Let me first of all say that I am absolutely addicted to using Facebook, it stops me from getting lonely at times, I love being able to keep close contact with friends who live overseas and it’s cheaper and easier than phone calls and letter writing and it is a great way to procrastinate and share online content.
I’m not here to bash social media, because I truly think it is a wonderful thing, it has helped me reconnect with old friends, form bonds with people I would never have met in real life, it’s a great networking tool, and a useful tool for activism, sharing ideas and expressing ourselves. But I do believe it is a relatively new toy for most of us and it is important that we learn to use it safely and wisely, not just in terms of internet security and privacy but the psychological effects it is having on some of us.
A quick internet search will pull up a multitude of studies into the dangers of excessive screen use, and repetitive strain type injuries like ‘text claw’ and ‘iposture’, but many of the psychological studies are more ambiguous.
I was chatting with a friend who is a newly single-mother of a one year old who is understandably absolutely shattered and overwhelmed and when I complimented her on how nice she looked in her profile picture, she sent me a ‘true selfie’ of her in that moment, so I could see how she really felt and looked because she felt like it was important to be honest about how difficult things really were for her at that time, and that, in her own words ”anyone can put on a bit of lippy and look nice for a profile pic.” And she is absolutely right, we are all guilty of it. Of presenting only the best of ourselves to our online contacts and denying the rest.
I myself am average looking and overweight, but I am photogenic, love photography, and love a good selfie, but I will still take 5-30 pictures in one go to find one I really like and then might add a filter to it so it looks even better, before sharing it online. And I think most of us have done that at some point, if not every time we post one. It is natural to want to look your best, vanity is a very human trait, but social media seems to be increasing that vanity for many of us, making us want to portray only the preened, enhanced, filtered version of who we are, like real life avatars.
Last night I wanted to send an old friend a snap of me pulling a face in lieu of an emoji, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it, even though I would think nothing of pulling that face and far worse in front of them in person, because it was too permanent as a photo, too immortalised as part of our interaction instead of a fleeting moment in conversation; que me trying to do the same face in a slightly more attractive way (which totally defeated the point of the pose!) It was a ridiculous waste of time and worry, even if it was only a couple of minutes.
That same friend told me later on that they are a member of so many social media sites and groups that they sometimes get bombarded with so many notifications it puts them into a state of anxiety, basically because they feel like they have to be the wittiest, outgoing, lively version of themselves, and they are spreading themselves thin. We agreed that it puts pressure on us to always be happy and beautiful when we are all boring and struggling at times.
I get it, social media is another form of escapism, some of us only want to see the good stuff, the big life achievements, the holiday snaps, the cute animal pics, the funny memes, but it leaves us in danger of feeling inferior and inadequate if we put too much emphasis on those good times defining us.
In a recent project I started researching fear, and many people were worried they were not doing enough with their lives, that they weren’t ever going to be happy, or amount to anything, and that they would be forgotten when they died. I wonder how much social media contributes to these fears. On the one hand our online profiles immortalise us, build up a picture of who we are, provide an online caricature of ourselves, for people to lust over, reach out to, connect with. One the other hand they are making us feel isolated from each other, from the world, encouraging us to place value judgements on ourselves and others based on our online output alone and making us feel inferior because of our lack of achievement or photo ops.
Another friend messaged me lately with the simple phrase ”life isn’t all blowjobs and sunglasses like everyone thinks it is.” And I knew instantly what he meant, he may be working his dream job, travelling lots and meeting lots of new people and documenting some of that online with enthusiasm, but what we are not seeing are the boring, tiring bits, the bits where he is doubting his choices, his abilities, missing his home life and wondering why he isn’t truly happy yet. I know in my own experience at a time where I was most unhappy and unwell, the life I portrayed online became more happy, more exciting, more outgoing, because I was masking the anguish and turbulence I was going through. It was covering up the cries for help as my life spiralled out of control.
It’s almost like a real life soap opera, we don’t see the truly mundane parts where the characters bundle their socks and top the leccy up and talk about different brands of 5 spice, or the parts where we really are confused about political jargon or gawping at the screen typing LOL with a blank expression on our faces. Instead we express a self assured, upbeat, extroverted version of ourselves.
I will be the first to admit I CRAVE the Facebook ‘likes’, if I am having a bad day I will repost an old picture which I know will get me attention and compliments, it is a shallow quick fix, that doesn’t last, but I still do it, because it is easier than saying ‘Hey I’m having a shit day, can anyone talk or want to hang out even though I’m not sure I want company and actually I just need reminded that not every day is like this’.
For a while I stopped posting personal pictures and only talked about politics and cats in the hope it would make me feel less shallow and more mysterious and it didn’t make me any happier, I actually felt like less of a person when I saw friends share pics of their home and social life, because I was still comparing my own life to the bits of theirs they were sharing/promoting as ‘the norm’.
I am lucky in some ways because I regularly open up online about my mental health and express myself in a full range of emotions and language and although I know that doesn’t meet everyone’s approval, and many would never dream of using social media in that way, it does make me feel as though I am being realistic about my life, or state of mind, throughout the good, the bad, the ugly. I try to keep my full blown meltdowns offline so have developed a healthy bit of self censorship, I am not suggesting we should all share every thought and whim to everyone we know across all platforms, there are many healthy ways to use social media. But I think it would be good for all of us to at least acknowledge how authentic we are being online and how that impacts us offline, and more importantly, whether we are getting what we hope to from our online interactions. A little self reflection does us good from time to time.
I wonder if, for every exciting and flattering pic we shared, we shared one of us doing something mundane, stirring soup, putting the bins out, agonising over the choice of pasta shells in Lidls. I, for one, would find it hilarious and reassuring! The appearance of Facebook groups like ‘The Boring Group’ which encourage people to share the mundane aspects of their daily lives in a lacklustre way, are a part of that movement.
I am going to attempt to cut down my online hours in the new year, and I know it will be difficult, I will feel lonely and isolated and strange at times, but I will have to get my socialising and cheap thrills somewhere else, and there is nothing that beats meeting up and talking in person so I am looking forward to that (unless everyone else is staying in updating their statuses!).
My hope is that I will be forced into seeking out human interaction and reduce my need to get validation through others approval through ‘likes’, which can be lazily handed out without much significance at all, no matter what we read into them at the time.
If I am realistic, I will of course be back, with photos of all the exciting things I’ve been doing with the time I’ve freed up for ‘real life’ interaction, and lap up all the likes, but I hope that I will feel more fulfilled for the time spent enjoying the event rather than the approval it receives from my peers online.
And maybe given time, when I see others do the same, instead of feeling a twinge of inadequacy, I won’t just feel the pressure to ‘get out and do more’ but remember that I didn’t see the other 10 selfies they took that didn’t make the cut, the boring thing they typed out but chose not to post, and all the hurdles they’ve overcome, to make it look like they are living the dream, for that snapshot of a life well lived.