If you’ve used social media in the past year—and over 75% of Americans have — you’re probably in an online bubble without even realizing it. Thanks mostly to COVID-19, we’re living in a world where most of our connections are through screens. And that’s not a good thing.
Social media use among American adults has been steadily rising for years, but as stay-at-home orders rolled out across the country earlier this year, it exploded. Platforms like Facebook saw up to 27% more daily users during the first few months of the pandemic. Zoom went from 2 million users to 6 million, almost overnight. And local apps like Nextdoor saw their users grow by almost 80%.
As our work, school, and social life all moved online, we became even more disconnected from the world outside our screens. This rapid move to online communities was at least partially responsible for drastic increases in mental health issues.
Approximately one in three Americans reported suffering from anxiety or depression in 2020, up from one in 12 in 2019. On a more concerning note, the CDC reports that 25% of young adults considered suicide at some point during 2020.
While these numbers are staggering, we’ve overlooked the way our digital isolation has caused many people to lose their grip on reality. Conspiracy theories have exploded online. Both conservatives and liberals have become convinced that the success of the other side would mean the end of the republic. And the disconnect between the laptop class — those who see the world from their comfortable work-from-home lives—and the working class—the waiters, cashiers, and blue collar laborers who have been directly affected by restrictions shutting down their places of work—has grown larger than ever.
Why is this happening?
Simply put, we’ve lost the real-world human connections that keep us grounded. We’ve been forced into online bubbles on platforms designed to group us with people like us.
When you open Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, or virtually any other social media site, you’re seeing posts selected just for you by the AI algorithm. These posts are designed to connect you with people who have the same interests, have similar beliefs, and think the same way you do. Why? The algorithm is designed to increase engagement and keep you from closing the app, and logically, if you see things you like and are interested in, you’ll stay on the site longer.
If the only things you read are articles tailored by the algorithm to fit your interests and the only people you talk to are those who post things that align with your thoughts, it’s incredibly easy to get sucked into a version of reality that doesn’t exist in the real world.
But social media algorithms aren’t new. As the hit documentary The Social Dilemma shows, they’ve been in place for years. So what’s changed?
In a normal time, most of us have regular interactions with people who aren’t like us. We talk to friends or neighbors who are on opposite ends of the political spectrum. We visit with relatives who don’t share our faith or belief systems. We interact with co-workers who come from different backgrounds and see the world differently. Our real-world connections provide an unfiltered dose of reality that keeps us grounded. Last year, we lost that, and our online bubbles became more isolated than ever.
Escaping our online bubbles
While our world may soon return to normal, our tendencies to withdraw into sheltered bubbles won’t disappear when we get the COVID-19 vaccine. So, here are three ways to escape our online bubbles in 2021:
1. Limit social media use carefully
This might seem like obvious advice, but it’s not as easy as it seems. Social media apps are intentionally designed to keep us scrolling for as long as possible. Personally, I’ve found it’s helpful to limit notifications and block out periods of time where you don’t check social media. The only way to win the battle against mindless social media use is to be intentional about disconnecting.
2. Get your news and information from multiple sources
It’s tempting to believe everything you read on the internet, but so much of what we see on our feeds just isn’t true. Take the time to research things before believing them, and especially before sharing them with others. Often, a quick Google search will provide the truth about something.
It’s also helpful to seek out multiple sources to find the truth about issues. Don’t get all your news from one media outlet. Read and follow people who think differently, but who are thoughtful and sincere in their arguments.
3. Be intentional about making real-world connections
Making a point to connect with people outside of social media — especially those who aren’t like us — is so important. Not every conversation has to be a political discussion or deep worldview debate. In fact, simple “small talk” can go a long way. Even in a time of social distancing, it’s possible to make these real-world connections. Video chats, texts, and phone calls are all far better than a Facebook message or Twitter DMs.
These connections don’t happen on their own. Unlike social media, where the algorithm creates conversations, real-world connections require effort and intentionality. Pick up the phone and call an old friend. Text someone to see how they’re doing. Surround yourself (even virtually) with people you love and trust. They will keep you grounded — often without realizing it.
It might seem like our isolation is out of our control, but we can be purposeful about escaping our online bubbles. We don’t need the world to go back to normal to change the way we interact with others. In an online world designed to pull us apart, let’s choose to break out of our bubbles. In 2021, let’s scroll less and talk more. We might “like” fewer posts, but we’ll be free to love more people in the real world.