Almost all of my photos as a child were taken by a photographer. Back then, cameras still required a certain amount of professional skill and an expert eye. Decades later, practically everyone has a mobile phone with a high-resolution camera with which they can take photos and videos anytime, anywhere. And it’s not a bad thing – at least as long as it doesn’t become an obsession. The bad news is: it has already become an obsession!
The more you record, the less you live
Today it seems that nothing manages to escape the attentive eye of the camera: a beautiful sunset, an original architectural view, a natural landscape, a show, a concert, the preparation of a recipe or even applying a facial mask – all seasoned with endless selfies, obviously. In fact, there are more and more people in museums who no longer even stop to look at the works of art, they simply stand with their backs to the painting, take a selfie and go to the next work.
The problem is that while we take ten thousand photos to choose the most Instagrammable one or record a video longer than “War and Peace” (which we will probably never see again or of which we share just 10 seconds online), we forget to live the moment. Instead of enjoying what we have in front of our eyes, we see reality through the screen.
And it’s not just me saying it. Taking photos with the smartphone is destroying our memories. Psychologists at Princeton, Austin, and Stanford universities found that we forget details more easily if we take photos than when we simply pay attention to the here and now.
“While using these devices, we distract ourselves from the experience. This distraction prevents us from remembering the details that we should pay attention to,” these researchers explained. The point is that by living the experience through a screen we detach ourselves emotionally.
In fact, another study carried out at Yale University found that taking photos to share on social networks changes our perspective at the brain level; That is, we remember the moment as if we were an external observer. This means that we stop being the protagonists of our experiences, which prevents us from feeling more intense emotions, which are precisely the glue of our memory.
And yet, despite all that, people continue taking photos and recording videos as if there were no tomorrow. Why?
Living through the eyes of others
Before the maxim was “live and let live”. Now it seems like everyone needs to live through the eyes of others.
It’s not just that we have the camera in our pocket and it’s close at hand when something dazzles us, but that social media has drastically changed the way we relate, behave and even perceive ourselves – for better or worse.
For this reason, there are more and more people obsessed with sharing their lives on the web (just think that about 86 million images are uploaded to Instagram every day). We want to show others what we are doing. We want to connect to feel less alone. Of course. But we also want to be seen. If we don’t get those likes we feel invisible.
In these times, if we do something and we do not immortalize it to share it, it is as if we had not done it. If there is no photo or video to support the experience, we do not receive the validation we so long for, so we are pushed to record everything, taking that need of acceptance to the extreme.
On many occasions, this exhibitionist drive can even become the main reason for going somewhere or doing something. That is, we reach the point where we do not record what we do, but rather the act of recording itself becomes the leitmotif of the experience. In those cases, there is likely a social media addiction at the core, so recording becomes an anticipation of the reward that likes and comments will provide.
In fact, exposing what we experience also makes those experiences more satisfying. We may even feel special when we have an audience of followers watching and validating us. We make the mistake of thinking that we “are” because others see us and follow us.
Therefore, immortalizing those moments, especially with the desire to share them, becomes a way of living through others, seeking to satisfy basic needs for acceptance and validation when we believe that we are not enough.
It is not possible to have it all
The main problem with using cameras to preserve the present is that we don’t know who we will be in the future. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains, we all have two selves: one lives fundamentally in the present while the other acts as a guardian of those experiences, taking note of what we do to maintain coherence of our life history.
When the time comes to examine who we were in the past or what we did, we can look at those images again, but they probably don’t convey anything to us because we haven’t associated them in our memory with any worthwhile emotion. We don’t live the experience, we simply document it.
That leads us to an idea that new generations often reject: you can’t have everything. Either you fully live the experience or you capture it to save it or share it on social networks. You have the option to sacrifice enjoying the moments in exchange for receiving validation. Each one will have to decide what they lose and what they gain.
Tamir, D. I. et. Al. (2018) Media usage diminishes memory for experiences. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology; 76: 161-168.
Barasch, A. et. Al. (2018) How the Intention to Share Can Undermine Enjoyment: Photo-Taking Goals and Evaluation of Experiences. Journal of Consumer Research; 44(6): 1220–1237.