are on the same screen! In place of thorough letter writing from just a few centuries ago, or hour-long telephone calls that were common just a decade ago, now suddenly most of us resort to more frequent but choppy conversations through text message, sometimes between different time zones, that neither feel completely socially satisfying nor completely isolating. A hazy social existence between space and time.
Our emotions might feel a tad bit confused as well. Think about it, you open your Tik-Tok or Instagram reels and see a post about fraud that makes you angry, then you see a cute video of a puppy helping a small bird and smile, you scroll, and see another video of your favorite TV show’s most sentimental scene and you might even tear up. In a span of 40 seconds, you have now gone through an emotional rollercoaster but haven’t related to anything or anyone tangible.
Many say social media provides social opportunities for those who are lonely, and they’re right. But what if loneliness is becoming a new norm among some people since it may be a more (temporarily) efficient lifestyle? After all, this cycle will continually lead to more social isolation, depression, and feelings of dissociation.
Social media’s negative or positive impact may also have inequitable bias. For example, someone who lives in a neighborhood may already have close people they can meet up with and can take relaxing breaks form media to walk to their nearby park. On the other hand, a lonely immigrant college student, living on a tight budget, knowing no one in a new country, living in a tiny studio apartment surrounded by nothing but concrete towers, already fixated on studying with mostly online classes is at far higher risk of social media’s negative impact. Social media, then, also brings into question topics of equity. Even though it gives easy and affordable access to those with lower economic standings, it also may pose just as many barriers if not dealt with properly.
Social media has been linked to increased risk for addiction, memory dysfunction, and social isolation in youth. If the evidence isn´t enough proof for action, must we wait for longitudinal studies to show us, when it might be too late, that we should take better care of our mental health and cognition in this new age of the virtual screen?