Social Media: The real-life Dementor.
The not-so-realistic reality of social media and the insatiable hunger for recognition it promotes.
I’ve recently created a fitness Instagram account, on top of my personal Instagram account. I created it with the intention of tracking my progress whilst receiving and sharing motivation and inspiration (or should I say 'fitspo') to and from others.
It’s been three months since I started this fitness account and I’m still trying to determine whether or not it is serving any good in my life. I’m struggling to establish whether it brings me any happiness or whether it is actually causing me discontent as I find myself comparing my body to others’ and continually seeking validation from strangers.
Although I’m sure support and approval from others can help boost a person’s confidence, I’m quite certain that no amount of external validation can fundamentally alter a person’s beliefs about themselves. At least for me, I doubt that all the likes or followers or kind comments in the world could truly change the way I see myself. That is something I can only come to on my own.
This notion of external validation can be seen in Eric Berne's concept of 'strokes'. As psychiatrist and creator of Transactional Analysis, Berne believed that the notion of infants desiring physical contact (aka 'strokes') can be applied to adults too. For adults, however, these 'strokes' do not have to be physical; in lieu of physical stimulation adults substitute it for some other kind of recognition, whether that be symbolic, verbal, gesticulative, or perhaps even digital. It is in this way that 'strokes' represent a social action which at its core incorporates recognition.
These strokes can be positive (intended by the stroker to be pleasurable- a hug, smile or compliment), or negative (intended by the stroker to be unpleasurable- a shove, frown or insult). In the desperation of what Berne has termed as ‘recognition-hunger’, any stroke, positive or negative, is better than none. It seems feeling insulted or dejected is better than feeling invisible, unimportant or rejected.
With this in mind, it could be said that in this digital age many of us have replaced the need for physical contact or recognition with the virtual recognition we now so frequently receive from distant friends or even strangers online. But can the click of the like button really be as affirming as a genuine smile from a stranger? Are we losing a part of ourselves and our inherent capacity to be social creatures in substituting physical interactions for these intangible strokes?
There is a lot to be said from the increasing revelations that some of the biggest influencers on social media, with millions of followers and supporters, are also some of the most depressed, anxious and mentally unstable. Fame, which is no more than the appraisal of others, does not, in many cases, lead to happiness. In most cases, it is a burden which leads to distress and misery.
Yet so many of us still aspire to that status and so many of us find ourselves unable to say no to social media.
As research for this blog post I read journalist and social media influencer, Katherine Ormerod's book Why Social Media is Ruining Your Life.
It was a very eye-opening read, so I thought I'd share some of the most disturbing facts revealed within it.
“Most of us will spend a staggering 7 years of our lives on our phones.”
"25% of teenage girls in the UK have been diagnosed with mental health issues."
“Just 1 hour a day on social networks reduces the probability of a teenager being happy by around 14%.”
"Teens 'overusing' social media with 5 hours or more of daily engagement were 70% more likely to have suicidal thoughts or actions than those who reported 1 hour of daily use."
"Over social media's lifetime in the UK there's been a rise of self-poisoning by girls of 50%, an increase in hospital admissions for self-harm among girls by 68%, and a 400% increase in girls being treated in hospital for cutting themselves."
It seems that there is a clear and strong correlation between social media and mental health related issues, and this is particularly the case for young girls.
So what exactly is it that is so damaging about social media?
When my parents moan at me for being on my phone too much, I often like to argue that scrolling through Instagram viewing real people is no worse, and if anything more informative, than what they do when they spend hours watching fictional lives on a tv show, movie or when reading them in a book... Right?
But stop and ask yourself this: Are you always conscious of the fact that what you are seeing on social media is not real nor attainable? ... The answer is probably no.
What has become the problem then, is that people are creating these unrealistic, fictional lives on social media and staging them as reality. Whereas we know the books we are reading and tv shows we are watching are pure fiction, many people are understandably fooled by the actuality of what they see on social media. And this is particularly the case for young, impressionable girls. What is so often the artificial, touched-up and posed material seen on social media becomes the measure of normal and reality for many consumers. They begin to expect that for themselves, and when they, inevitably, can’t reach that measure of false perfection, they begin to question and even dislike themselves, thus experiencing lower self-esteem and happiness in general.
Like a dementor then, social media seems to be draining the peace, happiness and hope of all who enter its realm. The happiness that is seeping out however, is so slow and steady that we barely seem to notice it. What is more noticeable is the immediate gratification we receive from social media; the boredom that is momentarily eased; the security that is artificially felt and the recognition (strokes) that is insincerely and ineffectually given.
In an experiment exploring people's ability to simply sit in solitude un-entertained for up to 15 minutes, 1/4 of the women and 2/3 of the men opted to experience painful electric shocks (a rather extreme kind of physical 'stroke'), rather than be left alone with their thoughts. In another study teens revealed they would rather lose their sense of smell than never be able to go on their phones again!
If you feel a similar sense of panic upon separation of your phone, or if the idea of giving up social media seems like an insufferable form of torture, it may be worth asking yourself the following questions to assess whether you are in fact addicted to your phone:
Salience – how deeply ingrained is your phone in your life?
Tolerance – are you using your phone an increasing amount?
Euphoria – do you experience excitement or satisfaction before or after using your phone?
Conflict – is your phone getting in the way of life and relationships?
Withdrawal – do you panic or feel uncomfortable when separated from your phone?
Relapse – have you tried to go without your phone or use it less and failed?
Since reading Ormerod's book and being faced with the unacceptable reality that I may at this rate waste away 7 years of my life staring at a rectangle of metal which holds the power to negatively impact my physical health, mental health, relationships and much more, it's safe to say I’ve made a few changes to my social media habits.
I no longer look at my phone first thing in morning or last thing before bed.
I no longer scroll aimlessly through my phone. I use it purposefully.
I have reduced and intend to keep my screen time down to less than 2 hours a day.
I no longer follow or take notice of people who make me feel worse about myself.
I seek validation internally rather than externally.
So, although I will not be deleting any of my social media accounts or going phone-free, (and although there are many positive aspects to social media that I have chosen to overlook for the sake of sharing this important message), the need to be far more cautious and conscious when it comes to the content I consume remains clear, and that is something I will certainly be implementing going forwards.