How does social media actually effect you negatively, and what can we do about it?
There’s a case to be made to say that it’s in human nature to take selfies of some description. From Edwardian oil paintings to scratchings on the inner walls of a cave, humans have always seemed to possess a desire to document their existence. In 2019 that desire manifests itself in many ways; from checking yourself in at the airport when you’re off on holiday so that all of your Facebook friends know that you’re living the life, to taking that opportune selfie during golden hour when the light hits you just right and banking it for a rainy Sunday.
Recently, we asked around the office to find out why people post pictures of themselves to social media, and whether they think that their habits are healthy or not. Our office is quite cross-generational, so we know that we’d all be using our personal social media accounts differently and for different purposes, but we weren’t expecting to uncover a rift as dramatic as we did.
What do the team think?
A member of the sales team who’s in her thirties admits to taking too many pictures. She insists that she takes and posts them to capture moments, for a fear that she’ll not remember all of the lovely days that she’s had throughout her life. Mindful of the damaging effect of social media, she endeavours to add a disclaimer to her posts within the caption. Under every idyllic picture of her son enjoying a stack of waffles in a cosy corner café that everyone wishes they knew about, she’ll remind her followers that her son had been particularly difficult that day or that the waffles had cost an arm and a leg and she could made them herself at home with a fair amount of ease.
The team member, who we’ll call Tanya, because that’s her name, was quite surprised by the Gen-Zs when they admitted that they seldom felt a sense of disconcert while scrolling through their Instagram feed and looking through everyone else’s lovely Wednesdays spent in lovely cafes, on lovely beaches or on lovely nights out. The under 24s of the office insisted that they never spent Sundays scrolling and imagining that everyone else in the world were living a better life than they were, because they knew that their follow list was using social media in the same way that they do – as a highlight reel. Generation Zs upload content from their best days, or the best moments of their average days, or selfies that have seen the benefit of their best editing. They don’t feel inadequate as a result of other people’s content, because theirs is just as good, and they know that it doesn’t mean that their life is perfect.
Instagram has recently announced that they’re looking for ways of making their space ‘less depressing’. To them, this means abolishing the likes count and seeing if it makes any difference to users’ general mental health. This suggests that they believe that comparative social media habits are the most damaging to mental health; that people feel worse when they see that other people’s content has gained more traction than their own.
But is that not a fact of life? In life, we encounter people who are more popular, or well-connected than ourselves. In the same way that it would be unreasonable to walk up to good looking strangers on the bus and demand that they walk around with a paper bag on their head, because looking at them was making you feel unattractive, or to burn any research carried out by academics who are more accomplished than ourselves, because reading their work made you feel that your own was unsophisticated, does it not resonate as overly ingenuous to abolish a likes count on all content to tackle a feeling of discontentment amongst users who feel obsolete when they come across content more popular than their own?
In the office, we couldn’t come to an agreement.
We quickly realised that social media can be damaging in ways that we hadn’t considered on an individual level. A millennial in the office stated that his only anxiety on Instagram was the caption. ‘I worry that I haven’t said what I wanted to say. Instagram is a personal thing for me, it’s more about documenting my life than trying to connect or impress people, so I don’t worry when I’ve not got many likes, but I do worry when my posts don’t really reflect the moment.’
What can we actually do to make social media healthier?
There’s no longer a dispute about whether or not social media effects your mental health; it absolutely does. What we’ve realised though, is that there’s no one definite reason why social media is so harmful for mental health. Apps are purpose built to be moreish in their design and addictive in the serotonin bursts that users experience when their content is well received, competitive scrolling is enough to make you feel completely discontented with the life that you lead, and common sense dictates that hours spent staring at a screen in an often vegetative state will leave you feeling worse before it makes you feel better.
But with so many completely unrelated ways in which social media can negatively affect us, how can developers ascertain a definitive and combatable root of the problem?
It’s difficult to come to a conclusion that doesn’t harm another equally significant cause, such as freedom of speech and expression, the interests of influencers and brands who rely on engagement, and the success of the app itself. However, we can take (an amount of) control over how social media affects us directly:
If you find yourself feeling discontented while looking at other people’s content and believing that their lives are in some way superior to yours then you’re engaging in competitive scrolling. Noticing it is important in itself, but next time you catch yourself wondering why you can’t be on an impossibly white beach on a random Wednesday, like your friend from school is, just take a moment to remember that:
- The picture is probably edited…we all do it.
- The picture doesn’t represent every moment of every day of their lives, just like your current situation doesn’t represent yours.
- Social media does not provide insight into how a person lives their lives, rather, it lets you know how a person wishes to be perceived.
If you find yourself refreshing your likes count or constantly looking to see who’s seen your story, you’re associating likes with acceptance and perpetrating an external locus of self-worth. To ease the anxiety, you could:
- Force your attention onto something else. Check beck later on and you’ll probably be much happier with your post’s performance than you would be in the first half hour. It has to be something engaging enough that you don’t spend the entire time with an overwhelming urge to check your phone, though.
- Try to remember that your performance on social media is not representative of your performance in life – the two are less intertwined than you think.
- Also try to remember that nobody cares as much about your likes count as you do, and it’s extremely unlikely that anyone else will be checking to see how your content performs, and passing judgement. And if they are, then they’re being effected by social media more negatively than you are.
Or, if you’re worried about capturing the moment accurately, you should consider that:
- You have no control over a moment once it has passed.
- The memory won’t be lost if you don’t document it perfectly.
- There are other ways to treasure memories, like writing in a diary, creating art that has a connection to that moment and maintaining relationships with people who were there with you.