Digital Breakdown: How Social Media Affects Mental Health

I’m not that old, I’m only 29. My generation is the last to transition from a world without social media to a world with it. Before you skip ahead a few pages to avoid some cranky diatribe about how social media is bad, give this a chance. I do not think that social media is all bad. No, it has a lot of good to offer us. But we’d be foolish not to see the emotional toll it takes on us. Social media can bring us together, but also drive us apart.

As someone living with anxiety and depression — taking daily medication to keep me upright — social media puts me on high alert. While the various platforms bill themselves as a way to connect us with one another, the emotional byproducts can be grim. The very features boasted by platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram make us focus on the wrong things: we’re concerned about our friend count and our likes, we misrepresent ourselves to meet an unrealistic standard, and we compare our lives to the lives of others.

These platforms are convenient and streamlined, of that there can be no doubt. But is it helping to bring us together as real people in the real world? In-person communication has become a hindrance for many, instead favoring the digital alternative to face-to-face contact. Often for people raised solely in the social media age, in-person communication is to be avoided unless absolutely necessary. Phone calls and tough conversations are replaced with texts, emails, and direct messages.

My point is this: social media holds an unprecedented wealth of social power. It does bring us together and connect us to people we otherwise would never come into contact with but for all of that, it’s changing us — and not all for the better.

Redefining Friendship

As I mentioned, I’m 29-years-old. I was born in 1990 and there wasn’t a great deal of advanced technology at my disposal. The internet existed, but it was slow, very slow. Today’s children are born into a time of superior technology. As soon as their little brains can comprehend and their little hands can function enough, they’ll be on an iPad or their parent’s iPhone or perhaps their own phone. My first cell phone was a Nokia with a blue screen and interchangeable faceplates. It was incapable of anything mischievous, especially something lurid. My first email address was on the original dial-up America Online client. In case you were wondering, my screenname was “Mario07662,” which was of course named after the iconic Nintendo character and my postal code. Pretty cool kid, must’ve had tons of friends.

I digress. Point being, my introduction to the internet was slow and spread out over a number of years while the technology caught up to where it is now. There was no Facebook in my world, no MySpace, no Twitter, no Instagram — at least not until I was in high school. I had nothing to compare my life against, nothing to live up to, nothing to get upset about, nothing to promote. It was an excellent time to be a human. Present technology is extraordinary, don’t get me wrong. It’s rather impressive. However, given the choice, I wouldn’t want to grow up with it.

When I was introduced to MySpace in 2005, my eighth-grade year, it was a whole new world for me and my friends. It was hard enough to gain any social traction without having to manage a profile and internet presence.

Enter MySpace.

MySpace had two big — but often overlooked — features which at the time seemed innocuous, but proved to be everything but. The first feature was the friend count. It used to be that you knew who you hung out with, who you were close with, who you didn’t like, and who you knew. Very few people, especially eighth-grade students, had an accurate figure as to how many friends they had.

That ended with the friend count. Young, impressionable kids of all ages received the gift/curse of quantifiable friendship. Much like talks of financial wealth, the friend count placed the importance on the number, with the implication being that a higher friend count is the objective. How meaningful a friendship might be was lost to a figure that was hopefully the highest in your class. The friend count sends the wrong message that what matters is the quantity of friends, not the quality.

The second unsettling MySpace feature introduced was the ability to choose, rank, and display your top eight friends on your profile. Users were encouraged to choose their favorite friends and where they stand in some sort of relationship hierarchy. This too seemed quite important at the time, and arguably more so than the friend count. Never before had we as young humans known quite where we stood with our friends. Worse still, this top-eight ended up being an interesting social experiment whereby users such as myself would rearrange the top-eight depending on what had happened over the course of a day or even a few hours, bumping friends depending on their behavior. Such a power to classify people is too great for us.

And all of this before Facebook.

Reality Disconnect — “Compare and Despair”

It goes without saying that we cultivate our own online existences. We choose what we want on our various profiles, separating the wheat from the chaff. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. After all, we do some form of that with our appearances. The limitation there is that we can only do so much. We still have our real selves to contend with, and so short of plastic surgery, what you see is what you get.

Those limitations are cast out in social media. We can represent ourselves in the best possible light, and leave out literally any of the things we don’t like. We can photograph ourselves only at our best, spending hours getting the perfect shot. We can take pictures of our vacation. We can post status updates about the great things we’re doing.

Wanting to be seen in the best light is fine, but when we’re all posturing to do so, it becomes a problem. We begin to see this disconnect from reality. With everyone posting the best aspects of their life, we all seem to think that our friends and acquaintances are doing well at all times.

That isn’t true of anyone.

We all stumble, we all have those habits and behaviors that we’d rather no one know about. Some of us drink too much, some of us get in savage fights with our loved ones, and some of us just aren’t nice — but we portray ourselves online as though all of us are always on vacation, taking in glorious vistas.

All of this behavior yields a few interesting, yet troubling results. In seeing everyone’s perfect pictures, we set an impossible standard for ourselves. Our lives must be that good, otherwise, what are we doing? But not everyone can be so fortunate — and that’s fine. In setting these unreachable bars, we compare ourselves to others and find ourselves depressed that we don’t measure up. This phenomenon, known as “compare and despair,” isn’t all that new. When we compare our own life against that of someone else, it only serves to bring us down. Inevitably, we find incongruities and conclude that we’re worse off — the flipside, of course, being a dark satisfaction in the misfortune of others.

“We don’t realize how much we do have,” said Dr. Deborah Pontillo, a child psychologist. “We do have a lot. Yes, there will always be people who have more, but we do have a lot.”

A study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine reported that 25% of young adults spending roughly 61 minutes per day on social media had showed substantial signs of depression. That same study also showed that those who used social media more often than 61 minutes per day had close to triple those signs of depression.

Another study published in the Journal of Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry found that adolescent social media users identified, “stress, low self-esteem, depression and suicidal ideation as likely negative consequences of social media. This was despite reporting that it can help to connect people and be a source of support.” Additionally, the study found that, “The emotional consequences were reported as causing low mood in young people as they argued that social media brings you down and they indirectly blamed social media (and other media) for lowering self-esteem in adolescents because of photo-shopped images.”

Talking is Dead

One of the most alarming things I’ve noticed as someone raised before the advent of social media is that in-person conversation is much less common. For social platforms designed to foster socialization, they are failing to bolster that connectivity in the real world. When all social interaction is conducted online, it renders in-person contact undesirable. Why talk when you’re in constant contact online? I’m sure you too have seen a group of people gathered in park or café, all of them on their phones, not a word spoken.

A paper published in the Journal of Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, written by Guadalupe Espinoza and Dr. Jaana Juvonen, titled “The Pervasiveness, Connectedness, and Intrusiveness of Social Network Sites Use Among Young Adolescents” found that the use of social media showed a reduction in person-to-person contact, and an increase in social isolation, stress, and depression.

The lack of personal contact leads to all manner of strange behavior, but the most obvious being the obsession with “sharing.” Sharing used to be something that friends did on phone calls or in person, but that has changed. Instead of telling a specific friend or friends about a noteworthy experience, we now simply share it online.

But, “sharing” is a generous term for this activity. “Sharing” presumes a mutual exchange, but when you put information or photographs out there regardless of who wants it or who is affected by it, aren’t you just sharing at people? It’s an inherently anti-social behavior akin to bragging. The climate of sharing is like a conversation where both participants are waiting for their turn to talk rather than listening — and all this just to prove to everyone else that you did something.

Going Forward

I left Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram in 2015. Only in late-2017 did I return to Instagram as an outlet for my artwork and writing, but not a personal profile. Point being, I left. I didn’t like what I saw, and I didn’t like what it was doing to me. I was constantly comparing myself to others, and I found myself posting about things that ordinarily I wouldn’t mention to anyone — books I read, records I bought, food I ate. I wasn’t sharing to keep people abreast of my life, I was sharing as proof that I did these things.

I don’t want people to leave social media. Many people do enjoy it, and that’s great. At its best, social media is a unifier. But we can’t pretend that it has no downside. Social isolation, depression, and a skewed sense of reality also come with the interconnectivity.

Instead, I’m making a plea for moderation and balance. Use social media, go ahead. But also take stock of your reality. Who loves you, who cares for you, who you spend time with — these are the things that matter. We cannot exchange our real-world beauty for digital fabrications. There is so much to be had, so much wonder in being present.

Don’t miss it because you’re on your phone.

Published by Christopher Goodlof

Writer, Visual Artist, Musician

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