Here’s a question I’ve been pondering over the last few months - have I become ridiculously self-obsessed?! As you might expect, this is a bit of a personal reflection, but I'm hopeful that the themes below around the version of ourselves we portray through social media might resonate with others too.
When it comes to social media, I mainly use Facebook. I’ve had a Facebook profile for 10 years and have never really given it that much thought. I’ve just captured moments, shared and liked. Recently though, I’ve started to question the role it actually plays in my life. As I sit here writing this, the conclusion I’ve reached is that I remain pretty confused! There are definitely some good things about social media, but there are also definitely some bad things - things I just hadn’t acknowledged before.
(Before I get into it, it's important to say that the point of this blog isn’t to convince you to quit any of the platforms you use. I guess the point is just to hopefully shed a bit of light on different perspectives and to raise a few questions that I’ve asked of myself recently.)
Here are some of the things I’ve been reading about and pondering;
It’s all fake
I read one fascinating article that detailed how social media has rapidly taken over our lives. It described how our pages on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are basically “magazines of us”. Just in reading that sentence I squirmed a little. The Magazine of Josie. Come have a read everyone, it’s utterly fascinating. Urgh.
To some degree, through social media, we are all constantly presenting and packaging ourselves. Surely that can’t be healthy? I sat and had a scroll through my timeline and was brutally honest with myself. It isn’t a true reflection of my life. It’s simply a highlights reel. Looking back at it with a different perspective, it feels like a lot of my posts have no other purpose other than me showing off. Look at me having a great time! Double urgh.
My squirming came from realising just how much I was showing off on social media, something I wouldn’t do ‘in real life’. But I suppose that in itself doesn’t make social media bad. Before Facebook, we all had lovely photo albums to look back on our lives through, and we were equally careful then to only include the photos and moments that captured us at our best. The motive of having a life highlights reel to look back on isn’t new, and why wouldn’t we cherish the digital version as much as the photo albums, slide shows and home videos of the past?
Perhaps the difference is that our personal highlights reel is now presented to everyone we know on a daily basis. Unless you’re that person who showed every visitor to your house the slideshow of your last holiday, this is a kind of idealised projection that we didn’t used to do before social media. Multiply this by the number of connections we have across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter etc and this makes it seem like we’re all living our best days every day. This is where we need to consider the impact of our sharing on the people who see it...
It can do harm
By scrolling through Facebook, we are constantly seeing everyone else looking their best, doing fun things that we are not doing. If you are having a tough day, this is the last thing you need.
A study by YouGov on behalf of GQ magazine for their December 2018 issue, paints a worrying picture on the link between mental health and social media. The study found that the impact of social media on men’s mental health has been overwhelmingly negative - just 3% said that it had impacted their personal well-being “extremely positively”. Every single age group in the study saw social media more negatively than positively.
In looking back on some of my posts, I feel quite upset with myself. Every post I make, I look at it now and wonder how it might have made one of my ‘friends’ feel upset. I’ve realised I wasn’t really thinking about my friends when I posted stuff, I was just thinking about myself. This is something I am changing. There are definitely many things that don’t need to be shared with everyone and are nothing more than a brag. If it’s useful information, I'll share. If it will make my friends laugh, I'll share. If it’s mocking myself, definitely share. Other than that, I’m taking a moment to ask myself why I feel the need to share it with everyone.
With all of our many online friends, it can feel like we have more connections than ever before. And yet loneliness is on the increase. Feelings of inadequacy are stirred up by witnessing our friends ‘perfect’ lives online, anxiety levels are soaring from the fear of missing out - the social media that was designed to bring us together can make us feel less connected, both to others and to ourselves.
It’s highly addictive
The latest iOS update includes Screen Time, which shows us all exactly how long we are staring at our screens and how long we are using different tools and apps. (Even Apple seem to know things are getting a bit off balance). The first time I looked at my stats, the Facebook usage in particular shocked me. Mindless scrolling for hours. Surely I’ve got better things to do with my time than scrolling through other people’s lives?
Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin made me feel slightly better about this;
“Make no mistake,” he writes, “Facebook and Twitter checking constitute a neural addiction.”
Each time we check social media we encounter something novel and feel more connected socially and get another dollop of reward hormones telling us we have accomplished something.
But as with all addictions, this feeling of reward is unreliable. As Levitin puts it: “It is the dumb, novelty-seeking portion of the brain driving the limbic system that induces this feeling of pleasure, not the planning, higher-level thought centres in the prefrontal cortex.”
When we receive a ‘like’ on Facebook, our brain releases a hit of dopamine, which fills us with a warm glow. Our brains are wired to encourage us to keep returning to our Facebook feed over and over again, to see if there is a new ‘like’ on our latest picture or post.
This means we achieve the nice dopamine hit we crave as a result of receiving likes or comments - our satisfaction is directly driven from the approval of others. This can’t be good. We surely need to be able to take satisfaction from our own achievements, effort and actions, without the payoff coming from the approval of others?
When it comes to getting guaranteed ‘likes’, there’s nothing like a selfie. Share a status update from the Eiffel tower and you’ll get some ‘likes’, but share a selfie from the top with Paris in the background and you’ll hit the ‘like’ jackpot. The selfie is the perfect way to show everyone what a great time we’re having, and to guarantee a big dopamine hit.
I think we might be losing the plot
When did it become the norm to take pictures of ourselves all the time?! We didn’t used to. With a good old-fashioned camera, the person who enjoyed photography would often not appear in any of photos - the focus was on capturing other people and other things. Our focus has done a 180 degree spin and our main priority is now our own mug shot.
According to recent reports, 93 million selfies are taken worldwide every day. WTF!
And it gets more insane. We are taking more and more risks to capture the perfect selfie. A recent report published in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care shows an increase of 3,160% in deaths while taking a selfie from 2003 to 2018.
Selfie deaths have become so rife in Russia that the government has released a guide detailing how not to die while taking a picture of yourself. Seriously! (Quietly pop my selfie stick back in my drawer.)
No one really cares
I found some brilliant advice around how to understand the role different social media platforms play in your life. Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, has a theory that we all use the “Any-Benefit Approach to Social Media Selection”. This means that we basically justify using a social media tool if we can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it.
Essentially, with social media, we don’t think about the pros and the cons and weigh them up. We just ignore any negatives and focus on any possible benefit, however minor.
Newport goes on to provide a strategy that helps you sort through all of the social media tools that currently steal your time and attention. This strategy allows you to see if the tool is actually worthy of your time. The strategy is quite simple: you don’t use the tool for 30 days. You don’t deactivate it and you don’t announce to the world that you are going dark.
You simply stop using it. After the 30 days you ask yourself these 2 questions:
Would the last 30 days have been considerably better if I had been able to use this service?
Did people care that I wasn’t using this service?
I had a go with Facebook. And the answer to both questions was a resounding no.
I didn’t miss out on anything important.
I realised that I actually got more enjoyment out of the things I was doing, because I was focused on enjoying the moment, and not on thinking about what I could write in my perfectly witty, articulate Facebook post.
Not one person noticed I wasn’t posting anymore. I thought previously that Facebook was important in keeping me connected to friends, but this shows that in reality it doesn’t. It is such a shallow swirl of random stuff that none of us can truly keep up with all the people we are connected to.
This won’t be the case for everyone. Facebook can play a big role in keeping some people connected, and would leave some of us cut off and isolated if we stopped using it. As I said at the beginning, what works for me won’t be right for everyone, but the idea of stopping to evaluate the pros and cons of the things we spend so much of our time on seems a worthwhile exercise. If Facebook (or Twitter, a WhatsApp group, Snapchat etc) is something that brings you more pros than cons, then removing it from your life wouldn’t be right.
Offline is always better
The truth of social media is that most of the ‘likes’ aren’t really likes. We all know that it doesn’t take much effort to ‘like’ a post. It’s not really a heartfelt gesture.
One of my friends is beautiful on Facebook - she never just ‘likes’, she always leaves a comment which shows that she has properly looked at the post and properly enjoyed it.
I’d become a lazy friend. A simple ‘like’ was connection enough.
I’ve decided to make sure I do more offline ‘likes’.
I’m going to tell my friends why I like them more often, why I’m grateful that they are my friend.
The best ‘likes’ are real life ‘likes’.
Because they aren’t fleeting. They are genuine and authentic and real.
I have 2 cards on my shelf - both of them sent by special friends, both arrived through the letterbox months ago - but I still look at them pretty much every day and they always give me a boosting, warm glowing feeling.
It makes such a difference when you show someone you care in person.
From examining my use of social media, I’m discovering that I need to disconnect from superficial online relationships and reconnect with those that matter in the real world. And it feels great.