Social media has sure evolved since I was in high school fifteen years ago. Back then there was email, but there wasn’t the strong presence of online communities like MySpace, Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. My main experience was waiting for those high-pitched AOL dial-up noises to pass and having awkward chat room discussions with random strangers.
Fast-forward to the present day and social media seems to be an integral part of our identities, facilitating our daily interactions, feeding us information, dominating a lot of our screen time and energy, entertaining us, inspiring us, and sometimes, frustrating the crap out of us. Some people believe that social media is the greatest thing ever to happen to the human race, while others argue that social media is creating a more fragmented, disconnected society.
I try to see the light and dark in everything, and so I can appreciate the benefits and the harms of social media. It connects us in profound ways, building communities and spreading unprecedented messages of unity. But it can also waste our time and energy like never before, and worse, expose us to a level of conflict and abuse that would probably never happen in regular daily life.
I’m not here to judge social media or tell you that it is good or bad for humanity; that is really up to you to decide for yourself. I’m writing this article because I think social media and the way we interact with it can be strange and ridiculous, and many of us (myself included!) have fallen into the trap of taking it WAY TOO SERIOUSLY.
SOCIAL MEDIA IS JUST A TOOL
No matter your usage of social media, please remember that it is only a TOOL. It is a tool for communicating with people; a tool for promoting yourself; a tool for learning; a tool for finding things to do; a tool for watching entertaining videos or reading inspiring articles; a tool to further your career, and so on.
Social media offers us a vastly different reality than we are used in ‘normal life’ and this can become problematic if we start to take it too seriously, or if we think of it as more than just a tool. There are 5 reasons why we need to not take social media so seriously: People’s lack of inhibitions, the prevalence of trolls, how addictive it can become, the potential for FOMO and loneliness, and the increased likelihood of conflict to which it exposes us.
1) People’s Inhibitions are Way Lower Online Than in Real Life
Perhaps the most obvious reason why we can’t take social media too seriously is that people have fewer inhibitions and tend to be way more open online than in face-to-face interaction. In other words, we are dealing with an artificially created virtual world and so the communication we experience will be fundamentally different and challenging to deal with. Called Online Disinhibition by psychologist Dr. John Suler, here are some of the mechanisms that reduce people’s inhibitions in social media interaction:
Dissociative anonymity: It is easy to hide and be anonymous in social media, indeed, many Twitter and Facebook users do not use their real name (although this is changing now on Facebook) and users who post comments on YouTube, Reddit and such are also under no obligation to use their real names. This anonymity is dissociative because when posting comments or interacting online, users often do not have to take personal responsibility for their comments. This can lead to more extreme and intense conversations than people would be willing to engage in when face-to-face.
Invisibility: It is literally possible to be invisible in certain social media environments: Whether you are viewing someone’s profile or page, watching videos or reading the comments on a thread, you don’t have to worry about how you look, how you sound, how people perceive your body language. Often there is a level of passive participation, when you can be viewing someone’s page, pictures or comments… and this person does not even know that you are there!
Asynchronicity: Unlike in real life, social media interactions do not necessarily happen in real time- often there can be a delay of hours or days in between comments, giving people plenty of time to come up with witty responses, or worse, leave you hanging. People can put ideas or hurtful comments out there in a type of ‘emotional hit and run’ where they can just make these remarks, and then run away and ignore your response. This definitely wouldn’t fly in real life!
2) Social Media Can Expose You to Nasty, Nasty People
It might sound a bit extreme, but you really can’t take social media too seriously because by using it, you are opening yourself up to some really nasty people. They hide behind the anonymity, invisibility and asycnhronicity of the web will the sole purpose of making hurtful comments, often purely with the intention of instigating arguments and conflict, also known as ‘trolling.’ Trolls will lie and exaggerate purely to get reactions and upset people.
A September 2014 survey of 1200 social media users published in Personality and Individual Differences showed that scores on the dark tetrad personality measures (sadism, narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy) were extremely high only among people who said that trolling was their favorite online activity. According to the researchers, “online trolls are prototypical everyday sadists.” They went further, saying that, “both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others. Sadists just want to have fun… and the Internet is their playground.”
So if you are making any public posts or comments, there is a possibility you might get trolled, and if you are being trolled, it is most likely by sadists intending to hurt you for their own amusement. (Ever since I started writing online articles, this has happened to me more times that I care to acknowledge). Because these sadistic trolls gain pleasure from upsetting you, the best thing you can do is IGNORE their comments, do not take it personally and do not give them a reaction!
3) Social Media May Be The New Addictive Drug of Choice
It is also important to keep social media in perspective because if you don’t, it might turn into a full-on obsession or addiction. According to Dr. Henrietta Bowden-Jones, psychiatrist at Imperial College London, about 5-10% of internet users are addicted, meaning they are unable to control their usage . Other statistics indicate that anywhere from 3-13% of people in the US express “symptoms of inappropriate internet use” although there is no clinical definition yet for social media addiction, or specific statistics on it at this time.
The ‘addictiveness’ of social media seems to come from the immediate gratifications and boosts to self-esteem that we receive from likes, shares, re-tweets and so on. Is our self-worth becoming intrinsically linked to these little bubbles that pop on the screen when we get a like, a Instagram followers or a message? It seems that way. According to one study, 62% of adults world-wide DO feel better about themselves after having positive interactions on social media.
But if social media is truly addictive, then we should see addictive brain and behavior patterns associated with it. And preliminary research shows that we do. A 2012 study in China used MRI scans to conclude that the brains of adolescents with “internet addiction disorder” closely resembled the brains of alcohol and cocaine addicts, both sharing disrupted pathways related to emotions, decision-making, and self-control.
Perhaps even more startling is the behavioral data related to compulsiveness and withdrawal. In a 2011 survey of almost 1000 college students across 10 countries, 4 out 5 reported “significant mental and physical distress, panic, confusion and extreme isolation” when they were asked to unplug from technology for an ‘entire’ day. To describe their experiences turning off social media, they used analogies like “going cold turkey” and “itching like a crackhead,” and even reported physical symptoms like panic attacks and heart palpitations. Plain and simple, fiending for Facebook like it’s cocaine is NOT healthy behavior.
4) Thanks to FOMO, Social Media Can Make you Feel Lonely and Dissatisfied
FOMO (the fear of missing out) has become a very real and often very painful phenomenon thanks to social media. Now every time you cannot make it out to a concert, or you don’t get invited to a party, you get bombarded with reminders of how much fun everyone else is having while you’re sitting at home in your PJs watching Netflix. (When I decided not to go to Burning Man this year, for weeks my Facebook feed was absolutely inundated with posts, pictures, comments and the like reminding me what I was missing. I became so annoyed with it, I finally just unfollowed a bunch of pages and people to clear the space and cull the reminders).
FOMO makes us question our decisions about how we spend our time, it makes us question how we are living our lives, and it can make us feel lonely, bored and unfulfilled. Perhaps this is why so many people feel bad about their lives after using social media. German researchers have found that 1 in 3 Facebook users feel dissatisfied with their lives after visiting the site, prompting feelings of loneliness, jealousy and frustration. The most common trigger was feelings of jealousy from seeing vacation photos, followed by people who compared their number of social interactions (Why did SHE did get more happy birthday posts than I did!?)
So what is going on here? Are we masochists, to be so obsessed with something that can repeatedly make us feel so bad? Perhaps we continue using social media because we so desperately want to feel connected. But, as Dr. Sherry Turkle brilliantly argues in her book Alone Together, social media gives us the illusion of being connected, of being fulfilled by relationships and having so many ‘friends’ and conversations. Yet the true psychological depth and closeness of these relationships is often lacking, which ironically can actually make us feel even more alone.
5) Social Media Use Tends to Create Conflict
Finally, we can’t take social media too seriously because conflict can arise so easily, sometimes out of nowhere, from nothing, for no reason! Internet trolling aside, all you have to do to end up in an argument is express an opinion and then wait for someone to respond! I believe it points back to online disinhibition and people’s openness to say things online that they wouldn’t say in person, and the fact that many of the people you encounter online are either feeling depressed, frustrated or jealous, or they are narcissists trying to make themselves feel better (there is after all a strong positive correlation between narcissism and social media use). Plus, online communication lacks the social cues, the body language and the subtle nuances of in-person communication, meaning people can often get confused or take things the wrong way.
Things that happen on social media can also bleed into our real-life relationships, creating conflict and destruction. I have seen couples arguing because someone accepted a friend request from a member of the opposite sex, and friends getting jealous of one another because one friend got more likes on a similar status update. I have even seen people break up or end relationships because of events that happened on social media. The list goes on. Suffice it to say, if social media is wreaking havoc in your actual relationships, you are probably taking it too seriously!
KEEPING IT ALL IN PERSPECTIVE
Because many of us spend so much time attached to our social media (one study shows as many as 40% of young people check Facebook at least every hour!) sometimes we need a little push in the right direction to help keep things in perspective. Here are some of my suggestions, as a psychologist and avid social media user:
Remember, You are so much MORE than all of this!
We can all use social media as a tool, but you don’t have to be a slave to it. Your moods don’t have to run high and low depending on what happens on social media. Your relationships in real-life don’t have to be impacted in extreme ways because of social media. Your self-esteem can actually come from INSIDE you, not from your numbers of likes, fans, or comments. Please be mindful that your social media presence does NOT speak to your awesomeness as a human being – Your true awesomeness is yours and it is REAL, no matter if two people or two thousand people get to see it. Human interaction flourished long before social media and it will continue to thrive long after it is gone. Just remember this.
If it Becomes too Much… Take a Break.
If you feel like you can’t gain perspective, or you just can’t put down the smartphone, it is time to step away and take a break. Try to allot yourself a specific time frame or window for social media use and stick to it. So maybe for a little while you will only login between 7-9pm. Think of all free time you will have! Or you can build up to taking a day off every week from social media, or even a week off every month. If you really want to just go for it, deactivate your accounts for a little while to gain some breathing room. You may be amazed to find that the world keeps spinning, and that your good friends still remain in contact with you. (If this is becoming compulsive and you just can’t stop logging in, you can install an APP like “Cold Turkey” that will block you from accessing certain social media sites. But I think you are strong enough to do it on your own.)
Do Something Mindful Away from the Computer.
Many of us have jobs and careers that keep us tethered to our computers, making social media a welcome distraction and only a click away! If you are spending a lot of time in front of a screen, then I strongly recommend you get up, stretch and go do something that reintegrates your mind back into the real world. There are so many activities you can partake in which are rewarding, will make you feel good and that will have nothing to do with social media. These can include cooking, crafting, dancing, yoga, running, making art, playing music, swimming, having sex, nature walks, meditation, hiking and so on. Instead of obsessively flicking through the page and reading updates, put down the phone, ground yourself, and find gratitude in the present moment. When you pull your face away from the screen you will realize that life is beautiful and it is happening all around us, always. Being mindful and appreciating the present moment will help you release the attachment to the instant gratifications of social media and bring you into a more peaceful, content place.
Spend time with people in REAL LIFE!
Perhaps the most important way to keep social media in perspective is to spend time interacting with people in real life, either by conversing in person, or speaking on the phone. Enjoy the nuances of the tone of voice and body language that you miss when using social media. Enjoy the fact that you get to connect in a truly deep meaningful way with someone. You can really show them you mean business about being present and sharing space with them by LEAVING YOUR PHONE AT HOME (or at least in the car). So many times in this life our interpersonal connections are interrupted by technology, it’s like we neglect the real people in our lives in favor of the icons buzzing on a screen. Please, recognize and value the actual people in your life who are right in front of you. Show them the respect they deserve by putting away the phone and shutting off the screen when you are spending time together. Amazing things can happen when people spend less time staring at their phones while in public and more time connecting to each other.
If you really have a problem, please SEEK HELP.
If you feel like you cannot control your social media usage, or if you think social media might be ruining your life or making you feel anxious or depressed, please seek help. Help can come by way of speaking to your friends, family, a school counselor, or in more extreme cases, enrolling in an intervention like this Teen Social Media Addiction program. Please do not be afraid to talk about what is happening. Being addicted to social media is nothing to be ashamed of and you are not alone! In fact, there might be thousands and thousands of people compulsively addicted to social media (we really do not know for sure). If you suspect a friend or loved one might be addicted to social media, and this may be harming their life or making them depressed, please talk to them, and let them know (in real-life, not online) that you love and support them!