CN: Depression, anxiety
Social media undoubtedly taps into some very positive aspects of human sociality; we use it to find validation, to share interesting or amusing things, for grass-roots political action and to some extent to create communities. There are aspects of social media that are positive for my mental health – people liking photographs on Instagram, staying up having long random conversations with friends on messenger, finding and sharing cool events, opportunities and memes. Yet, looking back, Facebook played a part in making my first few terms at Cambridge so anxious and largely miserable.
The introverted side of me found the constant IRL socializing of fresher’s term overwhelming and tiring enough. But Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram meant that I was never truly away from it even when alone – the huge stressor of being thrown into a new, extroverted and confident social environment became inescapable.
If you are lonely, insecure and anxious about your social situation, your Facebook feed will often fail to make you feel better about yourself and your life. From my timeline, it appeared that people had already made exclusive best friends for life and settled into bounded impenetrable social circles. This becomes a vicious cycle; being anxious about your social situation, you are drawn to Facebook to see what other people are doing and to try to work out where you stand yet inevitably come away feeling more anxious, depressed and lonely than before.
Of course this material I was observing was the result of other people, similarly concerned to have friends and be seen to have friends, posting pictures of themselves in each other’s arms, captioned with in-jokes and declarations of love. While people use Facebook to validate and find recognition of their friendships, this facility also creates a dynamic of an intense and constant popularity competition. Of course, popularity competitions are not a new thing, but Facebook provides a public platform for people to play this game and demonstrate their success to others. What is considered a normal social life is inflated through careful (though perhaps unconscious) editing and selection.
For introverts who are often more satisfied by a small number of very close friends (which will by the nature of these friendships be rare to find and take a long time to develop), judging yourself according to this competition is likely to be particularly detrimental for your sense of self-worth.
“Without romanticising a pre-internet past, I find that even a day of being totally switched off from social media can be very stress relieving and empowering.”
In terms of the practicalities of escaping this negative impact, un-following people who made me feel particularly second rate and uninstalling the Facebook app from my phone were steps that improved my mental health considerably.
Without romanticising a pre-internet past, I find that even a day of being totally switched off from social media can be very stress relieving and empowering. I have also had to consciously change my mindset – rather than constantly engaging in other people’s lives and friendships, I find that enjoying my own time, in my own space, by myself, is incredibly grounding and can help break the cycle of constant comparison and declining self-worth.
Taking this time to be completely alone when alone has also helped me to relax in social situations, taking every interaction for what it is, without constantly overthinking where a given relationship is heading.
Facebook has become so pervasive in our lives – curating everything from cultural events, support groups and fandoms, mainstream and local news and politics and organising our lives in the different communities to which we belong. To give it up would be inconvenient and result in missing out. Yet, I think that precisely because of its success and ubiquitous nature, we need to think about the effect that it is having on our mental health and find ways of reaping its benefits whilst controlling for the drawbacks.