The virtual and the valuable

Last week saw the V for village campaign, celebrating the support which can be available on social media especially for new parents. I was blown away by the response and continue to be awed by the show of solidarity.

But questions were also raised about certain aspects of the campaign, and of Instagram in general. One was the cliquey-ness, another was that those squares can never replace a real life Village, a final one was the nature of social media generally. It’s given me a lot of food for thought and I wanted to share some of those thoughts.

Let’s take the cliquey element first.

You learn about something called social identity theory on undergraduate psychology courses - the idea that we base a lot of our identity on the groups we see ourselves as part of. They give us a sense of belonging in this chaotic world. What we tend to do is develop bias towards our ‘ingroup’ (and against the ‘outgroup’), which enhances our feeling of belonging further. We big up our own tribe, sometimes by doing down others. It goes back to survival of the fittest - as long as we’re the biggest, best and strongest, we’ll get on ok. You can see this in football stadiums up and down the country.

 

Generally speaking, we want to be in the ‘in-group’, because it will make us feel stronger and like we have a definite place in the world. The in-group protects its status, and the self esteem of those on the outside is damaged because it attacks their sense of belonging. That’s where cliques come from. That’s what happened due to the tagging element of the campaign- although the intention was to use tagging to spread the word about the campaign, it also created an ‘in-group’ - or rather many different in-groups - resulting in others understandably feeling excluded.

The interesting thing is that most of these social categories are pretty arbitrary- and often so fluid that we never know quite who is in the ‘in group’. Those on the outside might see a grouping that actually does not exist within.

So we feel in the ‘out-group’ when in fact there might be multiple ‘in-groups’ (and others might see us as part of an in-group too...it gets complicated!)


We see this a lot in politics and in media. Arbitrary creating of groupings - people we can aspire to be like and people we can blame for all the problems of the world. These groupings have changed throughout history, showing just how arbitrary they really are- and politicians have often used this to their advantage in blaming particular groups for problems they themselves (in my opinion) have created.


This in-group/out-group thing is particularly stark on social media. Why? Because, unlike in real life, we’re invited directly into people’s homes which gives us the opportunity to make apparently direct comparisons. We feel like we know them, we know very intimate details about their lives and we even eavesdrop on their conversations. And, because we feel in the out-group (and I’d suggest that EVERYONE feels in the out-group, even those you think are firmly in the in-group... due to our negativity bias but that’s another story!)... our self esteem suffers.


This brings me on to the element of comparison on social media. Because we see so starkly into people’s lives, we can often end up feeling that we are coming up short. It’s the same when we read magazines, or walk past beautifully lit homes- we feel that our own lives do not compare favourably. Why do we do this? Well again let’s turn to social psychology - this time social comparison theory. We are social creatures by nature, we’re evolved to be pack animals- and as a result we are constantly comparing ourselves to each other to shape our self-identity. Where this gets tricky is that how we compare has a huge impact on our self-esteem. If we compare ourselves to those we see as somehow worse off, we feel better about ourselves. Of course the opposite is true too- if we ‘upward’ compare to those we feel somehow have a higher status, we feel bad about ourselves and our lives. Although we can reason to ourselves that social media is heavily curated, its intimate nature in some way ‘tricks’ us into believing it’s not - so we can all easily get stuck in a spiral of upward comparison.


In many ways the original intention of the campaign was to move away from ingroups and outgroups, but clearly the tagging exacerbated them for some people (which was a big oversight on my part in the planning). That aside, I do still believe that it’s possible for us to break though such groups. It’s one of the benefits of social media in many ways- that people you may not feel comfortable approaching in real life are suddenly accessible and often very willing to answer your questions or have a chat. The arbitrary nature of ingroups and outgroups (and the upward hierarchies created as a result) has been beautifully demonstrated by Jane Elliott’s brown eyes/blue eyes experiment which showed how easily people will form alliances based on something as simple and meaningless as eye colour. When we can see how arbitrary these divisions are, often based on shaky evidence - we can also start to see through them and feel part of a worldwide... well, Village!


And what about the real life Village? Well, there are two elements to this- the negative sides of social media and phone use in general, and real life isolation.


Social media- as we saw last week- can provide a huge source of support. Let’s go back to the social comparison theory. When you see 500 people telling you they feel the same way as you and they support you, that’s enormously powerful and, I think, pretty magical. Also, when people are showing you their laundry piles and talking about feeling frazzled, you aren’t comparing upwards to someone’s perfect-looking life, which is very validating and boosts your self esteem.


But It does all take place within a system that is created to make you addicted. Again, one of the aims of the campaign was to highlight the value but that doesn’t mean we have to ignore the possible detrimental side effects. There are various ways in which social media- and phone use in general- can affect us negatively. Firstly, that blue screen light can leave us feeling very stimulated even when we are getting positives out of that screen. This can leave us hyped and in a state of high alert. Secondly, the little ‘heart’ we get on a photo or the ‘thumbs up’ on a post or even a reply on a comment  has the same effect on our brain as if we’d just won a prize on a fruit machine. This intermittent reinforcement is the same technique used in gambling and is highly highly addictive. It’s why we do that rotation from email to Facebook to Insta to Twitter to email- we’re waiting for our next ‘hit’.


There’s also the soporific effect of social media, and many of us use it as a habit in the same way we might have a glass of wine or turn on Made In Chelsea. It’s just engaging enough to keep us occupied but not enough that we really need to think- it puts us into a half aware trance like state. It’s a very attractive state to be in when we’re tired and stressed- but means that we don’t deal with what is making us stressed in the first place. And tiredness combined with the addictive quality of our phones is a recipe for exhaustion too, especially if we use them in bed. The immediate gratification of our phones can even lead us to seek comfort in our virtual Village to the detriment of real life relationships.


And what can we do about it? Well it seems counterintuitive to say this when you’re probably reading this on your phone, but the first thing is to put the phone down! Like any addictive habit, it should be used in moderation and if you feel that it’s affecting your daily life, look at your usage. Here are two useful articles to help https://hbr.org/2018/03/6-ways-to-counteract-your-smartphone-addiction and https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/jan/27/mobile-phone-addiction-apps-break-the-habit-take-back-control


And what about a real life Village? Well, to go back to my original post about the V is for Village campaign, many of us are lacking in a real life Village these days. Not just parents- generally as a nation we’re more isolated and lonely. We live further from our families, but it is also a worrying time that we live in, lots of ‘in-groups’ and ‘outgroups’ have been created and that’s left us suspicious and more likely to batten down the hatches. It’s also a time of hardship, which has a knock on effect of making it harder to socialise and has a direct impact on our mood. But we do need Villages- we still are those pack animals I described above (although of course we don’t all need Villages- there will always also be lone wolves). So how do we create them if we want them?


In my local area, I run a group for parents called the Village (clearly inspired by the same idea as the campaign!) We meet regularly to discuss parenting in a supportive environment. If you’re interested in setting up your own local group, I’m happy to tell you more details. Netmums often has listings of local meet ups, and the brilliant apps Mush and Peanut were set up for exactly this reason. It does take some guts to reach out sometimes, and if you’re anxious about this it’s worth looking at why, and thinking through what might help to alleviate that anxiety. 


But, even if we don’t have a particular group, we can start small. Aside from the very important social reasons we might not have a village around us, we are also living in a time when perfection is valued more highly than authenticity (there’s an awareness of this now and a bit of a backlash but even authenticity is often highly managed). It means that we have to appear to be coping even when we’re not, so it makes it very tough to reach out and begin to create connections. New parenthood particularly can raise such vulnerabilities, that making new friendships can raise really ancient insecurities that we thought were long buried. Not to mention all the other things it raises which you can read more about here https://www.mumologist.com/blog/2017/11/6/ghost-busting  But sometimes just reaching out to one person can make all the difference, forging a lifelong connection.

 

If you don’t feel able to reach out and are feeling isolated- or perhaps just feel too anxious and fear the potential for rejection, you might want to consider seeking support  in a different way. Although they’ve been drastically cut, Children’s Centres and organisations like Head Start can really help you feel more connected in the early days of parenting. And if your feelings of loneliness are getting too much, or feel like they may be affecting your mental wellbeing, then you can also speak to your GP about a referral for therapy, or looking for sources of support (private counsellors and therapists are often listed on local websites, and there are many voluntary organisations working with new parents up and down the country. Let me know if you’d like details).


There are things we can all be doing to create a Village around us, if we feel able to. Many of the posts in the #iminyourvillage campaign highlighted how meaningful small gestures can be. Looking at a parent who is dealing with a tantrum with sympathy instead of judgement, or better yet offering a helping hand. Keeping advice to ourselves and instead just listening. Taking round a meal when you visit a new parent. The more we reach out, the more people we can reach.