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Do you live in the real world? Or does your mind often wander to the realms of the fake social media existence we all curate in pixels and perpetuity?
If you’re reading this on the World Wide Web, you’re probably one of the 3 billion people on Planet Earth – almost half the population – who use social media. Let’s be honest, you’ve probably used social media to get here right now. Welcome, and guilty as charged.
Now, on to the big question nobody has yet been able to properly answer: How do you use social media?
Despite the best efforts of your new-to-Facebook mum and her first cousin twice removed, teens are the most active demographic on social media and they use it, on average, nine hours a day – more time than they spend sleeping.
You might think mindlessly scrolling through food porn and #spon posts is harmless, aspirational and actually quite fun.
After all, who doesn’t love getting tagged in a meme by BAE?
But, here’s the inconvenient truth: How some of us use social media is damaging to our mental health.
Social media gets a bad rep but it’s just an inanimate tool for human use. The devastating consequences of social media are on us, as a society.
Bailey Parnell, an expert in Marketing, Communications and Culture at Ryerson University, thinks ‘anything we spend this much time doing has lasting effects on us and requires critical analysis’.
Parnell, a self-confessed fan of social media, wants to equip everyone online with the understanding of the four stressors we experience on social media which, ‘if left unchecked, can go onto to cause serious, diagnosable mental illness’.
The first is the ‘Highlight Reel’.
In other words, the notion social media is simply a collection of our best and brightest moments, a fake social media reality unrepresentative of the lives we live every minute of every day.
In practise, it’s not the worst thing in the world to show off your best side, as you would in a family photo album or a dating profile.
The damage comes when we compare our behind-the-scenes moments with everyone else’s highlight reel, Parnell says.
Even those who create the content which started the phenomenon feel immense pressure to live up to their own standards, despite understanding better than most exactly how false our perfectly curated feeds are these days.
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Pia Muehlenbeck, social media influencer and Market Editor at GRAZIA Australia, explained:
It’s very easy to get sucked in to the trap of believing that everything you see on someone’s Instagram is perfection. In reality, it’s a curated version of the best bits.
Although her Instagram existence is designed to look like a walk in the park, Pia told UNILAD she prefers to responsibly post reminders that ‘we’re all just imperfect humans doing the best we can each day’ over constant pictorial aesthetic perfection.
Anyway, perceived perfection is a time-consuming pursuit, Pia said, showing UNILAD her camera roll which is full of hundreds of takes for every shot she posts to social media.
Also a qualified lawyer, Pia admitted her new job in social media requires her to ‘take 200 photos to get one good selfie’, which ‘generates 50Gb to 70Gb of photos and videos a day’ when she’s working.
But why do we all care so much what we look like on social media when most of us would be happy to pop to the shops in the real world with crisps down our jumpers and grease in our hair?
Well, social media has its very own social currency where likes, comments and shares become our way of measuring the value of something – or worse, someone.
You wouldn’t be annoyed or upset if no one ‘double-tapped’ you in the street – if anything, you’d find it an invasion of space if they did.
But the normal rules don’t apply in the social media bubble – a heightened, filtered version of reality where you are conditioned to expect positive social interaction.
Our social media versions have become so normalised and blurred with reality, some people have even tried to get surgery to look like filters on Snapchat. One doctor dubbed it Snapchat Dysmorphia.
In marketing, Parnell says, it’s fuelled by something else. And that’s stressor number two – The Economy of Attention.
It all started with MSN messenger on dial-up Internet, when the world seemed to open up from the comfort of your living room. Then there was Bebo, where you used to ‘share da luv’ with three of your Top 10 Friends, in a daily ritual exchange reserved for the ‘best’ people.
Later the social media site du jour became Myspace, where the notion of Pc4Pc (picture comment for picture comment, d’uh) encouraged everyone to start trading social media reactions like commodities, caring less about who liked your pictures than the sum total of love hearts or thumbs up.
Some people even became ‘MySpace famous’, which was a good thing, apparently, long before Instagram influencers started earning a salary in exchange for their pixellated popularity.
We have been voluntarily trading ourselves for attention online in these transactions for years.
So, what happens went those transactions stop? Welcome to the third stressor: FOMO.
Yes, the acronym for ‘the fear of missing out’ might sound silly, especially when it’s emblazoned across £20 t-shirts from TopShop. But it’s an actual social anxiety which existed before social media and is heightened in the age of peak online activity.
How many times have you thought to yourself you’d get rid of social media if it weren’t for the worry you’d be left out of the loop by your friends who still drink the Kool Aid? How many times have you claimed you ‘need’ social media for your work?
Digital detoxes, for example, are fashionable but only when you can come back to the social media sphere and tell your friends about it through the medium of the emoji. Or the status update. Or the perfectly curated selfie of your time off.
In her TED Talk, Parnell points to the phantom phone syndrome she herself experienced during a conscious digital detox, saying many of us are ‘so obsessed we have biological responses when we can’t participate’ in social media interaction.
One way we can empirically measure social media and its effects on our mental health is to examine these biological reactions. Scientists found another direct mental disorder beamed to our brains straight from our phones is social media addiction.
It takes a minimum of just 21 days to create a habit.
Almost anyone with Wi-Fi can become addicted to social media because the functions of your favourite websites are designed to give you a shot of the feel-good chemical, dopamine.
You feel impatient watching the spinning wheel as you go to refresh the Facebook news feed, and it feels good when the wheel disappears and you have something new to engage with; but think about it. The wheel is a decorative cue.
Likewise, your notifications pop up in little red boxes, the colour which scientists have proven creates a sense of urgency.
A web designer in Silicon Valley, who no doubt knows all about so-called persuasive technology, designed that little spinning wheel, and the rings and dings which mark a new message with a purpose; to pull you in, hook, line and sinker.
These small signifiers are so ingrained into our ways of seeing now, and they all contribute to creating a social media habit; good, bad or ugly. But if you live by people’s compliments you could die by their criticism.
What happens when the notifications come through and it’s an unkind message, or a video of graphic violence, or any kind of online harassment?
This is the fourth and final stressor of social media and it’s usually the one which triggers tragedy in young people – depression, anxiety, fear, sadness, even suicidal thoughts.
Trolling, abuse, bullying, whatever name you call it by, the Pew Research Centre found 41 per cent of American adults have experienced it and 66 per cent have witnessed it – from the jokes made in jest which hurt a little more than you’ll let on, to the cruel comments designed to cut to the core of your insecurities, to systematic cyberbullying and even sick suicide games.
Now imagine what it’s like for kids. According to the NSPCC, a quarter of all children have experienced something upsetting on a social networking site.
Likewise, the NHS is presented with some patients who claim social media ‘exacerbates problems of loneliness by discouraging offline, real-world interactions’, said Nicky Fearon, the Head of Student Mental Health and Wellbeing at Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust.
Fearon told UNILAD scientific understanding of the consequences of social media on mental health is in its infancy, adding ‘evidence has come to light on both positive and negative impacts that may be associated with social media use’.
Whatever your (almost inevitable) experience of harassment online – a place where many of us find our sense of self and worth – it all builds up over time.
Online spaces can offer respite, solace and community to marginalised sufferers but, while social media is trying to combat the adverse effects elicited by its own little online bubble, it’s not enough.
In fact, it’s too much. Social media, for all its good, is a breeding ground for the worst of humanity – as well as a spotlight on it.
Moreover, as some users increasingly outsource their ability to think for themselves or connect organically, global news is condensed into small soundbites, and separation from troubling current affairs is hard to come by, jeopardising our personal sense of security and safety.
Despite widespread distrust and recent difficulties over at Facebook HQ, after the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the departure of Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, social media is part of our reality now and Parnell predicts it’s not going anywhere for sometime.
She believes ‘abstinence is not an option anymore’ but jokes we can all empower ourselves to practise “safe social”.
Quipping that ‘you wouldn’t blame Samsung TV for a bad TV show’, Parnell said:
Social media is neither good nor bad, it’s just the most recent tool we use to do what we’ve always done; tell stories and communicate with each other.
Parnell says step one in achieving “safe social” – in other words, an online experience which doesn’t harm your physical or mental health – is to recognise the problem.
So, congratulations, you just completed step one by reading this article or watching her TED Talk.
Next, Parnell recommends monitoring your social media diet to create a better online experience and modelling good social media behaviours.
No one likes the idea of limiting life’s little pleasures, but once social media is gone you might realise how miserable it was making you. And if trolling online is your idea of fun, you should check yourself.
At the ripe old age of 26 – more millennial than iGen – I refuse to delete my accounts entirely, but recently removed all the social media icons from my smartphone’s home screen.
Now, without being confronted by the tempting notifications every time I go to make a call or check the weather, I find I only use the apps when I’m actually bored and can’t find a good book to read.
Being somewhat of an Instagram obsessive since the good ol’ days when your feed was just a constant flow of timely and pretty pictures, I also muted the InstaStories of every single person I follow – even my closest friends.
Now, I don’t have to pretend I don’t already know, in step-by-step detail, when I ask what they did at the weekend.
I made up my mind to get my news from the radio every morning instead of from Twitter, where the comments, replies and @’s create so much negative white noise.
Much as I love her, I unfollowed Emily Ratajkowski on the ‘Gram because, while her thoughts on Planned Parenthood and feminism on Twitter inspire me, her pictures on Instagram don’t.
I unfollowed President Donald Trump too, sorry not sorry.
Parnell notes this is much easier for me, with my fully-fledged adult brain and apparent self-assurance, confidence and ability to think critically than it is for a child.
Social media’s impacts on mental health are particularly hard to overcome for children now, during a time when they ‘start going outside the family to seek social acceptance’, and their parents aren’t native speakers in the online language.
Parnell tells UNILAD more work needs to happen to build kids’ self-awareness, confidence, and self-assurance offline so they have the tools to handle whatever they encounter online.
Parents need to get educated on #SafeSocial and discuss it with your children, similar to how you discuss other risky behaviours like drinking, smoking, and sex.
I also recommend parents force face-to-face communication with their kids, whether that’s around a dinner table or however you like to do it. It is still critical for communication skills.
In the interests of avoiding painting a picture of my own fake social media existence, I must admit I still find myself in YouTube rabbit holes marvelling at the mastery of some make-up artists or the idiocy of Jake and Logan Paul.
But nobody’s perfect.
And therein lies the point: Nobody is perfect, even if they might look it online, and keeping up with the fake social media reality is a pointless pursuit because it doesn’t exist in the real world – and it doesn’t have to ruin your mental health along the way.
Presented by the World Federation of Mental Health, today is World Mental Health Day. The goal is to help raise mental health awareness.
Talking is often the first step to moving forward. While talking about mental health is vital, UNILAD are calling for action.
We are petitioning the government to improve mental health services offered on the NHS for young people, who sometimes have to wait ten years from the moment they experience their first symptoms to get adequate treatment.
If you’re experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is there to support you. They’re open from 5pm–midnight, 365 days a year.
Their national number is 0800 58 58 58, and they also have a webchat service if you’re not comfortable talking on the phone.
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