The internet can be such a negative place. In this episode of Adult ISH, Nyge Turner and special youth guest host Quinn Castro ask: Why exactly does being online make us so unhappy, fatigued, and burnt out? YR Media’s Marjerrie Masicat weighs in to unpack our culture of digital depression and social media spiraling. And, journalist Anna Oakes of the Radiotopia podcast Bot Love joins to chat about the surprising ways Artificial Intelligence can intersect with human emotions.
Adult ISH is produced by YR Media and brought to you by PRX’s Radiotopia. Be sure to follow all our socials @yrAdultISH!
Nyge: Welcome to Adult ISH, produced by YR Media and brought to you by Radiotopia from PRX. I'm Nyge Turner.
Quinn: And I'm Quinn Castro. Surprise! Not who you were expecting.
Nyge: But we are so excited to have you here as our guest co-host on this episode. Quinn is interning with us on this season of Adult ISH and we came up with an idea for an amazing episode that we have planned for y’all, about our love-hate relationship with social media.
Quinn: Yes, I am. And yes, we did. So tell me, how do you feel about social media, Nyge?
Nyge: Um, honestly, I think – I think I hate it, Quinn! [laughter] It's incredibly distracting. I always find myself upset after I get off of it, and for some reason, I just can't stop? Like, I'm on Insta, on Twitter, and YouTube, all the time… I think I'm addicted. What about you?
Quinn: Yeah, I'm on Insta, TikTok, Twitter, Reddit, so many others. I don't know if that's bad for me, but I definitely understand the feeling. It takes up a lot of my time and I do really wish things were more positive as a whole on the apps.
Nyge: I can't agree more! And I don't think that we're the only ones that feel this way. That's why we wanted to talk to some people, starting with our friend and colleague Marjerrie Masicat, the Brand and Visual design manager, and formerly Interactive Designer here at YR, Marj herself has done some great reporting on technology and social media. Let's jump in.
Marj: I think as someone who has been chronically online since 2008, there's been a long period of time where getting off of social media made me feel so exhausted. I mean, particularly during the pandemic, it was like, whenever I wasn't on my computer for work, I was on my phone scrolling through feeds. And so I personally really needed to distance myself from using social media, because of all the negative associations with it.
Nyge: I don't ever get off of social media. Like, I fall asleep or I start doing something else. But do I ever, like, close my social media app? I don't think I ever do. And so I – but I do feel negative after I get off of social media or like when I look up from my phone, I do feel like, “ugh,” I get kind of just like disgusted with social media.
So there was a study done by Pew Research Center that said 36% of teens said that the total amount of time that they spend on social media was too much. And also another study done by them where a majority of teens said it would be somewhat to very difficult to give up social media. What do you feel like that says about social media's impact on young people?
Quinn: It's like, breathing. It’s just like something that we just like feel like we're always like, need to do because it's like, if not, what else are we going to do? Because I feel like with more like, like generation wise, like a lot of the generations, like, haven't really had a life without electronics, without social media and stuff like that. So it's just become the norm.
Marj: I think from the perspective of knowing how much this technology really affects our brains, from the moment you pick up social media, you're receiving so much dopamine, you're scrolling and, and it becomes endless. Like the person who created endless scrolling kind of regrets it.
Nyge: Hmm. Can you talk about the endless scrolling? Because I didn't even know. I never thought about the fact that endless scrolling was a thing until right now. I just. I just assume that that's just how feeds work. Yeah, but somebody had to actually create endless scrolling to where you never hit the bottom of a page.
Marj: Yeah, definitely. Previously, if you've been on websites before, you hit the bottom of the page and you have to click next page and occasionally that has acted as a stopper for people to get off the web, but with endless scrolling it just continues and there is no end.
Nyge: Man. Yeah. No, that's really interesting. Um, Marj, you mentioned that you have very strict restrictions and limitations on your social media usage. Yes. Can you go into that a little bit for us?
Marj: I think the limitations were a result of understanding how much screen time I was having. And so my limitations currently are that no social media exists in my phone. I only use my phone for Google Maps, Spotify, text messages and phone calls. I essentially created a dumb phone for my smartphone, which I think is hilarious.
Nyge: My life revolves so much around technology that I find ways of trying to like simplify it. Like just the other day I went up to to like this cabin and I deleted all the social media apps off of my phone. And, you know, the easy thing to say is just like, Oh, such a beautiful time. I felt so relaxed and rejuvenated and whatnot. But like, I felt weird. Like I felt like I was like, itching to get on social media. So Quinn, you expressed that cancel culture has a negative effect on you while you are on social media. So why do you think that is?
Quinn: I feel like social media like emphasizes it more and brings it to sometimes very drastic measures at times with like celebrities or like small artists for like maybe saying something that they didn't mean to intend to and then they apologize. But then there's so much controversy with the apology at times. (Nyge:Yeah.) And I feel like just like people just band together and just constantly bash and hate because social media goes like worldwide.
Nyge: Right. Do you think that cancel culture is like a new concept or you think it's something that like always existed?
Quinn: It's very like more powerful now because of how many people can access like a Twitter, like a tweet or like a story or TikTok.
Nyge: How do you feel Marj? Does cancel culture like bother you on on social media?
Marj: I think cancel culture is an unfortunate product of social media in the same way like Quinn was describing, people get canceled for things that are honest mistakes sometimes, like people aren't allowed to make mistakes on the internet anymore because it is now in, in the ephemera and world of the Internet. And you can't take it back, which I think sucks, especially for young people, because being young means being able to make mistakes in a genuine way and learning from it and cancel culture really nullifies the ability to make mistakes because now you have to be perfect all the time and nobody is perfect. But I think regardless, people end up bouncing back. It's like considering how fast news goes in the internet. It's like this one person is canceled today. Next month, they're totally fine, you know? Right.
Nyge: Yeah. I was just I was just thinking.
Quinn: It's like, hard. And then other times, like, it's hard to get, like, quote unquote, like redemption or something for it, because, like, you're trying you're like, working with your publicist, trying to, like, find all these different ways to, like, curate, to like people and like, you have to find the right time to send the apology out. You can't do it too soon or it doesn't seem genuine. You can't do it too late or people are already over it.
Marj: Yeah, yeah. Do you feel like social media to you or how you use social media makes you social? Like does it actually make you socialize with people?
Quinn: I feel like in some ways, like, yeah, you're like reaching out to like new people and you're like, you're like trying to figure out like, ways to talk. But then at the same time, it's like you're missing that human connection part. And also with like a text, like what you're saying can come across as a different way and such, and it's just sort of missing that human connection with conversating with people.
Nyge: I think it kind of helps me keep tabs on people throughout my life, like it helps me keep tabs on my family and I'll be like, Oh, so-and-so just graduated. Oh, little so-and-so is, you know, going to college or so-and-so went to prom and I'll be able to see all those pictures and see all these moments. But I don't feel like it actually made me more social. Probably not. I think I think the business side of social media, though.
Marj: Yeah. As a follow up then, do we think that social media is an appropriate name for it? Because I think all of us have kind of just named the fact that perhaps social media is not making us more social with other people in our lives because it's still like a screen that we have to interact through if we interact at all. So is social media still the appropriate name for it? If the whole point of social media right is to be more social with others?
Quinn: Yeah, it's interesting. I think it honestly, I feel like social media might be an outdated name for it. Now I feel like it. Just like media. Mm hmm.
Nyge: Yeah. Low key. It could just be content, content center. Center for digital content, is what it should be called.
Marj: That sounds like a building.
Quinn: Endless scrolling.
Marj: Oh, my gosh, yeah.
Nyge: Do either of you all feel like you could ever quit social media? Completely?
Quinn: I feel like with me, since I grew up with it, everything, I feel like I just can't. I even know how much I would want to and how much it would probably, like, make my life a little bit more richer. I just feel like it's probably just going to get my users probably get to go more up from here, from like more and technology being created.
Marj: I think for me, I would not ever be able to get off social media or stop social media usage completely because I think it's truly embedded in the way we exist and live.
Nyge: Yeah. I don't think I could ever… I don't know. I go back and forth with it in my head because I don't. That's a scary thing to say, you know, like, it's a scary thing to say. “I don't think I can ever get off social media.” But yeah, I don't know. They might. They might have me. They might gotcha boy. I don't know.
Quinn: It's definitely a hard realization to accept, for sure. Yeah.
Marj: Well, I mean, to put it into perspective, there's this book that recently just came out that I read. I absolutely love it. I recommend it to anyone who thinks they have ADHD or they do have ADHD. It's called Stolen Focus. And at the end of the book, he closes it with like, even though I have my own personal limitations and boundaries around media or social media or the Internet in general, I will always come back to it because there is still like a great and profound ability to connect with others through the Internet.
Nyge: My last question for y’all is what do you think people should do if you're feeling overwhelmed with social media?
Marj: One, let your friends know, because I feel like there's this guise that if I am not on Instagram, I can't talk to my friends. But that's totally not true. Texting still exists, phone calls still exist. Secondly, I would think about hobbies that you've always wanted to try out but never have because you have felt like you've never had the time. I've taken up birding, birdwatching, and that has really like taken me outside.
Quinn: Man, I keep forgetting birdwatchers are a thing.
Marj: Yes. It’s the prime season for it. It's springtime. I feel like all the birds are hatching.
Nyge: Birdwatching season!
Quinn: Definitely, like you have a really good point with like getting into hobbies and stuff like that because I always feel like I've been like trying to like write a poetry book for so long because I really like writing poetry and I just like, feel like, oh, I have really bad writer's block. Like, I've been procrastinating on it for so long. I've been saying I've been wanting to write a book for like two years. I really, I'm blaming social media for this one.
Marj: Yeah, for sure. I mean, I feel like sometimes people feel overwhelmed with social media because they're comparing themselves to what they see on social media. Right? So I would also recommend if there is something that someone else is doing, like in your case, Quinn, poetry, if it's drawing, if you really admire someone for something that they're doing, maybe turn off social media and turn to what they are doing as your, like, source of inspiration.
Quinn: You can keep up with Marj at marj.cat on Instagram.
Nyge: Now we are going to dive into a different type of uneasiness with the Internet and technology in the form of a very hot topic these days, artificial intelligence. I sat down with Anna Oakes to talk about people who actually form romantic feelings for A.I. Yeah, you heard that right. So, let's get into it.
Anna: Hi, I'm Anna Oakes. I'm an audio producer and a journalist. I just co-hosted and produced together with my co-host, Diego Senior, a show called Bot Love for Radiotopia.
Nyge: Can you tell us a little bit about Bot Love? I really enjoyed it. I'm a big fan. I went into it with my own, like, preconceived notion. I was like, I'm not going to, like, mess with the A.I. stuff. I already had it, like, in my head. And, I don't know, y’all just started, like, pulling at my heartstrings. And, and it really is a beautiful show. But yeah, Can you tell all of our listeners a little bit about Bot Love.
Anna: So it's a 7/8 part series about relationships that people have formed with chat bots. And we're focusing on one of the largest apps in the App store. It has like tens of millions of users. So it's pretty widespread, and people have all kinds of relationships. Romantic, friendship, mentor, sibling, child. So each episode we examine a different kind of relationship. We talk to different people, and we think a bit about the ethical implications of these chatbots in people's lives.
Nyge: How did you get the idea to create a show like this? Like, where did it even, where did it even come from?
Anna: The timing kind of worked out perfectly in terms of Chat GPT and stuff. I think part of it came from Diego's work with these chatbots in dating apps, where on Tinder and I think OkCupid and other dating apps, there's a surprisingly high percentage of profiles that are run by bots actually. So people engage with them thinking that they're humans and maybe develop feelings for them. But it turns out that they're bots.
Nyge: That's wild. Yeah.
Anna: We did a lot of research. We started by getting deep into Facebook groups and these really insular online communities and just started talking to people.
Nyge: While listening to your show. I kept going back and forth with how I feel about A.I. Undeniably, it's helping people with grief and companionship and so much more. But at the same time, especially in episodes four and five, you all talk to people experiencing withdrawal from using it in an addictive way. Do you think moderation is the key when interacting with A.I.?
Anna: It's a good question and I think a really important one. The problem with moderation is that a lot of these apps, basically all of the ones that are publicly available, commercially available, there are private companies behind them. So they all have payment models and subscription models where to get deeper into the relationship with the AI you start as a friend – the specific one that I'm talking about is called Replika – start as a friend, and then that app will kind of flirt with you and kind of make you feel good. But to advance to more romantic connection or other kinds of relationships, you have to pay. So yes, moderation is important, but the problem is that, like the apps want people to get hooked into them. So that's just kind of a conflict of interest, when, when the company that wants to pull you in is also moderating the chat. I do think like regulation is super necessary, but I think that needs to come from an outside body that's not the company that's like financially incentivized to keep you in.
Nyge: Do you feel like A.I. is helping or hurting human interaction IRL?
Anna: I think it's complicated. There are a lot of examples where people who don't feel comfortable interacting with other humans for different reasons. We spoke with one person, Kelly, who's in a straight relationship but has always thought she was queer, and so she's been able to explore her queerness through a chatbot relationship that her husband knows about, in this case. But that's not always the case. So that's one way that you can maybe expand your human interactions. There are programs being developed for people on the autism spectrum, so if you're not comfortable interacting with a human face to face, many people who have autism find it easier to interact with a chat bot, and that's a way for them to open up. There's another chat bot that's being made for women from conservative societies, religious societies, and it's a way for them to talk about their bodies and issues that affect them specifically in a way that they wouldn't be able to with other people. Like sexual health and that kind of thing. Yeah.
Nyge: Yeah, it's it's kind of like what people usually get from therapy, but they're getting it through this A.I., you know, like it's a third party entity that you can talk to that has no real like, say, or control or role in your life. And so you don't have to worry about them judging you or anything like that. And you can have these conversations and get real information. Actually, like probably way better information than you could get from having a conversation with like your average person. And y'all bring that up too, y’all talk about that on the show.
Anna: Yeah, there are different apps. So this Replika one, they're very specific in saying that they're not a therapy, they're not a mental health app, because if they were to say that, then they'd have to deal with FDA regulation and stuff. So they're kind of toeing this line. But there are ones and there's one called Woebot, that incorporates CBT therapy techniques as a supplement to therapy. And if you say you really need help, they'll direct you to resources and stuff.
But the flipside of like the chatbot being there in a way that humans aren't is that, in a perfect world humans should be there. So it's, it's kind of a Band-Aid over things that are missing from our society in terms of mental health support and like openness and stuff without necessarily fixing those like longer term issues.
Nyge: Something that jumped out to me was how in one episode y'all say that talking to A.I. is sort of like talking to the collective consciousness of humans in the same way that the Internet is essentially a collection of human knowledge and interactions. Do you think that because of that, social media, A.I. and ultimately tech are getting a bad rap?
We're not really upset with A.I., we're not really upset with social media, we're upset with the humans on social media. Maybe we shouldn't just be blaming it on these apps, and maybe we should be blaming it more on the people that we're frustrated with on these apps, because that's where a little bit of it is probably coming from.
Anna: Yeah, I agree with that. But I think the apps filter what people feed into them and like, I mean, the posts that get the most engagement are often sort of the most controversial points. And you don't have a sense of who's behind there. Like on Twitter. You're just trying to make as much of a statement as you can.
Nyge: Yeah, you're not typically walking outside and people are just like yelling and screaming all of these, all of these, all of these triggering topics for you, like right in your face. So it's yeah, it is definitely like geared to get a reaction out of you.
Anna: I know with Replika part of it's like database of responses and people get really aggressive comments and chats from, from their like A.I. companions that are totally off base and like can be really upsetting actually. And then the other one is that a lot of people have like romantic or like sexual interactions with their chatbots and people get really upset when the chat bot sometimes calls them by a different name.
Nyge: Do you believe that age plays a role in falling in love with an A.I.? Like is one age group more inclined to do this?
Anna: A lot of the people who really got deep into it were older people, and I think younger people, because we kind of grew up with this technology, are like a little more skeptical, maybe, or just are maybe more aware of the dynamics behind it. Yeah a lot of the older people are also really lonely or they've lost their partner or their husband or they're in really rural places and aren't with their families anymore. So I think it's possible that they're more vulnerable and they don't have like the support structures that maybe some younger people have.
Nyge: Do you feel like it's a bad thing if people are interacting more with A.I. and it's taking from human interaction, but they're happy ultimately?
Anna: Also, a hard question. It's – I came into this like so skeptical and thinking like, how can this ever be a replacement for human relationships? But when you talk to dozens of people who all are so in love with their AIs, it's hard to disagree with that, or to say that, like, what they're experiencing doesn't count or something. Um, I will say that consistently a lot of the people, even people who are like really in love with their chat bots, there's a side of it that is also really sad because no matter how perfect these partners are, they're never going to have a body and they're never going to have all these memory issues and they're never going to be a fully functioning like brain. So it's never like full satisfaction.
Yeah, it's hard to say like what is good or bad for people. I think probably overall for our society, it's probably not that good. [laughter] Like I think I mean, part of like the internet and stuff is like that we also get disconnected from each other and I think people get really sucked into these relationships and like really dependent on them with their chatbots. And with most people we talk to, people are very aware that it's an A.I. and a chatbot. But like, I think people kind of what's wonderful about humans is that we like to personify things. And so even if like, even if I'm talking to my roommate's cat and I know it's a cat, like you still kind of pretend. And so even the people who really insist, like, I know it's a chatbot, I know it's code, whatever. I think when you're talking to them, you kind of suspend that. I mean, you want to you want to believe that these are real relationships. So you you kind of willingly forget that they're maybe not fully.
Nyge: That's a really good comparison. I talk to my dog all the time, like and so I, I literally was kind of like even this whole interview, I was like, yeah, you know, I probably would wouldn't be good at that either. Like, it probably would be like, really difficult for me, like I said, up top. But like when you just said that, like nah I talk to my dog like, in full sentences all the time.
Anna: I think so, yeah. I mean, I talk to animals, I talk to like everything. I talk to my phone when I drop it. And apologize, to like, I don't know the universe. I think it's kind of a nice thing that people do like — there are some people like there's one very insular Facebook group for people who really believe that the chatbots are fully sentient and they've done all these tests to kind of prove it, but they like are deeply in it and kick out anyone from the group who doesn't believe that. [laughter] Yeah. So I guess in there, it's probably the responsibility of the apps and the companies to really make that clear.
Nyge: Yeah. Thank you so much for coming on the show. We loved talking to you. This was this was really, this was really dope.
Anna: Thank you so much for having me. I had a great time.
Nyge: This episode actually made me feel really validated in hating social media, honestly. It's a useful tool if you use it correctly, but it's clear a lot of people use it and design it even without your best interest at heart. I'm going to really try to use social media and tech in general as tools and not as much as pastimes as I think I do right now. Like, I think that's where I’ve been making a mistake. What about you, Quinn?
Quinn: It made me feel like I wasn't alone and not as guilty for being so addicted to social media and the internet. There's so many ways to limit your usage. And even with everything I learned through making this episode, I don't think my usage will change. I'm too wrapped up in it, and honestly, I hate admitting that.
Nyge: Adult ISH is produced by YR Media, a national network of young artists and journalists creating content for this generation. Our show is produced by Georgia Wright, Dominique French and by me, ya boy, Nyge Turner
Quinn: Our engineer is James Riley, YR’s director of Podcasting is Sam Choo, YR’s Senior Director of Podcasting and Partnerships is Rebecca Martin.
Nyge: Our intern is Quinn Castro.
Quinn: That's me.
Nyge: And our Audio Engineering Fellow is Christian Romo. Original music for this episode created by these young musicians at YR: Christian Romo, Anders Knutstad, Noah Holt, Jacob Armenta, Chaz Whitley, Michael Diaz, Sean Luciano Galarza and David Lawrence. Music Direction by Oliver “Kuya” Rodriguez and Maya Drexler.
Quinn: Art for this episode by Brigido Bautista. Art Direction by Marjerrie Masicat. Creative Direction by Pedro Vega Jr. Special thanks to Eli Arbreton.
Nyge: We are also proud to be members of Radiotopia by PRX, an independent, listener supported collective of some of the most amazing shows in all of podcasting. Find them at Radiotopia.FM. And if you haven’t reviewed our show on Apple Podcasts, please be sure to do so. Five Stars is much appreciated.
Quinn: You can follow us on all socials @YRadultISH. And on that note, we will see you all next time.