Maybe we should ask our kids.
By the time I could walk into a bar and legally order a drink, there were less than six months left where I could also light up a cigarette to go with it. The legislation that curtailed this freedom was sportingly called the Freedom to Breathe Act, at least in Minnesota. It goes by other names in other states, and now most people in the U.S. can’t light up in bars either.
Whatever the name, the truth is that I really don’t mind this restriction. Actually, I kind of love this restriction because I love bars, but I do not love the smell of cigarette smoke. So these laws were a relief. There was also another feeling, and I think it was validation.
I remember growing up and going to restaurants and being greeted by the host who’d ask: Smoking or non? I remember that flights had smoking sections. As a child these struck me as silly questions: Did they not realize we were all breathing the same air?
Less silly is what I remember about my grandmother, who died of complications from COPD. The disease was almost certainly the result of the smoking she took up as a Depression-Era tween. I remember how she would tell me that everyone smoked in her time; it was just something you did. My mom, who also doesn’t love cigarette smoke, would sigh and shake her head when my grandmother said this. She would point out that it wasn’t everyone. They were both right, in a way.
When my mom was growing up, it’s true that there were adults around who opted not to smoke. But it was also true that there were an awful lot of adults around who did smoke, nearly half in fact. I can imagine that if 47% of my peers did anything, it would feel like it was everyone.
That prevalence surprised me as a child and it surprises me now, considering that smoking seems so intuitively connected to ill health. You smoke, you cough. You smoke more, you hack. As a child watching my grandmother smoke, I didn’t need any studies to convince me that smoking was bad for you. But no one asked me and studies were conducted. As a result, it has become both common and scientific knowledge that smoking is not saltatory.
Today, 14% of American adults still smoke. They do it to socialize, to blow off steam, to get a jolt of energy, to numb out. Whatever their reason, they know — apologetically, defiantly — that it is not good for them.
I am a mom to kids of my own now, and I spend a fair amount of time trying to see things through their eyes. Occasionally, I am surprised by the view. Like the time my son observed a corded phone in a hotel room and asked what it was. Or the time I realized that 9/11 is roughly as far away from their births as Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination is from mine. As much as I practice this perspective-taking, I also wonder about the things I miss. The things that I can’t see that my children can. The things I won’t see until it’s too late.
That sounds ominous, doesn’t it? Maybe you’re thinking that’s really a bit much. But ever since I can remember, that’s exactly how my grandmother’s smoking felt to me: Ominous. It was one of the first things I remember knowing that she didn’t seem to: Those cigarettes were killing her and had been for some time. It was disorienting knowledge.
It was the knowledge that adults can normalize what’s harmful. That grownups can act as if what’s frightening isn’t. Denying reality was never appealing to me as a child, and it’s not appealing to me now that I’m grown.
So I wonder with more than an idle curiosity: Is there something like smoking? Something ubiquitous and harmful that we don’t (or won’t) see?
It has become popular to say that sitting is the new smoking, so perhaps that’s it. To be sure, being sedentary is not great. It’s common, it’s unhealthy. Check, check. But a body also has to rest, even if the excess of rest is a problem. A body does not have to smoke. Besides, sitting feels good from day one. There is no collective reality denial needed to keep us in our chairs. What we have needed is science to help us see why that is a bad idea.
There’s another contender. Like cigarettes, it is ubiquitous (69% adults at last count). Like cigarettes, we are addicted. Like cigarettes, we use it to socialize. Like cigarettes, we use it to blow off steam. Like cigarettes, we use it to get a jolt of energy. Like cigarettes, we use it to numb out.
I am talking, of course, about social media.
Maybe those parallels are too easy to draw. Or too clumsy. But here’s what’s really cements it for me:
Like cigarettes, a child can see that social media is not good for us.
I am not talking about not good for us on a societal level, though that’s probably also true. For instance, it’s been convincingly argued that social media is eroding our democracy.
No, what I’m talking about is that social media is bad for us on a personal level. I am talking about the scale of me and you. I am talking about what is evident in our homes and in front of our children.
You scroll on social media, you feel bad about yourself. You scroll more on social media, you feel worse.
An image comes to mind: It is me, furtively scrolling while the blue glow of Facebook reflects in my pupils. My older son points at me as if I were the naked Emperor. He says: “But that doesn’t make her happy at all!”
Maybe we don’t need to imagine a child with a sudden flair for Hans Christian Andersen to acknowledge the truth of it. It’s actually pretty common among my friends for folks to take a day or a week or even a month off of social media to lift their moods. A break to reboot when they’re feeling down. One bold friend even deleted her Facebook account entirely (a multi-week process). Another friend in marketing admitted to me that, while she runs the social media for her company, she mostly stays off it herself.
Perhaps we shouldn’t need studies to tell us what could so easily be common knowledge, but (as we did with smoking) we’re conducting them anyway.
In fact, researchers out of Stanford recently published a study that formalized my friends’ ad hoc experiments. The researchers found a lot of people who used Facebook and then asked them how happy they were. Then, they paid those people to deactivate their Facebook accounts for about a month. After the Facebook fast, the researchers asked the participants again how happy they were. The results would not have surprised my friends or my children. The researchers found a small but meaningful increase in subjective well-being with a break from Facebook. To put it in context, “deactivating Facebook increased our subjective well-being index by about 25-40 percent as much as standard psychological interventions.” Deleting Facebook approaches the helpfulness of attending therapy.
Not everyone who smokes dies from it like my grandmother did. But smoking does erode nearly every smoker’s personal health. I wouldn’t be surprised if we someday drew the same conclusions about social media use.
Look. I want to be clear. I am not anti-technology or anti-internet. I have never made a tin foil hat. I do recognize there are arguments to be made in favor of something like social media. It connects us to people and ideas! Such as this essay! Plus, it is driving our economy! And, hey, it may even be able to support positive social norms!
For the record, I do have accounts on not only on Facebook, but on Instagram and Twitter, too. I don’t have plans to shut any of them down. Honestly, for personal and professional reasons, I don’t feel like I can.
And there it is.
I see those words, and I wonder: How many people justified their smoking the same way? I know it’s bad for me, but I can’t quit, see? I have reasons.
I remember as a child, walking in on my ailing grandmother with a lit cigarette in her mouth. I remember her coughing. I remember her pleading: “Please don’t tell.” Embarrassed for us both, I could only sigh in response.
Maybe I’m wrong about this. Maybe social media is not the new smoking.
But maybe, when we’re old and wrinkly, our children will sigh and shake their heads, while we, apologetic or defiant in our recliners, scroll.
This essay was syndicated in The Startup.