Could you get by without using the internet for four and a half years? That’s exactly what singer and actress Selena Gomez has done in a bid to improve her mental health – and she told Good Morning America that going offline had changed her life completely.
While she helps her team to produce the promotional pictures and videos regularly shared on her Twitter, Instagram and other social media feeds, the 29 year old isn’t the one actually uploading the content to her millions of followers. “I am happier, I am more present, I connect more with people,” she said. “It makes me feel normal.”
Ms Gomez has spoken extensively about the relationship between her social media usage and her mental wellbeing, recalling feeling like “an addict” when she became Instagram’s most followed user in 2016. “At one point Instagram became my whole world, and it was really dangerous,” she told InStyle magazine in January. “Taking a break from social media was the best decision that I’ve ever made for my mental health… The unnecessary hate and comparisons went away once I put my phone down.”
So, should we ordinary people follow in Ms Gomez’s footsteps step away from the internet? It’s one thing to ditch social media and I’m sure we can all agree that creating and following a more considered, balanced approach to accessing apps and platforms is no bad thing.
Ditching the web at large, however, is a far more nuanced and complicated prospect. The increasing digitisation of our society means that everything from paying a gas bill and taxing your car to plotting a route to a friend’s house and even making a phone call are at the mercy of your internet connection. Actively opting out of using the internet becomes a matter of privilege.
Ms Gomez’ multi-millionaire status has allowed her to take the “social” out of social media, handing over the passwords to her accounts so she can continue to leverage her colossal fame while keeping the trolls at bay. The fact she’s still the second most-followed woman on Instagram (behind cosmetics billionnaire Kylie Jenner) suggests it’s entirely possible to maintain a significant web profile to promote various projects – by way of a dedicated team – without being exposed to the cruel comments, hate mail and rape or death threats. While other A-listers Benedict Cumberbatch, Scarlett Johansson and Kate Winslet, among others, opt out of social media entirely, Ms Gomez has created a kind of halfway house that meets both her financial and health needs, but relies upon others to properly function.
It goes without saying that this is fundamentally different to how the rest of us without beauty deals and films to publicise use the likes of Instagram, TikTok and Twitter, but even the concept of a digital detox requires having a device and connectivity to choose to disconnect from.
The UK’s digital divide has worsened over the past two years of Covid restrictions, with poorer families significantly less likely to have working broadband connections in their homes. Around 1.1m households, equating to five per cent of the population, are struggling to afford broadband, according to a recent report from Ofcom. Meanwhile, telecoms giants’ plans to move all 29m UK homes to a new digital phone system that works over the internet have been sullied by tales of pensioners left without phone lines. Digital exclusion is a major threat to wider societal equality in the UK, so witnessing companies like Facebook championing the metaverse as the next great frontier when schoolchildren are struggling to complete their homework feels particularly grating.
Consequently, it’s worth bearing in mind that while deleting all social accounts will undoubtedly make some, including Ms Gomez, feel infinitely better when it comes to prioritising their mental health and wellbeing, many other people benefit from the strong sense of community that sharing and entertainment platforms (or wider internet access generally) can simultaneously engender.
Internet access will continue to grow in importance as we edge further towards web 3.0, and greater resources and initiatives are needed both to help those in the UK feeling underprepared and to connect the families without the connectivity they desperately need to learn, work and live. It’s crucial that people who feel that social media is having a detrimental effect on their mental health are allowed to switch off – and for those living in digital exclusion to be able to switch on in the first place.
Rhiannon Williams is a technology journalist