It’s Saturday night and around the country people are sitting down to watch The Voice. Or it could be Love Island, or the Only Way is Essex, or Real Housewives. Reality TV, which became popular in the early 90s (remember the Real World?) showed us that anyone could (should?) be famous. And while we watch, we scroll on our phones, reading about the lives of people who have become famous, even if just on these little squares. I mean, just look at how profile pages are presented on social media. Individuals framed in a unique page, kings and queens of that little castle. Newsfeeds become like gossip pages in magazines, consuming our attention with the features of people’s daily lives. It’s all too easy to enter into that competition, so these spaces become platforms to present ourselves rather than communities to connect with.
Of course, this is where comparison comes in. I’ve talked before about the importance of social referencing for humans. We are social creatures and we make meaning in our lives through checking our status in comparison with other people. So if others’ showcase their lives or experiences, it becomes normal for us to do the same. Not everyone, of course, feels the need to do this. More than a quarter of the U.K. population use Instagram, even more use Facebook (although its numbers are in decline particularly since the Cambridge Analytica outcry), Snapchat is used by nearly a quarter of the population and Twitter nearly 20%. But that’s a lot of people who don’t use social media. And we can forget that, to the majority of people, what goes on in these squares is not on their radar.
So what drives us to enter into this virtual world? The GlobalWebIndex social report last year found that, while most people still use social media to keep in touch with friends, almost as many use it as a source of news and information. This is where social media can be truly powerful- both for positive (many people use social media for health promotion and to encourage engagement in social change, and it’s been very beneficial for mental health awareness) and negative (clearly I’m thinking about Trump and Brexit here- but also the clean eating wave which led to a whole new classification of eating disorder).
Almost as many again just use it to while away time. And this is where the comparison, which just taps away in the background, can start to become a bit dangerous. There are two sides to this- what we see and what we present. Even if you just lurk, seeing the heavily curated feeds of others’ lives can leave us feeling inadequate and anxious. How many times have you found yourself buying something just because you saw it on Instagram? Just like in magazines, social media can sell us the myth that we, too, can have this life if we were only to buy this product. And, if you don’t, and suddenly see that everyone else managed to get that Marks & Spencer dress then you can begin to feel inadequate and out of the loop.
But unlike magazines, there are two other aspects to social media that we can find tricky. First, it’s addictive nature, which can lead to using social media as a form of emotional regulation – scrolling instead of dealing with whatever is on your mind. One study found almost 10% of undergraduate students used social media in an addicted way, which is a pretty significant proportion don’t you think? Some elements are more addictive than others. They’re designed to be so. The endless scroll means we never get the satisfaction of feeling we have completed something, and Stories which automatically continue can suck us into a scrolling vortex (the same reason it’s so hard to turn off Netflix and instead we sit there waiting for the next programme to start. That little countdown timer abdicates us of the responsibility to control our usage).
Secondly, when you read a magazine you might take in the content but you’re not expected to produce it. And that’s where a whole new pressure comes in – the fame angle. It’s not a new thing to covet fame – way back when, Alexander the Great wanted to become known for achieving what no one had ever achieved, and Andy Warhol famously recognized everyone’s desire to have even their 15 minutes of fame. But celebrity is newer, seeking notoriety. And, just like reality TV, these platforms enable anyone to become somewhat of a celebrity.
Why is fame so attractive? And, perhaps, why is it more attractive to us now than before? Why are our own, ordinary lives not good enough?
Social referencing helps again here, often studies have found that people who seek fame often desire a feeling of acceptance. When what you say, and do, become interesting to others, it validates our very existence. Often, researchers who have studied fame seeking behaviour have linked it to previous feelings of rejection. Becoming known helps us to feel seen, when previously we have felt ignored. In the context of social media, this creates quite a vicious cycle, of feeling inadequate and thus seeking reassurance or validation. In the context we're currently living in - when money is tight, the services around us which could offer security are crumbling, the world feels unfamiliar and the future is uncertain - how could we not feel insecure?
Of course, studies of fame have often found that people don’t find the meaning and purpose that they had hoped to (described beautifully by Cameron Diaz). Leading to more feelings of inadequacy, and potentially more of a search for validation.
So how do we break that cycle? It’s worth knowing the ways in which social media can be positive, and where the pitfalls lie, so that we can actively plan our usage. As you all know by now, I believe strongly in the power of community on social media and how beneficial this can be particularly when you are feeling isolated. The more that we are aware of the downsides, the more we can protect ourselves and emphasise the ‘social’ in social media. If you notice that you are using social media to seek validation, you might want to question how helpful this is to you, and think of all the other ways you could find meaning. You just need to look up.
Five quick tips to stay healthy on social media
1 Notice why you’re using it. To connect with friends? To form new communities? To learn? Or to seek validation? It’s really worth acknowledging your motivations, and asking yourself whether they are helpful or harmful to you.
2 Notice when you’re using it. Often we choose what media we consume based on our mood at the time, for example we often turn to music and may be more likely to use social media when bored. If you’re using it instead of dealing with difficult feelings, that’s a clear sign of an unhelpful coping strategy and prolonging the agony of dealing with whatever is underlying your feelings.
3 Notice what you find harder to walk away from and limit it. For example set yourself a five minute limit on viewing Stories, or don’t watch them at all.
4 Be clear about your boundaries. If you use your phone for work, you can write your ‘office hours’ on your social media profiles, so people are aware you’re not always available.
5 Set boundaries with yourself too. Perhaps you switch off at 8pm, or you don’t pick up your phone until after 9am. Our phones are with us all the time, and picking them up becomes an addictive habit. If you want to cut down, treat it in the same way you would if you were cutting down on alcohol. Limit your access by putting your phone out of reach or engaging other people to help you monitor your use. Apps like Moment and Forest are really helpful to promote such change.