Facebook and other social media platforms are rife with potential research topics, both about their positive effects on our lives and about how they may be making us all a lot less happy. For example, a colleague of mine wrote her doctoral dissertation on how the social support from Facebook might be beneficial to Iraq War veterans…a potentially powerful and positive use of social networking. Yet, on the other hand, there have recently been a number of articles published about what posting selfies says about our personalities and mental wellbeing; Some say selfies indicate narcissism, other say they indicate shallow social relationships and still others say the tendency to post pictures of yourself is related to having low self worth. In any case, the fact remains that social media is now a part of our lives whether we like it or not and, because of this, it tends to be a topic that comes up in therapy quite a bit. In this blog post I’ll outline four ways that I see social media impacting our daily lives and relationships.
The Pressure to Be Interesting At All Times: After reading this article I’ve had Lorde’s song “Royals” in my head for days. I’m not necessarily a Lorde fan, but I do appreciate the lyrics to this particular song because it challenges the rampant attitude that we all need to be fabulous and do and own fabulous things in order for our lives to have any meaning. It’s not only that “every song's like gold teeth, grey goose, trippin' in the bathroom, blood stains, ball gowns, trashin' the hotel room” but Instagram feeds like Rich Kids of Instagram and even social bookmarking sites like Pinterest can make us feel as though we’re somehow failing miserably at life because we’re not interesting or creative enough. But you know what? Being just okay is just fine. In fact, maybe that’s all we should ever hope for! There’s nothing wrong with having goals and striving to be better, but accepting your life as it is just as important. (More on acceptance here)
The Preoccupation With How Our Lives Look To Others: This is somewhat related to number one in that perhaps the pressure to project an interesting or amazing image actually prevents us from enjoying our real life as it unfolds. I often think of an example a friend of mine shared with me about a woman whose son fell into a coi pond at the arboretum and she didn’t notice until she went to edit the Instagram photo she was taking at the time that happened to capture the event. Obviously this example is more of a safety issue than a concern that this woman wasn’t enjoying herself, but the behavior is the same: she was not present. Sometimes getting the picture of what you’re doing or who you’re with to post to Facebook, Instagram or Tumblr as “evidence” of how great things are in your life becomes more of a priority than actually engaging in the activity or spending time with the person.
Comparison, Comparison, Comparison! If I had a dollar for every time someone shared with me how upset they get about seeing others’ success, beauty or happiness through social media…I would have a lot of dollars. While this is related to the pressure to be interesting, the tendency to compare ourselves to others is underscored by a different, more dangerous type of self loathing. We may be able to brush off the pressure to be something particular but, once comparisons start, we can quickly find ourselves in a very ugly downward spiral of insecurity. When comparing our lives to those we see on social media it’s easy to feel like we’re not thin enough, not beautiful enough, not smart enough, not successful enough and that we don’t have enough money. We somehow forget or disregard that what we see on Facebook is only what people share…and (except for the occasional over-sharer or doomsday poster—we all have them in our feeds) we usually only get the highlights of people’s lives, especially if they’ve fallen victim to numbers one and two. So, what we end up doing is comparing everyone else’s “highlight reels” to our own “behind the scenes” which, as they say, is like comparing apples to oranges. It’s different fruit.
How Our Behavior Online Affects “Real Life” Relationships: Whether we like it or not, our behavior online affects our real life relationships and behaving badly online, so to speak, can be harmful. There are the very serious and extremely tragic examples of this when it comes to cyberbullying, and there are the never ending redactions and awkward apologies from celebrities and other public figures who take to twitter too quickly to make a statement only to realize that in their haste they were being atrociously disrespectful. In a way, the problem is twofold; First, there’s a tendency to forget that there are real people on the other end of these Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. feeds and so we behave in a way we never would if we were with the same people face to face. Second, because there are no checks and balances (i.e., we don’t have the same repercussions to our behavior if we were face to face), and we are perhaps too caught up with numbers one, two and three…there tends to be an impulsiveness to our behavior online that gets us into trouble.
Ideally, there should be some continuity between who we are in real life and how we present ourselves and behave online. However, our online presence is ultimately a step removed from who we really are. This can be extremely liberating at times (we can create an ideal version of our lives!) or it can be very sad and lonely, especially if the internet makes us feel like our lives are only valuable if they more closely resemble what we see online. This was a long post, but I feel like I could go on and on. There will likely be more to come about the intersection of our real lives and our internet lives so stay tuned!