Social media: online platforms that supposedly enhance our social lives, making us feel more connected to other people and places. I know that the virtual world certainly has its benefits; it lets us keep in touch with people, and to come across new people (I was lucky enough to first meet one of my closest friends through Tumblr) and new perspectives. Through online networks, we can also come by inspiration for various things (a word of advice here: Pinterest is indisputably the one for room decor inspo).
That being said, however, personally, I have found that whenever I am feeling particularly dissatisfied or mentally uneasy, I notice that there has been a spike in my social media activity (or, rather, inactivity, when I am scrolling aimlessly through my Instagram newsfeed). Granted, the direction of causation is unclear here: do I attempt to purge my sorrows by looking at aesthetically pleasing pictures of books, buildings, and beautiful things … or does the virtual realm actively contribute to my sense of sadness? Perhaps the answer to this is a more circular one, and an increasing number of us find ourselves trapped in the vicious cycle of the lofty expectations and subsequent dissatisfaction that social apps can impose on us.
You may have already heard about the shocking finding that receiving ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ on social media typically has psychological and physiological effects that parallel those of heroin consumption. Social media, our digital drug, has utterly consumed us. Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr… the logos of these social media giants are plastered all over shop windows and tourist attractions. Many of us use them for hours on end, every single day.
Recently, numerous celebrities and other avid social media users have posted about their love-hate struggles with their digital lives. Many have taken the decision to dispose of their accounts altogether; many others have resorted to undertaking lengthy social media hiatuses.
As well as the plethora of mental health issues that can arise from or be worsened by the overconsumption of digital content, it could be argued that the epidemic of social media warps our reality, and replaces it with a falsified ‘Insta-reality’: our experiences are commodified, made as ‘picture-perfect’ as possible, in order to be shared online. It could also be argued that the online element only adds to our perceptions of reality: we naturally enjoy relaying our thoughts and experiences to others (often in a rather filtered way). Does it really matter if what is being said is conveyed through our screens in lieu of our facial expressions, voices, and physical proximity?
When analysing the effects of social media, it is easy to fall into the trap – that great human bias of ours – of looking at the past through rose-tinted spectacles, and at the present through a lens of mistrust. Life must have been sweeter back then – and interpersonal relationships more soulful or romantic – when our means of communication were limited to face-to-face interactions, and beautifully handwritten letters. In truth, this probably wasn’t the case: humans have always been great narcissists, nosy parkers, perfectionists, procrastinators, and so on. Social media simply provides a digital stage onto which the best (and worst) elements of the human condition can be projected.
Another crucial question to be asked: is there really a solid line that delineates between our ‘in-real-life’ and online selves? The postmodernist view is that the distinction between media and reality has become (irreversibly) blurred. ‘Real life’, surely, is a product of our experiences – whatever we see, touch, feel, smell, taste, and, most crucially, think. Our realities depend on the manner in which we process the things around us – including the things we see online. But what detracts from whatever claims to authenticity social media might have is its often very ‘filtered’ nature. People are very particular with what they post online: streams of glamorous and ‘aesthetic’ posts can lead to – and has led to – the development of the view that anything that is ‘ordinary’, mundane, commonplace, and messy, is substandard.
However, it is true that the issue of the selective presentation of ourselves exists offline too: people are also rather selective with which thoughts they allow themselves to translate into physical behaviour and speech. We are inherently prone to filtering ourselves – so perhaps, instead of being a threat to our fundamental collective human nature, social media is a direct product of it.
Ultimately, it would be rather ignorant and small-minded of me to claim that the effect of social media is only detrimental to us: there are certainly benefits to increased connectivity. But these online platforms have exacerbated certain negative conditions – FOMO (fear of missing out), jealousy, feelings of dissatisfaction and inadequacy, issues with body image, and more. Social media exposes us more to the world – both its good sides, and its darker sides.
But the most alarming aspect of the whole debate, in my view, is the fact that social media has become a drug to which many of us find ourselves helpelessly addicted. And, just like any other drug, people need increasingly large doses of social media to sustain their addictions. In fact, withdrawal symptoms are often experienced in its absence. And often, instead of ‘living in the moment’, we find ourselves responding to cognitive itches by obsessively and anxiously picking up our phones, unfathomably desperate to know what others are doing, or how we are being perceived by them, or which shade of lipstick Kylie Jenner has chosen to wear today.
My ambivalent ramblings towards social media conclude themselves here: everything that is good, is good in moderation. And sometimes, in order to recharge yourself, you must first unplug yourself from the often deceptive and all-consuming world of social media.
Sadia Ahmed, 2018