Stuck in the Algorithm: The False Escapism of Social Media

  • Text Izzi Sneider
  • Design Jasmine Bae

More often than I’d like to admit, I find myself emerging from an all-consuming doomscroll. I’m sitting on the couch with a computer on my lap, and an iPhone in my hand, 45 minutes into episode four of a TV show I didn’t pay any attention to. Then I realize that rather than unwinding from a long day of work, I’ve given myself a whole new set of anxieties, each stemming from a different piece of content I consumed. I put my phone away and attempt to refocus on the TV, only to catch myself repeating the cycle just minutes later. It’s a reminder that my need to consume social media is compulsive and irrational. In these moments, I wonder why that itch returns, time and time again. No matter how hard I scratch it, I can’t repress my need to distract myself.

This type of behavior, dubbed by experts as escapism, is well-documented online. TikToks of people overstimulating themselves with multiple simultaneous forms of media, as a way of preventing the very human activity of thinking, repeatedly go viral online. Memes about using Dungeons and Dragons to cope with depression are all over X (formerly known as Twitter). Whether distractions take the shape of “trad wife” content, fan fiction, comfort movies, video games, bedrotting or watching TV while reading a book while scrolling through social media, it seems that Gen Z is desperate to find ways to escape their worries. And, journalists and researchers alike are determined to understand why.

During a time when young people are experiencing financial insecurity, climate concerns, isolation from their peers, the impacts of the expanding attention economy, constant digital content of mass atrocities and report an overall less positive outlook on life than previous generations, it’s no surprise that Gen Z is turning to distraction to get through the day. But despite the influx of op-eds and think-pieces about Gen Z's growing appetite for distraction, escapism (and the concern that it can become harmful) has been prevalent throughout human history. The story of ancient Greek philosopher Chrysippus, who is said to have literally laughed himself to death after seeing a funny donkey that distracted him from his work, has served as a cautionary tale since 209 BC. Many young people even study the potential dangers of escapism in school with books like Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” and George Orwell’s “1984.” Although the notion of escapism being a negative behavior has been instilled in society for centuries, psychiatrists actually believe that escapism is a valuable coping mechanism that can positively affect levels of stress and anxiety. It provides a necessary reprieve from self-awareness, reality and routine. Sure, they weren’t double-screening back in biblical times but that doesn’t mean that escapism is merely a Gen Z pathology.

Escapism today can take the form of healthy, enriching activities like arts and crafts, athletics, gaming or learning a language. However, it’s the unhealthy and anxiety-inducing activities like excessive social media usage and substance abuse that dominate the public discourse. This leads people to conflate escapism with detrimental behavior. Social media use in particular, is viewed by many as a uniquely harmful distraction because it blurs the lines between entertainment and news, encourages intense emotions through outrage media and incorporates addictive UI/UX features that keep people scrolling.

Concerns about the negative effects of conflating news media with entertainment date back to 1985’s, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” where author Neil Postman suggests that maladaptive TV consumption may contribute to cases of depression and anxiety. Considering that smartphones make social media access constant, people look to platforms like TikTok and X for news updates, and the cognitive fatigue that consuming onslaughts of information creates, a picture of Orwellian escapist horror begins to form. Whether via CNN or TikTok, the ongoing, passive, excessive consumption of media can create a cycle for a user in which they distract from stress, by introducing new stressors into their life. In short, although Gen Z often leans on social media to temporarily escape reality, social media is not an effective form of escapism because it reflects the stressors present in the world.

@thedailyshow If AI takes over, at least us humans will have more "me time" ...right? #DailyShow #JonStewart #AI ♬ original sound - The Daily Show

Currently, smartphones and social media are an inevitable part of our lives. For many of us, the primary forms of socialization, communication, entertainment and even education take place on our phone screens, making logging off difficult or seemingly impossible. But that doesn’t mean that Gen Z, Gen Alpha and beyond must continue the cycle. Some experts like psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his recent book “The Anxious Generation,” suggest that the only solution is to completely eradicate social media usage entirely. Others, like columnist Max Read and podcast hosts Brace Belden and Liz Franczacyk, have a more optimistic view: that young people, like past generations, are actively making an effort to find a healthier balance between content consumption and their mental health, believing that moderation is key.


Rather than retreat into a life overtaken by smartphone addiction-induced anxiety, young people are actively searching for ways to log off and rediscover fulfillment offline. Internet-free activities, like reading and knitting, have become increasingly trendy. Live-action, imaginative role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons have skyrocketed in popularity. IRL events like speed dating, literary readings, concerts and chess clubs have filled Gen Z’s calendars, and sports like tennis and pickleball have become increasingly trendy weekend activities.

Despite the near-constant discussion about Gen Z and their debilitating social anxiety, many of these events are spearheaded by young people who have leveraged their social media presence to build offline, hobby-based communities like Dream Baby Press founders Matt Starr and Zach Roif, who throw themed literary readings and writing workshops for the chronically-online Gen Z crowd. While most Zoomers aren’t interested in giving up their tiny screens completely, they are becoming increasingly critical of the content they consume, and are acutely aware that it can affect their health.

For brands, this means young people are less likely to support them simply because they see them in their scroll. Instead, Gen Z expects brands to provide tangible experiences that enrich their lives. Brand activations on virtual gaming platforms like Fortnite and Roblox have grown in popularity over the past few years because they offer brands the opportunity to show up in the same digital spaces young people are escaping to. But as Gen Z begins looking for distraction in the form of physical activities, experiential advertising campaigns are going to become increasingly important to young consumers. We’re already seeing more IRL escapism within the advertising industry. Last year Random Studio created an installation for Jacquemus Le Bleu, which turned its storefront into a reimagined personal bathroom of Jacquemus founder, Simon Jacquemus. It even won the 2023 FRAME Awards Pop-Up Store of the Year—a testament to the growing interest in experiential brand activations.

Other brands, however, are leaning into Gen Z’s desire to escape, by focusing their efforts on direct solutions to the overconsumption of social media which hinders effective escapism. In March, Heineken and Bodega unveiled their Boring Phone, a Human Mobile Device that takes the cellphone back to its most minimal features. This launch comes just months after the explosive release of pgLang’s Light Phone, another cellphone with stripped-down technology that encourages consumers to get offline and stop living vicariously through their phones. Regardless of whether or not overpriced branded burner phones are necessary, young people who struggle to control their compulsive doomscrolling are turning to them as a way to reign in their screentime and focus on more effective methods of escapism outside of social media.

As we peel back the layers of Gen Z and escapism, it becomes clear that this generation’s pursuit of happiness goes hand in hand with a desire for connection. But we also must acknowledge that social media has led to an isolating experience for Gen Z, hindering rather than aiding their escapist desires. Our mission now is to find ways to balance the compulsive behaviors that social media encourages with the offline, anxiety-relieving activities we use to find joy. The youth is unashamed of their eagerness to partake in the necessary and healing act of true escapism through immersive, offline imaginative activities. Rather than the false-reprieve that social media provides, brands can show up to help Gen Z find healthier ways to cope with the changing state of the world—and who wouldn’t want to play a part in that?