Living in a Virtual Reality

Emmalina Sjapeki, Staff Writer

In the 60s it was heroin, in the 80s it was crack, and at the turn of the century it was marijuana. This generation’s drug of choice is the internet. There has been a drastic shift in how people utilize the ever changing landscape of the web. In this new world, people no longer see the internet as a tool. Instead, it is a way of life. 

During the pandemic, social media apps experienced a jump in membership across all demographics, but it remains true that the most influential users are teens. Of all age groups, teenagers spend the most amount of time on social media, and this can have significant negative effects on their mental health. Often, social media use can lead to feelings of anxiety as users compare themselves to an idealized version of someone else. Social media can even alter the way our brains work, changing the way we receive the chemicals that allow us to feel joy. Many users can become fixated on the quick and easy entertainment that social media apps can provide. As the world turned to virtual solutions after the havoc caused by COVID-19, a primary form of escape from the stress of the outside world became social media. Students spent so much time online during the pandemic, in fact, that the repercussions may have bled into the outside world.

The increased use of the internet may have negatively affected the social and emotional development of children and teenagers. As the pandemic relegated people to the home, many children and teenagers missed out on extracurricular activities, limiting social interaction and physical exercise. Instead, they spent more time online, where social media apps and entertainment sites increase feelings of social isolation. The amount of time spent on screens can lead to permanent eye damage, and since 1971, nearsightedness has nearly doubled in the U.S. 

While social media caters to teens, people of all age groups are guilty of spending too much time on apps. Case in point: the age of the average Facebook user in the U.S. is around 40 years old. Since so many people enjoy the benefits of neverending content and hardly anyone actually reads the Terms and Conditions, it is easy for companies to take advantage of users and get away with loose privacy laws or other abuses. In the age of the internet, it’s far too easy to become addicted to the quickly accessible entertainment at the tips of our fingers, but we may look back at this era of loosely regulated web use and privacy laws the same way we look back at the loosely regulated medical treatments of our past: with shock and dismay at the unhealthy practices our ancestors relied on.

Even so, the internet has provided many benefits to people around the globe. There is a vast amount of knowledge on the internet, which is beneficial for conducting research and sourcing information. People are more connected than ever, and can strengthen relationships that they have developed in the real world or connect with those who live in different places. Social media can help people practice digital literacy and critical media consumption, as people have to sort through unreliable sources everyday. Social media allows students and workers to talk to their teachers or employers via email, and can help people practice networking for future opportunities. For those who are artistically inclined, content creation is now a viable career path that people can pursue. Perhaps most important, news can be shared immediately, and injustices can quickly be broadcasted to a large audience via social media.

The effect that the internet will have on mental wellbeing remains to be seen, and the full consequences will likely be experienced as this generation matures. Nevertheless, the internet isn’t going anywhere, and all we can hope for is that it is in wise hands.