Is social media like food?

Photo by Mockaroon on Unsplash

Clare Southerton

It’s becoming more common to hear about social media ‘fasts’, digital detoxes, as well as media consumption practices understood in terms of digital ‘calories’, nutrition and diets. The language of health, wellness and the diet industry has well and truly spread to how we talk about social media, as well as other technologies like smartphones and video games devices.

The 5:2 Digital Diet, for example, models itself on the popular 5:2 fasting diet, and recommends that we abstain from screens two days a week. Devotees are instructed to ‘delete all email and social media apps from your phone Friday night and reinstall Sunday morning.’ It’s also recommended that you fill your screen-free days with exercise and ‘getting out into nature’, which is ‘proven to help with all sorts of ailments’. It’s clear that there is an emphasis on wellness here that mirrors food-based diets and lifestyle programs.

Ah yes, the relaxing beauty of nature

Notably social media, and technology in general, is often positioned as the evil opposite of nature. Nature is largely framed simplistically as space of retreat and repair, for humans and from humans. This narrative, of course, misses the complex politics surrounding what in fact constitutes ‘natural’ and the ways outdoor spaces are accessible more often to the privileged. Even more hypocritical, this relatively recent ‘return to nature’ neglects the histories of many Indigenous peoples: colonists’ racist actions and dispossession of land were predicated on the supremacist assumption that a connection to nature made Indigenous people less-human.

Beyond detoxing and fasting, others advocate for more ‘nutritionally’ focused approach to digital technologies and social media. We might think about this as akin to a ‘balanced’ diet and focused more on well being, and less on purity and abstinence. However, focusing on the ‘nutrition’ or ‘quality’ of digital content is highly subjective, and fails to challenge the underlying problems with this ‘social media diet’ mentality. This kind of language is reminiscent of the kind of shame and moralism that surrounds ‘unhealthy’ and ‘junk’ foods. The problem that gets left out of conversations about our anxieties around social media use and our anxieties about food — what about pleasure?

On this question, it’s useful to turn to the excellent work of Professor Helen Keane who wrote the highly influential book What’s Wrong With Addiction?. She draws out the entangled relationship between anxieties about pleasure and the popularisation of addiction as a concept. She writes that ‘[d]esire, discipline and pleasure are appropriated into an economy of health and disease’ (p. 18). When we think about social media, we can see exactly what Helen is talking about. The fact that social media is appealing quickly becomes mobilised as proof of its unhealthiness, its need to be managed by medical professionals and its ‘addictive’ qualities.

On Monday night’s episode of ABC’s Q & A, panelists discussed ‘the consequences of our growing dependence on social media’, with some arguing that the addictive nature of social media platforms has now reached crisis point. The negative mental health effects of social media were largely taken for granted, despite existing research on social media’s impact on well being and mental health being far from conclusive. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that social media impacts are both positive and negative (and many studies that reveal more nuanced effects). Beyond the limited framing of wellbeing there is a rich literature exploring digital cultures and communities on various platforms.

The show also participated in much of the same kind of shaming that goes on for those who consume too much of the wrong thing – even if often when it comes to social media consumption the shaming is usually directed at oneself. There are interesting parallels too with other addictive substances – junk food or illicit drugs – whereby the ‘addict’ is painted as morally deficient and lacking ‘willpower’.

‘Popular addiction discourse constructs everyday substances and experiences as potentially dangerous, and sees risk, dysfunction and disorder everywhere.’

Helen Keane, What’s Wrong With Addiction? (p. 27)

So let’s get back to the original question — is social media like food? In many ways I think the comparison is apt but not for the reasons many are suggesting. Like food, social media consumption is embedded in socio-cultural meanings. I don’t think there is anything intrinsically more wholesome about sharing deep inner feelings with a friend compared with smashing a game of Candy Crush. But certainly our shared social norms may identify one practice as connection and another as addiction.

Now after all this typing I guess I’m out of digital calories…better do a run around the block so I can check my email.

Published by Clare Southerton

Clare is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Vitalities Lab, Social Policy Research Centre and Centre for Social Research in Health, UNSW Sydney.

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