It’s three in the afternoon, I’m in my workspace, sitting at my sewing machine. The rhythmic whirring of the machine hemming the garment I’m sewing is soothing and hypnotic, and I have a podcast playing in a wireless earbud. Technology is wonderful, it allows me to make clothing at a much greater speed than I could ever do by hand, and I am able to listen to the recordings of creative and entertaining people from the other side of the world. But, then something happens. A longing. A need. Suddenly this isn’t enough. I’m not mentally stimulated and I need more. I pick up my phone and check my email to see that I’ve made some sales in my store. That's the hit I needed, a little dopamine ‘pick me up’. It feels great, a mini high, a burst of pleasure. I’m not ready to put the phone down though, I think there must be more. I go to Facebook and see that somebody has commented on my photo. A compliment! Nice, another hit of dopamine. Next I go to Instagram, looking for my next fix, but there's nothing. In fact, I see that I’ve lost 10 followers since yesterday and now that sweet dopamine high has been replaced by a gut wrenching feeling of unhappiness. I head to the home page and sadly scroll through the feed. Some of the posts I see have hundreds of thousands of likes and I feel despair that I’m not getting anywhere near that kind of attention. So I scroll more. Everyone is doing better than me. I am a crushing failure. How can my existence be worth anything if I don’t have people validating it for me with their likes? My eyes hurt from staring at the screen and my shoulders are hunched high. Using all of my willpower I force myself back to my work, and I continue to sew with a lingering sense of melancholy.
When I feel sad, I try to get to the root of what is upsetting me so that I can process it, but I’m stuck trying to put into words what exactly this pain is. I was somewhat content before I picked up my phone, but I felt compelled by a need for more. Something was missing and I needed to search for something to satiate that need. Receiving some attention soothed the ache for a moment, but then I felt crushed by the lack of attention elsewhere. I was in an attention deficit and I felt that I wasn't good enough. Social media has made me feel more disconnected from humanity than I’ve ever felt, so what is happening here?
I have tried to curb this suffering in the past by cutting down on social media usage, but there's always an exception that needs to be made and slowly my use of it creeps back up to where it was before. The two main things that shackle to me to social media are this:
- That all of my friends use it, and if I retreat then I will appear anti-social, or might get left out.
- I use it for my business and my income would be affected if I stopped using it.
So, connection to people and obtaining the funds that ensure my basic human needs for food and shelter are met are dependent on social media. No wonder it causes so much anxiety as these are both pretty fundamental to existence. You might say, well I’ll just delete Facebook and Instagram, but social media does not begin and end with these two platforms. Reddit, YouTube, even email can all feed the disease. If you’re relying on technology to get a dopamine high that ultimately leaves you feeling worthless, then something needs to be addressed, and the question is how.
I think the first thing to do is understand what is happening within ourselves when we choose scrolling on a device over sitting with our thoughts. Where do your thoughts take you, is it somewhere that scares you? The only way to find out is to let your mind wander. Even if it is just for 5 minutes a day, make a conscious choice to sit un-distracted and allow your mind the freedom to just be. It's tough, and you’ll make every excuse in the book not to do it, but please try. Only you can look into your thoughts and understand what you desire from this life. We all have dreams and aspirations, and I believe it is unlikely that it is anyone’s dream to spend 3 or more hours a day scrolling away on the internet, consuming meaningless content in an apathetic way.
Next, we need to recognise that social media is a tool. My sewing machine is a tool that creates neat and professional stitches at a fast rate. My relationship to the sewing machine is perfectly healthy. It doesn’t make me feel bad about myself and neither does it make me long for the simpler days when sewing was performed by hand. I appreciate the benefits of the machine and it makes my life better, easier, more efficient. I wish to redress the balance so that my relationship to social media is similar to the dynamic I have with my car or my washing machine. I appreciate the way that they make my life easier, but I do not allow them to overtake me. Tools have a valuable place in the world when they are used appropriately. So what are the benefits of social media? Let's consider the following:
- We can communicate directly and quickly with others.
- We can connect with communities that might have otherwise been out of reach.
- It grants us a platform to enhance our businesses, offering the potential of financial freedom.
There are, of course, huge benefits to social media. Without it, I may never have had the courage to quit my 9 to 5 job and become a full time dressmaker. But as philosopher Sophocles once said, ‘nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse'. Social media can improve our lives but there are definite downsides.
Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.
Let's consider the pitfalls of social media:
- It causes us to compare ourselves to others.
- It causes us to seek external validation.
- It encourages us to present an insincere version of ourselves.
- We get caught up in mindless scrolling which is a drain on our energy.
- It feeds the most negative parts of us if we let it.
- It provides an echo chamber which gives us a false sense of importance in our beliefs, potentially removing the opportunity to empathise and understand alternate points of view.
Undoing the years of damage that social media has caused to our mental health is not something that will happen immediately, but I believe it calls for our immediate attention. We must take action to separate ourselves from the suffering and find balance in our social media usage. As I write this article with a view to sharing it as a blog post, a thought enters my mind: ‘wouldn’t it be exciting if this post went viral’. I appreciate the hypocrisy of this sentiment, of posting an article about the downsides of social media, on social media, in the secret hope of getting lots of attention on social media. This perfectly illustrates the catch 22 of the situation, because how else will this reach anyone, and possibly help them, if I don’t post it on the platforms where I share my work. In sharing my secret hope that this post would get lots of likes, I have demonstrated the first part of the solution- radical honesty. We must be honest with ourselves and each other when we are seeking validation so that we can address it. How many of you feel bad about seeing other people post about living their ‘best life’ yet continue to contribute by doing the same thing? I do. We all do. I know that what I see on social media is highly curated but it doesn’t sting any less when I feel that I’m standing in the shadows of everyone else. This is how radical honesty can help. If you’re going to use this tool, be as real and authentic as you can. Be sure that you are sharing something as a means to connect and not to get validation from your peers. Share your work in the hope that the people who it will resonate with will enjoy it, not to go viral. Share photos of your adventures to encourage conversations and interactions, not to make anyone jealous. If you catch yourself having an ulterior motive for posting then congratulate yourself for becoming conscious of the behaviour that is feeding this dangerous beast and address it. Post as if nobody is going to interact with it, and be fine with it. Post for yourself, because it feels authentic. Value the singular, sincere interaction you may get versus the hundreds of likes from people that may have spent less than 2 seconds engaging with your post.
People who work in the field of mental health often say ‘you are not your thoughts’. Our thought stream can be noisy and chaotic, we experience our thoughts but they are not who we are. I would like to propose the additional sentiment ‘you are not your internet presence’. You are not the photoshopped, highly groomed, eternally happy persona you have created on your profiles. Nobody is. These are merely avatars of our own creation. There are people who will be impressed or slightly star struck by those who have a very large following on media sites, but we must understand that our value as individuals is not defined by follower counts. That’s such a reductive way to quantify human existence when existence needs no quantification! My advice here is to repeat the mantra ‘you are not your internet presence’ whenever you catch yourself ruminating on your digital existence. So what if you have 1 million followers, does that make the sunset anymore spectacular? Does it make your relationships more fulfilling, your meals more delicious? Hopefully you answer no to the last three questions!
The next step is more practical as it calls for boundaries. Our electronic devices, being pocket sized, are always about our person. This makes it difficult to separate ourselves from them in the same way we do our desktop computers or televisions. It isn’t an option to boot up the PC when you’re walking in the forest, but you can easily reach for your phone. The transition from plain old telephone to multi-purpose supercomputer has happened over two decades so we almost haven’t noticed the gradual change. Ask yourself, do you display self-control by going to bed at a reasonable hour? Do you try to eat nutritious food? Moderate your alcohol consumption? I believe it's time to add content consumption to the list of things where we must exercise self-control. There will be times we overindulge or overstep our boundaries. That's perfectly acceptable, we are only human after all. The vital thing is to be aware, have a boundary in place, and forgive yourself if you go over it, then try again. Perhaps put your phone on rest mode at certain times of the day. Maybe you’ll set a timer on the social apps so that you limit your daily use. Disabling notifications is a great way to avoid distractions. Decide what healthy social media consumption looks like for you, then try to stick to it. Here’s what it looks like for me:
- All notifications are disabled except for personal, direct messages.
- Timers are set for 10 minutes each on Instagram and Facebook.
- Do not look at my phone when I am in conversation with a human being in real life, or at a special event.
- Phone is turned off between 10pm and 8am.
The last step goes hand in hand with boundaries, and that is conscious use. Only engage in social media when you are able to fully engage. If you feel bored and find yourself reaching for a quick fix of entertainment, ask yourself what could you do instead? If you have 5 minutes to wait, perhaps you could do some shoulder stretches or breathing exercises. Remind yourself how unfulfilling you find endless scrolling and choose not to do it. When you make a conscious choice to use social media, consider why. If you are looking for genuine interaction then instigate that by giving your full attention to the posts that you see and perhaps commenting on them. If the idea of interacting with others is off-putting then it begs the question, what are you looking for? Be clear on what you want to gain from social media when you use it, and aim to stick to it. For example, on my lunch break I may go on instagram to see what my close friends have posted. I will interact with those posts, then I will exit the app. If I find myself scrolling after having achieved this objective, then my use has transitioned from conscious to unconscious. Our attention drifts easily so don’t be hard on yourself when this occurs. The more consciousness you bring to your use, the easier it will become not to be sucked into the void. Your concentration is like a muscle, the more you use it, the stronger it becomes!
In summary, you can look after your mental health and regulate your social media use by using these strategies:
- Be honest, with yourself and others. Make genuine, authentic posts only. If you know that you’re only posting for validation then look deeper into why that is.
- Post as if nobody is going to interact with it, and you’re perfectly comfortable with that.
- Do not see social media as the problem itself; it is a blank canvas that reflects back what we put in. Appreciate the benefits that it offers.
- Remember that you are not your internet presence!
- Have clear boundaries about what you want your social media usage to look like.
- Use social media consciously by deciding what you want from your session and sticking to it. This helps to avoid mindless use.
Putting those bullet points into practice, I can say that I truly enjoyed writing this article. I entered a flow state, feeling passionate about what I was writing as it helped me organise my thoughts and feel positive moving forward about my own relationship with social media. During the 3 hours spent writing this I didn’t feel the need to check my socials once. If you are reading this then it means that I have posted it to my blog, but I'm quite content with the idea that nobody will ever read it. I pledge that, once posted, I shall let this go into the ether without obsessing over its performance.
I hope that anyone who sees this will join me in trying to be as authentic and conscious as possible when using social media.
All the best,