How often do we come across those posts of dear friends or relatives, maybe even acquaintances that cast out their one final social media post, proclaiming that their time on social networking sites has come to an end only to sneak back on again after a few days/weeks/months? Maybe they tell us in confidence, "I've just had enough, I need to detox from social media, you won't see me on for awhile." How many of us want to say goodbye to social media either for a little while or forever but haven't made up our minds to try? Why is it so difficult to stay away from social media and why do we so sometimes so desperately wish we could?
Several studies conducted over the last decade reveal a rise in depression and anxiety in our society. Some studies point to a decrease in stigma connected to mental health conditions and therefore explain an increase in reporting. Other studies claim that helicopter parenting is making younger generations "weak" and "extra sensitive". Then there are studies that point to a correlation to our engagement in social media and an increase in a mass reporting of depression and anxiety symptoms. With this last one generating more attention, many social scientists have looked to social comparison theory to explain this. Social comparison theory being that individuals have an instinctual drive to compare themselves to others in order to generate an accurate self-evaluation (Festinger, 1954). Evolutionary psychologists will also weigh in that during ancestral tribal living times, literal survival was based on establishing and maintaining a vital role within your communal living environment, where you were to be depended on so you could share the privilege of depending on others as well.
In a capitalist society that emphasizes individualized success and encourages competition, it is often taken for granted how much we as humans need and depend on one another. The overnight success of social media applications are symbolic of our innate desire to connect to one another with ease through language and visual stimuli, we want to hear one another, we want to see one another and in real time, whenever possible. After all, close connectedness to one another was all we knew for so long of our human history. Our tribal ancestors lived in cohorts but even as recently as before World War II, it was typical for multiple families to share living spaces, generations stacked together in homes and apartment complexes, within talking distance of their neighbors, not out of inconvenience but out of preference, and without a thought given to that it should or would be any other way. WWII Technology created assembly line houses and the introduction of the GI Bill birthed suburbia, before that we only knew of living amongst one another, not spread out apart from one another. Capitalists caught on to the perks of selling to consumers of suburban sprawl, where families living apart from one another would be in need of their own one of everything, in a lifestyle that is not conducive to sharing a car, a spaghetti pot, or a grill between a couple of floors of families. The war incentivized our spreading out from one another, but the media reinforced it's value and portrayed it as normal.
Fast forward several decades into our suburbanized individualized American Dream (not America's dream) peddling society and we've got a group of humans no longer living in groups, yearning for connection in ways they have been socialized and affirmed by conventional media to suppress. Social Media comes along and instantly becomes a staple in our lives because it at first seems to fulfill within us this need to be connecting, sharing, and engaging in a valuable role within our tribal community. Just like that, we are in our tribes, in our cohorts again, talking and seeing our loved ones daily instead of just during a handful of annual holidays. With social media we are no longer surprised at how much our little cousin's or nephews have grown over the last year; we watch their baseball games, give a thumbs up of approval for their prom date choice, know their personality, and the type of music they like without having to ask because we can listen to it with them, and learn about their hobbies, and travel their adventures; how couldn't this be fulfilling? Here we are, living in our suburbs, working extra hours to get our work promotions, climbing our corporate ladders, and engaging in our beloved tribal connection by the glow of our computer night light.
So then, why all the anxiety and depression? Is it in fact correlated with social media use? Social Comparison Theory in relation to the social media dilemma posits that we become depressed and anxious when spending too much time on social media because everyone posts their best versions of themselves, and therefore when we go to evaluate ourselves by comparison, we feel depressed or anxious about how we stack up. I don't disagree with this, but I think there is something else we are missing in this discussion and that is the concept of empathy. I don't think we are emotionally shifted just because we may not feel as though we keep up with our tribe, because after all, we are also posting our best version of ourselves, and we often have a layer of insight that the trip we are posting about is going to wow someone, or that the race that we completed is going to inspire someone else to try to run one, or that we just want to brag about this beautiful sunset we are watching this afternoon, we have caught on to that for the most part. I also believe that when we cheerlead one another on social media with our "likes" and our "hearts", that for the most part we mean it. We are not "liking" children's birthday surprises, engagement announcements, island vacations, and fitness accomplishments because we are bitter or spiteful, we are liking those things because we are feeling happy for that person, inspired, or engaging in vicarious excitement.
Where the anxiety and depression really come from is an absence of deep connection or intimacy. Cheerleading happy moments and celebrations are only one side of intimacy, what's missing are opportunities for us to form deep connection through expression of empathy for one another. In the days where we lived in tribes or in cohorts in city dwellings, we saw the good times happen for one another but we also were present for the sad times, the angry times, and the uncomfortable times. In community living we couldn't filter our presentation so that our tribal members only saw our accomplishments and our happy moments, they saw it all for better or worse. What grew from that was an intimate understanding, a human empathetic relationship where a person's full range of their lives was heard, seen, and understood in the community. It was also much easier to evaluate yourself against a true gauge of human experience, we were always more alike than not enough or better than.
So what do we do? We continue to post our proudest moments, our happiest days, our inspiring adventures, because we deserve to capture those moments and share them with others. We also try and take more opportunities to be vulnerable, to share a struggle, a frustration, a loss, a painful lesson. We tighten our tribal circle because 500 people do not need to be witness to your battle with cancer, your loss of a child, your regret letter from grad school, but maybe 30 of them do. There are filtered settings we can use in most social media that allows for us to custom pick an audience if we prefer to keep a larger network for business connections/recommendations/news sources. We take the time to put ourselves out there to support others that show their vulnerability to their tribe, and comment on their hardship, and connect with their despair in a meaningful way. Growth is stimulated in relationships through shared intimacy which are provoked by profound experiences. This kind of sharing is what it takes to solicit an emphatic response and strengthen a genuine connection between two people. Think of all the times you grew closer to someone in your life after you or they shared something personal that required being vulnerable to share? Or a time when someone really went through something with you? We must also reach past the screen, to make a coffee date, take a walk, grab some dinner out, and to remain vitally aware that it always feels better to connect in person even when it feels like it's easier or less scary to just chat or check in on a device. It should be more difficult to passively leave an emoticon on a vulnerable post than on a ski trip selfie. Vulnerability demands more, it warrants an actual conversation.
We must also involve ourselves in our communities; join groups that share a common interest or goal, volunteer in a town/city task force, explore a passion through taking a creative class, enter local politics, or just make a commitment to yourself to say yes every other time your invited to participate in a group interactive activity. The recent isolated social conditioning we have been receiving in our society over the last several decades is breeding mental illness and understanding that connecting to our tribal community in genuine and intimate ways relieves us of that depression and anxiety, it is the cure.
A mass awareness has begun developing that social media while seemingly gratifying and stimulating as a portal to our community at first, is later affecting us in ways that are detrimental to our mental health. What if, instead of changing our individual use of it, we changed how we all use it instead. Here we are, all in this place with one another, let's make it work for us in the ways that matter, and start feeling more connected and better together.
Disclaimer: The therapist in me must also warn that while I encourage people to be vulnerable and take risks with disclosing hardship in a social media setting, it must also be understood that in instances where disclosing something may make you feel emotionally or physically unsafe, it is better to instead confide privately in a trusted person. It also must be understood that taking a risk to disclose something that makes you feel vulnerable on social media does not guarantee a supportive response, so it is important to emotionally prepare yourself and review all expectations you have for possible responses before going through with committing to a vulnerable social media post.