In recent years, as social media has become an enormous part of our everyday lives, numerous studies have surfaced demonstrating the harmful effects of social media on the psyche. The studies are interesting of course, but doesn’t it seem like common sense that comparing your life to someone else’s on a daily basis is bound to make you feel inadequate and downright unhappy?
Think about it — in an instant, we are granted a birds-eye view into the private events and happenings of the lives of every person we’ve ever met. Not only do we get alerted the minute someone gets engaged to be married, we know how the proposal went down, what the ring looks like, and exactly which friends and family were involved. From that point on, you’ll follow their journey from bachelorette party to honeymoon and so on. In the first stages of getting to know a potential love interest, you not only gain access to where they are and what they did last night, but you’ll get to see what their parents look like in advance as well as backlogged memories of past relationships. And you’re not stalking — you’re simply engaging in acceptable social media behavior that starts with a seemingly innocent “friend request”. Feeling a little down about the fact that you can’t find a job after college and you’ve packed on a few extra pounds? Here’s a daily influx of pictures of friends and acquaintances constantly announcing job promotions, new apartments, and “Transformation Tuesday” posts sharing how far they’ve come on their journey to a healthier lifestyle. Having a hard time convincing your boyfriend to get off the couch and have an actual date night for once? Here’s a picture of an old high school classmate at a Broadway show in New York titled “best boyfriend ever.” These people and events are completely irrelevant to our lives, yet we’re bombarded with images all day every day that are bringing us down a little more each and every time.
There have been several occasions where friends have come to me completely distraught over what they see on social media. One friend of mine admitted that if she’s sitting home on a Saturday night, she’s bombarded with pictures of everyone else’s social lives, which are all seemingly much better than hers. To her, it seems like these people have more friends, better plans, and simply more fun. Another friend of mine obsessively researches her ex-boyfriends social media presence, looking for clues of new hookups, and any hints as to what he’s up to nowadays. These are two prime examples of using social media in ways that cause self-harm. We’ve all been there and have experienced how this feels. We see a picture posted of that girl we absolutely can’t STAND, posing like an idiot, and on your way to the subway you find yourself sighing and rolling your eyes. We see an ignorant political rant by an old high school classmate, your blood starts to boil, and it takes everything in your power to refrain from commenting and starting a firestorm argument underneath the post. But here’s something you may not have thought of. Maybe the ex you’re obsessing over is feeling just as hurt as you, and is purposefully posting things to make himself feel better and you worse. Maybe the girl you see popping bottles in VIP doesn’t have a single person she can truly rely on. Maybe that incredible engagement that flooded your feed is the result of two people settling for a life of unhappiness together. Of course we wouldn’t wish these things on anyone, but the point I’m trying to make is that these social media posts are a single snapshot into reality, when really there’s an entire photo album that you’ll never get to see. Before you beat yourself up over the accomplishments of someone else, consider the fact that for the most part, people only post positive things, not the everyday struggles we all face.
So what do we do about this? Do we delete our social media accounts? Do we limit our social media consumption and designate time to “unplug” and decompress from this madness? I think the answer to this question varies from person to person. Your reliance on social media, how many hours per day you’re devoting to scrolling through your accounts, and just how much it affects your mood are all factors to consider.
The first step is acknowledging! Maybe you’ve been reading this so far and thought to yourself, “doesn’t apply to me, these posts have no effect on my life.” Maybe seeing someone else’s life through this lens without feeling envious is do-able for you, but what about that photo you posted 30 minutes ago that only got 7 likes? Should you take it down? You thought I looked good in that picture but 7 likes is embarrassing maybe you should delete it ASAP and hope no one saw it. Sound familiar?
I compare the way we consume social media to the way we’re surrounded by advertisements. Think of the insidious way ads work. All the sudden, an obnoxious car dealership jingle comes on between Pandora songs, and somehow you know every word of it. You didn’t even consciously listen to the commercial, and you sure as hell didn’t mean to memorize it, but it’s in your head and now you’re singing along. Similarly, there’s inevitable side effects on the psyche from social media use that may not be glaringly obvious.
For someone like me who is an active user of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, ridding myself of these sites isn’t a route I’m willing to take. I find that customizing my experience on these outlets is a way for me to stay connected without losing my mind. When I first started to flesh out my social media feeds, I started by deleting and unfollowing people who posted anything I considered annoying, or people who I didn’t feel comfortable sharing my life with. I figured, should people from high school who I no longer have any contact with have access to my life? For obvious reasons, certain people became offended by my social media purge which made for awkward situations when I did eventually run into them. But now, with Facebook’s new customizable privacy settings, we’re able simply “hide” someone’s updates from our feeds and cherry pick who we want to share certain posts with. With increased control of what we see and share, deleting people from your social network is no longer necessary, allowing us to avoid potential awkward situations.
I call it the “ignorance is bliss” or “what you don’t know won’t hurt you” social media approach. Start by identifying what exactly irks you. If engagements and constant wedding updates discourage you, hide that persons updates going forward. If seeing people’s posts from your home town gets you down, create a list of people to no longer receive updates from. On sites where you cannot customize your feed, go ahead and unfollow them anyway, even at risk of offending someone. After all, what’s more important? Other people’s opinion of you or your own peace of mind? If following the “beach bodies” account on Instagram is ruining your self-esteem, go ahead and find another account to motivate you to be healthy. There are plenty of encouraging images about healthy eating and fitness that don’t include a picture of chiseled abs and a perfectly round butt popping up on your newsfeed each and every day. And for God’s sake, cut all social media ties with your ex. How do you expect to let yourself heal if you’re constantly seeing their updates or dreading the possibility of seeing something that’ll hurt you? By being more selective about the images we choose to bombard ourselves with on a daily basis, we start to eliminate the impending negative thoughts and energy they have the potential to bring on.
Personally, I am not a believer in completely removing one’s self from social media. Facebook allows me to stay in touch with family members I normally only see on holidays. Twitter is my primary source of news and current events. Pinterest has taught me how to cook healthy recipes and improved my fashion sense. Friends who have removed their presence from social media have either A) inevitably reactivated their accounts or B) continued to consume social media by logging onto a friends account. There will always be risks and benefits associated with staying “connected.” However, by becoming aware of how social media affects our moods and mentality, and picking and choosing what we choose to expose ourselves to, we are able to maintain control and consume social media in a smart manner. By tuning into how words and images affect our emotions, and proactively filtering our view, we can reap the positive benefits of a connected world.