Social media ‘addiction,’ Instagram activism, and loving one’s phone in 2021

Examining the uptick in screen time during the pandemic

Graphic Maria Chabelnik

For many, the first reflex after waking up is to grab your phone, “catch up” with what you missed while you were sleeping, and try to find some sort of solace in the online world, hoping it will provide comfort within a day-to-day existence that can feel pointless.

Although what could be seen as a deep love affair that has developed between many individuals and their phones, depending on it as a comfort blanket in a variety of situations, does this reliance equate to smartphone and social media addiction?

“My screen time has increased so much. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but last week my phone told me that I was averaging eight hours a day—that’s more than an entire workday,” said Nathalie Scott, a linguistics student at Concordia University, detailing how she had greatly increased the time she spends on her phone, perceiving this as something negative. Scott noted that she found herself constantly reaching for her phone throughout the day, distracting her from responsibilities. 

“I just can’t stop myself from doing it,” she said. “I open Instagram as soon as I open my eyes in the morning and it’s the last thing I do before I close my eyes at night. I also do it during class time!”

Maureen Adegbidi, a recent graduate of Mount Allison University who now works full-time

from home, also noticed that she had been spending more time on social media and felt more reliant on her phone. “I feel like [my phone usage] has been worse since the pandemic, but hours-wise it's pretty similar to before. I think I feel that way because I have less stimuli than I would otherwise,” Adegbidi wrote in an email.

As a result of the pandemic, many people spent more time on social media, and their phones in general this past year while working and studying from home. One result of spending increasing amounts of time on social media has been the rise of digital activism online, which, for better and for worse, can allow people to believe they can keep up with and spread information and call out injustice, all from the comfort of their phone. 

At the beginning of June, in the midst of what seemed to be growing support and action for the Black Lives Matter movement, there was an uptick in the amount of Instagram users starting to share infographics. These infographics, easily digestible PowerPoint-style summaries on a variety of subjects about social justice and activism, were often used as a way to appear knowledgeable and to teach their followers about a variety of contemporary and historical topics.

Adegbidi, who works in an organization centred around racial justice, shared her thoughts on the rise of Instagram infographics and online activism through social media during the pandemic. “Infographics have always been around,” she said. “Activists use them because they’re effective. They’ve just gone mainstream as our once less accepted causes went mainstream as well. It’s less about usage and more about people who aren’t politically activated participating and sharing when they wouldn’t otherwise and activists who are outputting more as they saw it was effective.” 

“My screen time has increased so much. I’m embarrassed to admit it but last week my phone told me that I was averaging eight hours a day—that’s more than an entire workday.” — Nathalie Scott

Elaborating, Adegbidi didn’t think online activism and social media addiction were related, believing that those who do care actively and wish to be engaged politically will be online regardless to gather, organize, and disseminate information. “When you are politically active you feel like it’s your duty to be aware,” she said. “Awareness takes info and info means screen time. I know that when I’m not online when something major happens, I feel ignorant and complicit, which makes me want to be in that space.”

For someone like Adegbidi, whose daily work revolves around racial justice and activism, being more social and politically aware and active requires spending more time with her screen. In opposition to this, however, is the view that many people participate in what is often referred to as “slacktivism,” activism that does not extend past what individuals share and post on social media. One can share infographics about racial injustice and exploitation to appear informed and aware, while barely making any commitment to the actual issues at hand.   

Dr. Stefanie Duguay, an assistant professor in the communications department at Concordia researching internet culture and social media platforms, shared her perspective. Although she could not speak specifically to the physiological addiction and technology use, she did point out the importance of examining the increasingly common use of the term “addiction” within popular discourse about technology, social media, and smartphones. 

The idea of social media addiction “is in the public consciousness,” Duguay said, explaining that she was not surprised by what I had been hearing from others about their perceived dependence on or addiction to social media and smartphone usage. However, Duguay stressed the importance of unpacking the term addiction, and how many individuals are using it as a way to shame themselves over daily habits and routines that actually make a lot of sense given the growing importance of technology in their day-to-day routines. 

“What we mean by addiction is often ‘habit,’” she said. “We enact a large majority of our communicative activity in present life through our phones, and this is reinforced by our jobs, the availability of leisure activities, and media formats, so why wouldn’t we be using these technologies almost constantly?”

To understand people's increasing use of social media, it is important to examine how it is used through the wider lens of technological behaviour. Although it is easy to punish ourselves believing we are doing something wrong and unhealthy by spending more time on social media and the internet, Duguay said, “our phones connect us with family, friends, and familiar media, so why wouldn’t we feel as though they are a source of comfort?”

This article originally appeared in The Influence/Influenced Issue, published January 13, 2021.