all “having” must now derive its immediate prestige and its ultimate purpose from appearance– Guy Debord, The Society Of the Spectacle (1967)
The many likes
Human beings are social animals. We love to interact and share our opinions with others. We like feeling heard and understood. Also, we like to hear what other people have to say. This is no mystery, but in recent years with the advent of social media, this nature has been carefully used (or exploited) to manufacture social media applications that keep us hooked on seeking social approval in a hyper-stimulated environment .
An environment that is a far cry from how real-life social interactions operate, an environment that is designed to overload our senses like hyper stimulants – cocaine, alcohol, gambling would do . The result is after the high of many likes, comments, and notifications there is a crashing low of anxiety, loneliness, and even depression.
Equally harmful is the experience of the feeling that we are being watched for performance. Always.
Twitter introduced the retweet button and Facebook the like button around 2009. These were introduced so that the user can share their opinion about posts which would help the algorithm show similar content on their news feed.
But psychologists like Jonathan Haidt have warned that this feature encourages the content on these platforms to be of a particular kind – mostly content meant to spark outrage – moral or emotional.
Adding to this is the virtual nature of the reality presented through these apps. Pictures are filtered and highly curated/manufactured to reflect the best versions and moments from our lives that in most cases present only half-truths.
These ingredients make us feel we are living a life that is far from what others are living. Also, human nature by its very design reacts to the news which is emotional or morally significant.
Keeping up with everyone
In recent years, terms like virtue signaling and moral posturing being used around social media. What this means is that people are using these platforms to make moral comments on various topics. Morality per se, according to spirituality is not a bad thing, we need morals to live in society peacefully. It is the gravity that holds a society together. But just like anything, too much of something is bad, excessive moral posturing over topics that are nuanced or require more space and attention for discussion than what a 240-character Tweet gives is also an important fact that needs to be considered. This often gets overlooked on social media by its very nature of short attention spans and quick fixes. This leads to a climate where debates often take on a toxic shape where shaming is a quicker solution than a long discussion.
In such a scenario if one relies solely on social media for worldly knowledge and wisdom, even spiritual knowledge, then no wonder mental health problems and half-knowledge will prevail.
People who have spent lifetimes discussing topics like morality, politics, and even spirituality (yoga, meditation, prayers) would pull their hair looking at the abundance of quick-fix solutions being offered on the Internet.
By excessive consumption and attachment towards social media, we often end up thinking our moral standards and overall life are far worse than the world. That maybe we can never keep up with the world around us and we are in some way inferior or slow.
This line of thinking leads us to believe that someone is always watching over us and comparing us. That our actions have a measurement attached to them. That our actions have a performative aspect; we are performing to be judged and to be judged properly. To be accepted we have to act in a certain way. This is manageable if the number of people we are accountable to is small. But if it is the whole World Wide Web, then it is impossible and crazy.
This constant feeling of being watched over brings with it a host of psychological challenges that hamper our real lives.
The first video tells us about the non-toxic way to use social media.
The second video is a summary of an important book by clinical psychologist Dr. Harriet Baker. It is important for this discussion on social media because people already susceptible to low self-esteem and seeking validation are more prone to the detrimental effects of social media. I would urge you to watch the first video to understand the productive ways to use social media. The second video to for getting out of the mindset that social media inculcates that is the disease to please.
Some tips for strategic use
Now, it would be stupid or naïve to say that one should dump all social media. In some cases, especially for those who for professional reasons are on social media, there are strategies one can practice managing mental health and peace while at the same time enjoying some benefits that social media provides.
- Be strategic about its use. Pick and choose and get out quickly. For example, using social media to check for events in your city, or to see the latest content from a spiritual or educational group you are following. I’m using spiritual or informative groups because entertainment content on social media is generally very addictive. It is a rabbit hole of endless feeds one more scandalous than the other.
- Follow groups and people that are relevant to your goals and interests in life. More than 80% of the people you follow should give you some food for your brain through their posts. Generally, people who are writers, philosophers, scientists, or even entertainment sources relevant to your background or industry are good options. An account that is all fluff, relying more on flashy content than any real content is better not getting your attention.
- Last – the most important – limit your exposure to the whirlpool of news and opinions online by setting a downtime. Fix a day or two where you will not use social media for more than say half-n-hour. It is essential to give your senses the signal that there exists a real world as well. You can look at articles on digital minimalism that would further help you understand how to manage online time.
An important sign that you are using excessive social media to the degree that it is poorly affecting your real life is when you start acting in what I would call the – public performance mode – all the time.
Your thought and actions are getting filtered through an audience in your head. An imaginary audience made out of all the opinions you have been reading on social media. When you are enjoying a delicious meal or reading an enthralling book it becomes a must for you to share it with the world. When you have an individual opinion about something it becomes a must to see online that it aligns with what is mainstream. Yes, we are social species that crave social acceptance and interaction in many forms. But an overload of social exposure is something we are not meant to handle and is a known factor in causing anxiety.
Give it a try, take a break from your phone, and begin experiencing things alone. Reconnect with yourself and the voice inside you that is somewhere being lost in the flood of posts and feeds about others.
Maybe this way, you will find independent thinking and courage, and confidence in being yourself.
- Social media and the neuroscience of predictive processing processing [link]
- Social media is warping democracy [link]
- Book: “Deep Work”, by Cal NewPort
- Book: “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World”, by Cal NewPort
- Book: “The Coddling of the American Mind”, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt
- Book: “The Society of the Spectacle”, by Guy Debord