Illustration by Adam Q

Young life: A love letter to going online

Why can’t we consume content for no other reason than we like it?
March 3, 2022

I have always loved the internet. I remember whiling away hours of my childhood tending to my Cybunny on Neopets, browsing the website Weebl’s Stuff (where animator Jonti Picking shares silly videos and songs), and listening to “The Llama Song” on repeat on the family computer. Today, I’m more likely to scroll through Twitter or Instagram, but the thrill of “going online” remains the same: that unparalleled pleasure of giving in to the magnetic pull of the blue light. Ironically, given the novelty of the internet, the emotion is so intense it feels almost primal.

As a Zillennial, I fall on the cusp of the generational boundary between Millennials and Gen Z—I’m just old enough to remember when “going on the computer” constituted a fully-fledged hobby. There was a brief period before social media really took off, when memes were inside jokes shared between the select few who were already online. I remember taking care never to use my real name, reveal what country I lived in or upload any photos of myself, as scare stories about online stranger-danger abounded.

Why does all our free time have to be productive or geared towards self-optimisation?

Now, the excitement of “going on the computer” has been extinguished, and being online feels mundane. It’s rare that I send a meme to someone who hasn’t seen it already, as 4G and mobile phones allow us to be perpetually online. I have shed the anonymity and the pseudonyms, and my name and location are visible to the public on all my social media platforms. I have also uploaded countless photos of my face, in Facebook albums which harbour hundreds of blurry photos taken at parties on my old digital camera.

Often, discussions about social media stoke moral panics, focusing exclusively on the risks and negatives. Doubtless some will bristle at the thought that I spent hours of my childhood drawing on Microsoft Paint until my eyes stung. But I don’t think I’ve been damaged by this. I still forged connections and friendships with people in real life; I still concentrated at school; I can’t say my mental health suffered directly because of the internet. Sometimes, I spend a whole evening on Twitter when I had planned to read a book. But mostly, I feel in control of my relationship with technology. I can focus on my work and “be present” with my friends and family without impulsively checking my phone every 12 minutes (the national average.)

At the same time, I’m not naive enough to argue that it’s always so straightforward. I joined Instagram shortly after it launched, in my late teens. As the years passed it became increasingly apparent that people were using the app to present a curated highlights reel, rather than their real lives. At the age of 17, I remember obsessing over whether the colours on my feed complemented each other, as well as whether I was giving off the impression that I had an exciting life. Sometimes I kid myself into thinking that I no longer think about stuff like this: but my mismatched, anti-aesthetic Instagram feed is still curated, only this time I’m trying to appear as though I’m too cool to care.

Some tech companies deliberately make their apps addictive. It’s almost impossible to pull away from apps where you can scroll “infinitely”—such as the world’s most popular app TikTok, where endless 15-second videos are delivered to your screen based on an algorithm that predicts with astonishing accuracy exactly what you want to see next. You can’t “complete” social media, and that’s the way these companies want it. The longer you stay on their apps, the more ads you see and the more profit they make. I worry that younger people are not always aware of this.

While there are plenty of compelling arguments against social media—especially when the safeguarding of young people is concerned—I don’t buy the suggestion that apps are “rotting our brains.” People often describe getting sucked into TikTok as a waste of time, but I think this reveals a depressing attitude towards time. Why does all our free time have to be productive or geared towards self-optimisation? Does everything we do need to have purpose? It would be reductive to imply that flicking through videos or scrolling through Twitter is some sort of radical, anti-capitalist act. But can’t we consume content for no other reason than because we like it?

My screen time has steadily declined in recent years, and I’m trying to use my phone less, but not necessarily because it saps my time. Instead, I’m just chasing that rare thrill from all those years ago: the sweet excitement of “going online.”