Woman standing next to colorful stacked rocks. Photo by  Heidi Gunderson  on  Scopio

I have been reading about the fallout of Instagram’s recent decision to remove the ability to see likes from posts. Aside from my personal feeling that it’s less about psychological well-being and more about the platform’s ability to control earnings IG celebrities receive on their site, it is a good opportunity to talk about the effect social media has on us psychologically. Recent studies have linked social media use and depression, and we’ve also seen statements from social media creators admitting they create content that is addicting on purpose. But as some of us now rely on social media for income, as our IG influencer friends have shown us – we’re at a point of no turning back. I propose we take a harm reduction approach to social media, which first entails understanding how it affects us.

Posting on social media is, in essence, a vulnerability as we put ourselves out there to be potentially judged by hundreds or even millions of people. This isn’t really a bad thing – it can be great for those who feel outcast from society to feel part of a group, finding friends and realizing that so many people are going through the same thing. If we post our authentic selves and see that people like it, that reaffirms confidence and feelings of self-worth. That’s part of why getting likes on social media feels so good – the risk of vulnerability that comes with posting in the first place is offset by the happy feelings we get when someone likes what we say.

According to a recent article in Psychology Today, people with low self-esteem are particularly susceptible to be negatively impacted by both positive and negative comments on social media. People who feel they have a higher sense of self-purpose are less impacted by likes on Facebook than those who have a low sense of their purpose in life. You can see where this causes a problem – the very people who are in highest need of a self-esteem boost are the same ones that are most affected by social media, which means they’ll also be the most devastated by rejection when the internet inevitably chews them up and spits them out.

We also know that comparing yourself to other people and Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) are common negative by-products of social media use. Even the most well-adjusted person can start to feel inadequate when bombarded with images of all their friends tanning on the beach, having fabulous weddings, or getting an exciting new job when they feel stuck. The answer to this would likely be that we should all be more honest about our moments of misery and boredom as well as our successes, but actually the number-one complaint of Facebook users was seeing other people oversharing details that made them uncomfortable. Apparently we enjoy believing that everyone out there is having it better than us? Thankfully Facebook has a mechanism to snooze irritating or too-perfect people so we can pick and choose our experience.

Email and app notifications can also impact anxiety – we are effectively being nudged by these noises, flashes, or small icons popping up on our computers and phones. These constant distractions can make us feel distracted, stressed, and even change the brain’s chemistry. Even though you may be looking forward to hearing from your friend to tell you about lunch plans, the notification itself is shown to be linked to an increase in cortisol in the brain, the stress hormone. When we check the notification, the stress dissipates, which can create a feedback loop similar to addiction. That effectively turns your everyday virtual interactions into a stressful experience, even with people that you love. How can this help but change the way we interact with one another? Is it any wonder that people ghost on burgeoning relationships, or flake on friends’ plans? There is too much information coming in and unless we set limits it’s impossible to filter out the noise.

I should add too that it’s not all about comparing ourselves negatively to others – many people use social media as a yardstick to measure where they’re at in life and see if they’re on-pace with their peers. From a purely anecdotal standpoint I can attest this is true, and it makes perfect sense that younger generations like mine that are entering totally uncharted waters in terms of life goals – changing what our relationships look like, what families are, how we build careers, and how we express ourselves – would have a need for some kind of barometer. It’s hard to know if you’re doing okay with no objective to measure yourself by. Of course it can be harmful if you become obsessed with comparing to others in a negative way, but I think overall social media can be a positive for young people finding out who they are.

In terms of how to monitor your social media use, like anything, you get to decide if it’s a problem. I decided to do a little experiment on myself and see if the world really would crash and burn if I turned off notifications on the email and social media accounts on my phone and it has made a difference in how I feel. I still feel a pang of anxiety when I see a full inbox (I’m a proponent of Inbox Zero, fanatically so, as friends and loved ones will attest) but I feel it’s beneficial as I’m at least condensing my time to spend looking at emails and social media accounts to a block that I chose, rather than feeling interrupted every few minutes by notifications. I’d recommend everyone take a few minutes and re-set notifications, at least for a week, and see how it helps.

Other suggestions I have to make social media less painful is to follow positive blogs and accounts and to take mini-vacations from social media periodically. Once I started a therapy account I started getting ads for all kinds of other accounts with messages telling me to love myself and take breaks, and honestly it’s great to see all that in the midst of the political posts and pictures of women impossibly thinner and fitter than me. I also follow a ridiculous number of cute animal accounts which break up my newsfeed. To get breaks from social media or just my phone in general, I try to do something outside without my phone on me at least once a week, and leave it in another room in my bag when I go see friends. At the end of the day, I do love having pictures of the times I spend with other people on social media, but not everything I do is really that special.

Finally, I think it helps to have some humility about yourself and social media. Are you really that important? Does everyone need to see and know what you’re doing every minute? I think we all know people who behave as though there’s some omniscient narrator describing their life and evaluating whether or not every move is cool or not… and it’s exhausting. Cool isn’t even a thing, it’s always changing and once you accept that you’ll never be it then you can feel free from that burden.

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