From YouTube to TikTok, Gen Z is producing a plethora of celebrities who promote and profit from kids’ social media addictions. But even among the influencer generation fiddling away on social media, several young stars have recognized the value of reading.
Personalities like Timothée Chalamet, Kaia Gerber, and YouTube sensation Emma Chamberlain have promoted reading as a way to relax, learn, and escape the toxic world of social media.
‘Reading Makes You Hot,’ While Social Media Makes You Depressed
In her YouTube video, titled “Reading Makes You Hot,” which has more than 3.8 million views, Chamberlain describes how reading alleviates her anxiety and depression. She explains, “Reading is harmless. Going on social media is not harmless. It makes you sad, it makes you compare yourself to other people, it makes you depressed.”
Since this video was released, Chamberlain has quit TikTok entirely and limited her Instagram usage, citing mental health reasons.
Millions of teens and young adults can relate to Chamberlain’s experience, and research has found a definite causal relationship between social media and depression. A study conducted by the University of Arkansas found that young adults who spent more than 300 minutes a day on social media platforms were “2.8 times as likely to become depressed within six months” than those who spent 120 minutes or less on social media.
According to Nicholas Carr’s bestselling book, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” the exhaustion many users experience after engaging with social media stems from the fact that “our social standing is, in one way or another, always in play, always at risk. The resulting self-consciousness — even, at times, fear — magnifies the intensity of our involvement with the medium. That’s true for everyone, but it’s particularly true for the young.”
Thus, trying to relax through social media is a contradiction of terms. A social media user is not only subject to the myriad auditory, visual, and somatosensory cues put forth by the medium (think of TikTok’s addictive combination of music, fast-paced video content, and “swiping up” to see more), but is also perpetually conscious of his own status and social perception. In a virtual world governed by likes and dislikes, the danger of being ignored or even “canceled” is an ever-present threat.
Social Media Exploits Our Survival Instincts
Engaging in social media is not a leisure activity, because social media capitalizes on man’s survival instinct. Carr writes that the “natural state of the human brain … is one of distractedness. Our predisposition is to shift our gaze, and hence our attention, from one object to another, to be aware of as much of what’s going on around us as possible. … Our fast-paced, reflexive shifts in focus were once crucial to our survival.”
Man’s ability to shift focus developed as a means to survive — as a way to both find dinner and avoid becoming dinner, if you will. With the internet, we have infinite distractions and endless stimulation, paired with a perpetual sense of danger — not to our lives, necessarily, but to our reputations and social standing.
Reading, on the other hand, is a rather abnormal activity from an evolutionary standpoint. It requires “an unnatural process of thought, one that demand[s] sustained, unbroken attention to a single, static object,” as Carr continues.
Strict mental discipline is needed to “resist the urge to let [one’s] focus skip from one sensory cue to another.” But by detaching from the distractions of the outside world, the reader develops the ability to think and process deeply, to digest and internalize the information being read in a way that no amount of internet research can replace.
Although reading thus poses a relaxing alternative to TikTok or Instagram, the transition process is not without its challenges. When she first began reading for leisure, Chamberlain realized that she “actually had forgotten how to read. I would read a whole page, I’d flip to the next page, and then I’d realize, ‘Oh wait, I absorbed no knowledge or information from that page.’ Then I’d go back and read the page again.”
She is not alone in her struggle. Reading comprehension has been declining in America for years, and lockdowns only exacerbated the situation. But Carr reassures us that rewiring your brain is possible. With enough training, those skills of deep concentration and focus can be relearned, or developed for the first time.
Just make sure to hide your smartphone while you practice. A 2017 study at the University of Texas found that students whose phones were in plain sight performed more poorly on a series of tests than students who left their phones in a bag or in a different room altogether. “As the smartphone becomes more noticeable, participants’ available cognitive capacity decreases,” explained Adrian Ward, one of the study’s authors.
The Classic Literature Comeback
If you want to incorporate leisure reading into your routine, classical literature is a great place to start. When you read the classics, you interact with the ideas of the greatest minds in human history.
Spencer Baum calls classical literature “essential medicine in the age of social media.” He explains, “When you read Melville (or Hugo or Austen or Tolstoy or Plato or Shakespeare) you are sharing headspace with someone who is much better at slow, deep, meaningful thinking than you are because they’ve never lived in the shallows like you do.”
Surprisingly, several young celebrities also endorse classical literature rather than trendy, contemporary novels. Supermodel Kaia Gerber’s list of book recommendations combines modern novels with classics such as Plato’s “Symposium” and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise.” In a Harper’s Bazaar article that asked six celebrities for their top book recommendations for 2022, Kaia Gerber’s selection, “The Great Gatsby,” was the only literary classic to make the list. She is also the youngest celebrity represented in the article.
Chamberlain also chooses to spend time reading the classics, with authors like John Steinbeck and Fyodor Dostoevsky near the top of her list. According to Emma, reading historical fiction can be especially “grounding,” because it gives you perspective; you realize that “people have been having the same struggles for bazillions of years.”
Timothée Chalamet, another Gen Z celebrity and a star of “Little Women,” another famous literary classic, is also a Dostoevsky enthusiast. His list of favorite books begins with four Dostoevsky novels, followed by none other than Carr’s “The Shallows.” Other titles include George Orwell’s “1984,” and — of course — Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.”
As technology continues to expand, and with the development of the “metaverse” on the horizon, the dangers of social media-induced anxiety, depression, and exhaustion are not going away anytime soon. The next time you need a respite from the insanity, turn off your phone, pick up a classic, and read. It might just keep us sane.