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Twitter Suspended Me, and I Feel Great
I woke up one morning to find the dreaded email: Your account has been suspended for violating the Twitter Rules.
I felt slightly sick: what is it now?
Twitter had been my go-to source of breaking news in the form of live events and video journalism for the better part of a year. Among my followed accounts were (too) many newspaper reporters and a pantheon of public figures, ranging from company CEOs and internet celebrities to U.S. cabinet members and political pundits. You never knew when the next great scandal or developement would burst onto the site and spark a heated online discourse that was a news story in its own right.
What most struck me about being suspended, however, was not what I was missing (which truly wasn’t much), or the suspension itself (which I later discovered was erroneous), but my experience after.
Suddenly I felt lighter, more attuned to my surroundings. The nagging voice that told me to check my phone for a response from some 13-year-old communist furry I had been having an ongoing argument with was replaced by peace and quiet. I was more productive at night and rested in the morning.
Naturally, my first question was, is this for real? Or am I just imagining things?
The first discovery on my quest for truth was that social media and bedtime don't mix well. According to a study published in the Journal of Sleep, NBA players who used Twitter from 11 P.M. to 7 A.M. on average had less playing time and made fewer baskets and rebounds in their games the following day. While the study illuminates the perils of sleep deprivation writ large, the blue light emitted by smartphones is one of its leading causes. Studies show that blue light disrupts normal sleep cycles up to twice as much as green light, or natural light, by blocking melatonin production in the cells. This, combined with the mental health problems that arise from social media use, makes for some toxic stimuli.
It’s no surprise that social media use is linked to poor mental health. The allure of photo sharing apps like Instagram and Facebook lead to self comparison and self obsession over online image; smartphone journalism and social media news feeds work together to magnify rage-inducing stories; and character limits on microblogging sites like Twitter preclude thoughtful debate and contribute to moral panics, which often have real life consequences (i.e. cancel culture). Perhaps most worrisome, the addictive chaos of it all creates a “fear of missing out” that keeps users coming back for more.
All of this takes a big mental toll, especially on society’s most tech savvy demographic—teenagers. A study published in JAMA Psychology, citing negative behaviors associated with social media use like antisocialness and disagreeableness, concluded that teenagers who “spend more than three hours a day on social media may be at heightened risk for mental health problems.” And the risk is widespread; of the 95% of teenagers who own a smartphone 90% report using social media at least several times a day and 45% report using it “almost constantly.”
Given the facts, it’s only natural rates of anxiety, depression, suicide and suicidal ideation among teenagers have skyrocketed in the past two decades, which saw the advent and rapid rise of social media. That’s not to say social media is all bad—nothing can replace the increased connectivity and emotional support it provides—only that it should be used in moderation. According to the same study, if teenagers who used social media for thirty minutes or more had instead used it for thirty minutes or less, they would have experienced a significant jump in their mental health. Now, before every parent reading this implements time limits or an all-out ban on social media (and every teenager reading this comes for my head) I want to make clear that the problem isn’t so much excess input as it is a lack of good input; good input has a way of discouraging bad input, thus achieving what time limits and other strictures often can’t.
But what input would best counteract the adverse effects of social media? The answer has broader implications for teenagers than one might expect: reading. Research shows that reading helps with sleep, stress—one study found that just six minutes of reading reduced stress by 68%, more than any other form of relaxation—and that reading fiction in particular improves empathy and social awareness. As a consequence, readers report higher levels of happiness than non-readers, according to a survey of 27,305 people in 13 countries commissioned by Kindle. Unfortunately, thanks to a decades-long decline in literacy (and a corresponding rise in internet use) among high school age students, teenagers have largely lost these benefits, with 27% of 17-year-olds reporting they “never” or “hardly ever” read, up from 9% in 1984. And it will only get worse.
An article in a recent issue of TIME lauds the coming of a “fourth industrial revolution that will fuse the physical, digital and biological worlds.” In this new technological era, humans will have access to a digital copy of the physical world called a “metaverse.” What will become of books, never mind simple pleasures like eating and drinking, can only be guessed. What is clear is that we are quickly approaching that point. Over the past year, COVID-19 forced businesses to go virtual, but after reaping the benefits of less commuting and higher digital efficiency, company CEOs are making the change permanent. This comes as digitization is sweeping entertainment, education and commerce across all sectors. But is this really what we want? More digitization can only mean more mental health problems and less healthy influences. If the ubiquitousness of smartphones led us to where we are now, a free to roam digital universe will be the end of civil society.
It’s been five months now since my suspension. At first, I felt deeply outraged, something I made sure to channel in the daily suspension appeals I filed to Twitter Support. But I soon found out that it was hopeless: Twitter’s support system has been overrun by appeals over the past year--thanks in part to their newly hardened stance against incitement and misinformation--and suspension appeals like mine are on the bottom of their priority list. If my account were to be reinstated at some point in the future, it would be a matter of pure luck. In reality, I was lucky to have been suspended; I was one of the few required by circumstance to shelve social media and seek better outlets in a world where incentive to do so is increasingly scarce. If there’s anything I learned from the experience, it’s that that incentive is precious, because once it's gone, reading and self-discovery will die with it. There will be one world, one connectivity--and no way out.