The digital age has changed our lives in many parts of the world, inextricably tethering them to the Internet for the simplest to the most sophisticated of tasks. In the first of a new series of articles on how to use digital media safely, Altaf Jiwa outlines the role that the Internet and social media have come to play in our daily lives.

From finding our way to unknown destinations, to finding like-minded people, communities or untapped markets; digital platforms and applications have created a wealth of possibilities and conveniences for many. Google, Amazon, Netflix, Uber — the list goes on and on. While this has in many ways simplified day-to-day life and created great advancement in fields such as education, healthcare, and business, it has not come without a cost. As Jerome Lawrence has said, “Progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it.”

How many of us start and end our days cradling a smartphone? That meal we’re about to eat, a concert or new city, that enviable relationship, some of us document every detail so that we can share it virtually. Experts say the social media ‘Like’ triggers a chemical reaction in the brain resulting in a real, physiological high which is fundamentally the reason we keep going back to it; the more we get it, the more we want it. But being overly connected can cause psychological issues as well, such as distraction, narcissism, expectation of instant gratification, and potentially even depression. 

Our days can become inundated by frivolous scrolling through endless social media feeds, responding to a constant stream of WhatsApp messages or wishing we were somewhere else, leading other more ‘interesting’ lives. “Don’t believe everything you read on social media,” a friend said to me the other day. It’s true. Many of us are a little guilty of some creative license when it comes to crafting a particular version of ourselves and how we’d like the world to see us. The Internet has also democratised freedom of speech, but that doesn’t mean every opinion is worthy of eyeballs. Who remembers the days before the Internet, when you had to pick up the telephone or write a letter to communicate? Now it seems amazing we survived those days (but we did).

In May 2018 I visited Lisbon, Portugal for the first time. Being a regular traveller, I thought there were some helpful tips that I could share with friends who would also be travelling to Lisbon in July for the first time for the Diamond Jubilee Celebration. So on the flight back home to Nairobi I wrote a few pointers and posted them on Facebook. The audience was limited; I had learned the value of privacy settings and the selective sharing of information many years ago, and that you didn’t always want ‘friends’ who may be a mix of close friends, family, acquaintances or business associates to necessarily know everything about you all the time. The morning after my return, my sister read me a few sentences from something she received on WhatsApp from a relative in Canada and asked if I had written it. I had. 

Startlingly, it was the very same Facebook post that had somehow found its way from my Facebook feed into a message that was now being circulated on WhatsApp and email around the world. Over the coming weeks, that piece would be sent thousands of times amongst members of the global Jamat, all eager to find out more about planning their visits to Portugal. That’s the power of the digital age. While it can be useful, it can also be a means by which misinformation can spread easily and very fast. Knowing when to hit ‘forward’ or ‘delete’ is an acquired skill. 

The Internet has shaken up so many parts of our lives but has also created a lot of collateral damage, especially when it comes to privacy. We often don’t realise the magnitude of our digital footprint, even for the most vigilant. Try Googling yourself — you’ll be surprised at some of the forgotten content you may have posted in the past that turns up in the search results. Some commentators have claimed that companies such as Google and Facebook own endless amounts of data on each of us. This could include your location, gender, age, hobbies, career, interests, relationship status, possible weight, income, where you’ve been, everything you’ve ever searched for (or deleted), every website you’ve ever visited, every Google ad you’ve clicked on, bookmarks, emails, contacts, your Google Drive files, your YouTube viewing history, the photos you’ve taken on your phone, the businesses you’ve bought from, the music you listen to, the pages you’ve shared, and even how many steps you walk in a day. 

Even though I have always been an advocate for digital advancement, of late I have begun to feel skeptical about it. How do we take control of our digital lives in a way that does not encroach upon our own humanistic values? Most of us have been willing collaborators in letting technology into our lives and have given companies access to our data, allowing them to sell those insights and earn money from adverts in return for great tools and services. 

But we need to strike a balance and be mindful of our own digital hygiene, or at least watch out for the pitfalls. How do we educate our elders to safely assimilate technology into their lives? How do we ensure our youth have the best possible chance at success without getting trapped in a vicious cycle of peer pressure, digital addiction, or unhealthy social influence? How do we safeguard that our children develop emotionally and psychologically, with the right balance of traditional and modern upbringing? These are all questions to which we need to search for answers. How we respond to the challenges of our digital future rests solely in our hands.