Finding Fulfillment Friendship Happiness Reflections

Socially Distant: Why I Left Social Media When We Needed It Most

It could have been the lifeline we needed for overcoming isolation. Instead, it's created a wall of vanity and insincerity that's kept us from truly connecting.

The year that the entire world shut down and forced people online to “meet up” was the year that I went silent on the socials. After a 15-year run with Facebook and all the platforms that followed, it took a worldwide pandemic (and having a baby) for me to finally throw in the towel and to act upon what I’d already been feeling long before we came up with the term for it — socially distant. The truth is, we had been growing further apart in some ways well before the coronavirus, thanks to social media. However, it was only after the physical separation and coining of the term in 2020 that I realized why it was necessary for me to leave Facebook and Instagram.

A time and place for social media

At the outset, I recognize that social media has benefits and it works well for some people, scenarios and businesses. I found my first job through Facebook, and my current one through LinkedIn. Social media allows us to find and connect with long-lost relatives or friends across continents; share and announce special moments of our lives with a wider audience at once; raise awareness and funds for social causes; and even discover new communities when we feel lonely or need support. For these reasons, the socials could have been the lifeline we needed for overcoming the isolation caused by confinement. In fact, at the start of the pandemic, a month after stay-at-home orders were in place, Kantar’s global survey of 25,000 consumers found a surge in social media usage by 61% compared to pre-pandemic rates. More recently, studies in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region have found that adolescents have reported social media serving as a useful coping mechanism to deal with anxiety during quarantine. A portion of Gen Z-ers found the ability to interact with friends and family on social media helped boost their mood and sense of wellbeing.

Yet, because of the access it provides to wider audiences, these platforms have encouraged people to broadcast, without filter, unsolicited (and often untrue) depictions of themselves and the world around them. The algorithms and monetization models upon which the platforms are built have helped us, as a society, reward vanity in the name of branding and influence, followers over friendships, and artificiality passed off as authenticity, ultimately leading some of us to feel even more isolated. It finally took seeing a friend’s prioritization of these fake online interactions over a personal one, and motherhood, to push me to abandon social media so I wouldn’t continue to feed it.

It was making me physically sick

Numerous studies and media coverage have already underscored how social media can turn into a behavioral addiction in the way that the platforms’ features are built to keep us scrolling and coming back for more (see: Netflix documentary-drama The Social Dilemma.) Stanford University psychiatrist and professor Anna Lembke wrote in the Wall Street Journal last month that the dopamine release and subsequent pleasure we feel from digital consumption is similar to the dopamine release from using drugs. As a result, the more we use it and seek rewards from it, the more our brains have to work to bring us back to homeostasis. That means we either want to go right back to the source for another “hit,” or we end up feeling pretty shitty. It’s no wonder Lembke reports seeing an increase in anxiety and depression from otherwise healthy, young patients.

“These digital products are engineered to be addictive, using flashing lights, celebratory sounds and ‘likes’ to promise ever-greater rewards just a click away,” she writes “Pleasure and pain are processed in the same parts of the brain and that the brain tries hard to keep them in balance. Whenever it tips in one direction it will try hard to restore the balance.”

I had to kick the habit when I felt it affect my mental health and physical state in the summer of 2018. I had joined Instagram “pods,” forcing me to incessantly like and comment on peers’ posts within 24 hours of their post, to get likes and comments in return. In trying to beat the algorithms, stay on top of people’s feeds, and ultimately, get traffic to my blog, I became a woman obsessed with follower numbers, likes and comments, comparing myself to peers. I was glued to my phone, joints sore from scrolling and typing, getting headaches from screen fatigue and feeling nauseated from the stress of it all…Ok fine, the latter was likely the early symptoms of pregnancy, but being on my phone certainly wasn’t helping. Once I discovered I was pregnant, I abandoned the algorithm to finally lie down, take a break from scrolling, and focus on my wellbeing. I felt relieved.

According to Lembke, “It’s only after we’ve taken a break from our drug of choice that we’re able to see the true impact of our consumption on our lives.”

It distracted me from my true goal

From the Instagram pods and automation tools I was using, I certainly received attention on Facebook and Instagram, but none of it was actually driving traffic to my blog. Instead, SEO and Pinterest worked far better since they respond to people’s search queries. Looking at the stats, I had to remind myself that I went to college to write and to create content. The intent of my blog was to share my experiences with others and to connect more meaningfully. That message was lost on social media.

It wasn’t the example I wanted to set for my kids

I didn’t like the person I had become when I was obsessed with followers. It eroded my self-confidence to need that much external validation, and I felt weak giving other people the power to determine my self-worth through public likes.

I am not alone.

Social media has been known to create a false sense that perfectionism is possible, according to assistant professor of clinical psychiatry, Jeremy Tyler, who specializes in the treatment of anxiety-related disorders at UPenn.

“People see other users who appear to be perfect, who are well liked, or who have things they may not, and they start to believe some of the negative perceptions about themselves,” he says.

Not only was it making me feel needy, but I witnessed a transformation in other people’s profiles too, from fun, smart, interesting and raw to a bland, curated collage of filtered selfies in the name of branding and aesthetics. I can thank the rise of “influencers” for that. (By the way, your slew of selfies don’t influence me to buy that locally-sourced coffee or stop touring Thailand by elephant. All it makes me want to do is unfollow and warn my kids that vulnerability cannot be hidden behind vanity.)

We have bred a generation of narcissists who feel entitled to fame — not because they created something new, pushed forward a cause, or discovered a new idea, but — all because they created the right Instagram aesthetic. For a depressing jolt of reality, watch the HBO documentary “Fake Famous,” in which journalist Nick Bilton says, “More than any other occupation on Earth, kids in America say they want to be famous influencers.” That scares me.

I want to raise confident kids who live in the moment, contribute to the world around them, and who value and make themselves vulnerable to connecting with people through conversations, not through a carefully posed, filtered photo that they posted behind the safety of a screen. I want them to work hard and make something of themselves through true achievements and not camera tricks to gain a fake following. The best way I thought to do this was to lead by example and show them the value that I place on social media — by not being a part of it.

It wasn’t real

This was the clincher.

I crave authenticity, but I don’t expect people to air their dirty laundry or share their failures online. I also recognize that people want to be positive and optimistic, especially at a time when the world is facing a pandemic. However, when a friend posted a selfie to his thousands of followers claiming to be going through a rough time as a result of COVID (#mentalhealthawareness #vulnerability, anyone?) I reached out to offer comfort. In return, I was briefly ghosted, until he finally responded saying he needed time and space to cope with his feelings. It then became clear to me that we would rather accept attention from strangers for a masked version ourselves online rather than face and talk through our issues with real friends in person.

While this was an eye-opener, I couldn’t blame him entirely for it either, since many of us have been guilty of giving our carefully crafted social media storyline more attention than our real lives at times. Think of all the times a LinkedIn update has distracted us during a work meeting, capturing a food photo has preoccupied us at the dinner table, or shooting the perfect vacation video has kept us up from experiencing the very moments we all want to post about later. And when I thought about raising kids and the kind of parent I wanted to be, I decided I would choose to be a present one, to witness the first words, steps, and falls rather than spend time posting about it through a filtered social media lens.

The good news, according to a Vox Recode report examining the effects of COVID one year later, is that the pandemic has compelled us to portray a more realistic version of our lives, either because it was necessary (people were unable to cut/color their hair or photograph against pristine backdrops), would otherwise be perceived as irresponsible (people were afraid to be photographed not wearing masks or socially distancing), or would otherwise seem downright distasteful (people avoided looking insensitive by posting about lavish spending or travel while daily deaths from COVID soared).

Where do we go from here?

Don’t abandon your social media. Post those pics, celebrate and share moments. Have fun with it. Just don’t do it at the expense of losing yourself or sacrificing friendships. If social media works for you, great. I was an addict, and I couldn’t handle it. Like any addiction, it had to be kicked. So I am not here to judge you or convince you to leave social media. At the same time, our young people now strive to be influencers and Facebook is feeding off of this by considering a kids version of Instagram despite knowing the ill effects of social media on teens. I want us to catch ourselves from allowing social media to get the best of us, of serving as a substitute for reality. Let’s set a good example for the next generation and show them what matters:

  1. Tell/share stories truthfully. By some standards, creating the perfect Instagram grid could be considered an art form, because ok, fine, we all like to look at beautiful photos. But just as we want to know when content is sponsored, let’s not alter reality or fabricate it entirely. If you want to share your world, then do that. We are so eager to share photos of the baby shower, the engagement (#Shesaidyes!), the first day of school, but there are opportunities we miss to build community by sharing for example the story about your IVF journey, the realities of maintaining a long-distance relationship, or navigating toddler tantrums. So instead, write meaningful captions. Tell us about the journey, or what you actually liked or disliked about a product or experience. And please stop forwarding fake news stories via WhatsApp. The printed word no longer counts as the truth, so cross-check your sources before blindly sharing!
  2. Encourage accomplishments over aesthetics. I enjoy a selfie as much as the next person, cuz hey, some days your normally frizzy hair cooperates and you want the world to see the proof. But in general, let’s stop applauding people simply for looking beautiful, basking in self-obsession, and providing us nothing else of substance. Instead, let’s challenge them to provide us with something more: for instance, what myth can they debunk for us about that vegan makeup they have photographed themselves wearing? Can they show us what they are doing to combat pay differences among men and women instead of posting a selfie with a useless caption on women’s empowerment? If we refuse to follow, like or comment on consistent posts intended for nothing more than an ego boost, we can shift the attention to what matters.
  3. Leave some mystery. There is no need to post every. single. aspect. of your life. Give people a reason to connect with you offline by leaving some of it off of the socials. If they can find out everything about you from looking at your profile, they have no reason to–
  4. Connect offline. Let’s not sacrifice the humanity of spending time with people. Pick up the phone. Write that longer text message to give people a true update on your life — both the struggles and the triumphs— and not just a “It’s going well! how about you?” superficial message. Better yet, set up time or make the trip to meet in person (wearing masks as needed).

Hopefully, this pandemic has ignited in you a craving to interact at a deeper level. Confinement gave us ample time for introspection, caused us to rely solely on technology as our means of communicating with the outside world, and unfortunately, we grappled with witnessing the fragility of life. The silver lining is that perhaps that’s just the spark you needed to come out from hiding behind your social media profile.

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Share your perspective

How has social media impacted you for better or worse? What do you think we can do to help the next generation use social media effectively? I want to hear your ideas in the comments.

2 comments on “Socially Distant: Why I Left Social Media When We Needed It Most

  1. Ben Taylor

    Well written. But I think you need to become mentally stronger. Happiness comes from within. If you are seeking external validation you will always be unhappy. There’s no need to completely cut off social media if you have the mental aptitude to deal with it. Its a tool. Use it as such and exercise control just as you would in any other aspect of your life that causes release of dopamine.

    Like

    • Hi Ben, absolutely, I agree with you. That’s why it’s still a journey for me and probably for some others as well. I’m a work in progress 🙂
      But like with other substances or addictions sometimes we abstain if we aren’t in a position to exercise control. And I do think that itself is a form of regaining control. Why give in to temptation? Appreciate you sharing your perspective.

      Like

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