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“Our devices and the applications we use every day, including social media platforms, can be incredible tools, but we must be mindful that that is what they are - tools.”


 

A fairly big trend on Twitter at the moment is #DigitalDetox. A lot of people seem to be taking, or are planning to take, a break from social media. Many of these people cite their mental health as the reason for their decision, and it has made me think.

We all know that our obsession with our smartphones is giving us bad posture, poor eyesight and bad hearing. We also know that it simply cannot be healthy to spend so many hours every day attached to our devices. It is fairly clear that smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktop PCs are not great for us physically, but what seems to be less certain, yet potentially far more dangerous, is what these devices are doing to us mentally.

I think it is important to acknowledge that if you strictly use your smartphone as a tool - for making calls, sending the odd text message, checking the weather and replying to a few emails everyday - then it is unlikely that you have anything to be concerned about. If this describes you, it is safe to say that you fall into a very, very small minority of smartphone owners.

It is also important to be aware that it is not about the smartphones themselves. It is about what we do with them that impacts our mental health. Whether we want to admit it or not, most of us spend the majority of our time on our phones scrolling through social media.

Having read a number of reports and research papers, it appears to me that there are two recurring topics when discussing social media and mental health. The first is “community”, and the second is “comparison”.

Community

Community is what the first social media websites and applications were made for. It is why they were created. Community is the positive side of social media. It is where we see digital gatherings of individuals from around the world, discussing things that matter to them. I encourage you to have a look at the #RecoveryPosse community on Twitter. It is a group of people, of every age, race, gender and belief, all united by the fact that each member is in recovery from drug and/or alcohol addiction, or wants to be. While the hashtag may be tied to a serious topic, 99% of all the tweets that include #RecoveryPosse, are encouraging, uplifting, funny, informative, helpful and full of love and support.

Another great thing about social media, and the communities it creates, is that people often find it easier to reach out to strangers. This often makes it possible for people who live in isolation, or deal with social anxiety, to form connections with other people. Social media can be where people find connection, support and friendship.

Comparison

As opposed to creating communities and bringing people together, this is the part of social media that is focused on how many likes our Instagram posts get, how many times our tweets are retweeted, or how many times any piece of content we put online is shared. This is the part of social media that is rooted in performance.

A number of scientific studies have shown that when we do not perform well, by getting those likes, retweets, shares and adoring comments, there is a significant increase in depression, loneliness, anxiety and even suicide. Intelligent people in white lab coats tell us that receiving affirmation online stimulates the reward centers of our brains. The more likes we get, the better we feel about ourselves. Sadly, when we don’t get those likes, the way we feel about ourselves is equally affected in a negative way.

Comparing our lives to those of others online is an immensely unhealthy endeavour, especially because we are comparing our lives to someone else’s highlight reel. People do not share the bad days, the disappointments, the heartbreaks, the frustrations or the mundane parts of their everyday lives. This lack of authenticity leads to feelings of unmet expectations and portrays unrealistic ideals.

A study by the University of Pennsylvania published in the Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, found here, discovered that people who limited their time on social media to a total of 30 minutes per day reported significant reductions in feelings of loneliness, depression and ‘FOMO’ (Fear Of Missing Out). It is interesting to note that by limiting the amount of time within these digital communities, the majority of the subjects reported feeling less lonely.

Further studies show how the anonymity of social media leads to huge increases in cyber-bullying - a crime that has very real consequences. As the adage goes, “Hurting people hurt people.” Many researches and specialists believe that a considerable amount of the anger some cyberbullies/trolls feel, stems from a significant dissatisfaction with their own lives, often as a result of comparing themselves to what they see online.

Theodore Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” He was spot on. When we constantly compare ourselves to other people, we rob ourselves of the joy to simply be us. Feeling as though we are not good enough, based on the highly-curated content that someone else is sharing, leads to a life lived in bondage. There is no joy in having our self-worth bound to comparison with another person.

The key seems to be balance, and balance is not something we are very good at. We have become addicted to social media applications, and use them for everything from a distraction from everyday life to our primary source of affirmation.

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To regain some sense of balance, we can:

~ Be aware of how much time we spend on our devices, and especially how much time we spend on social media

~ Set a limit on how much time we will allow ourselves on social media each day

~ Pursue, nurture and build real-life friendships

~ Speak to people face-to-face and engage in person

~ Focus on the quality of our daily interactions with one another

~ Learn to be satisfied with our own approval our ourselves, and become less reliant on external validation

~ Dedicate time to simply putting our devices down and experiencing the people, things and environments around us

Our devices and the applications we use every day, including social media platforms, can be incredible tools, but we must be mindful that that is what they are - tools. Yes, they have become indispensable tools, but they are tools nonetheless. A tool must serve us. A tool must be useful.

Our smartphones - tools for communication - have made us incredibly good at communicating with people we don’t know, and incredibly bad at communicating with people we do. We are social beings, and while social media may remain a form of interaction, it simply cannot replace face-to-face, in-person engagement. While it will be some time before we see the results of long-term scientific research on the effect of social media on our mental health, what we know today is that it is not necessary to give up social media completely, simply to be mindful of how much time we spend on social platforms. I think it is also worth remembering that while social media accounts are run by humans (bots excluded), most of our time spent on social media is purely for entertainment purposes. When we scroll through Instagram, not to seek validation, but to simply be entertained, there’s a lot less pressure to perform, and when we are free from the pressure to perform, we are free to simply be us.

I love social media. I think it is amazing for business, marketing, building awareness around social issues, building communities and bringing strangers together. There are many positive elements to social media, but there are also many negative ones. If we can remain mindful that social media should be about community, and not about comparison, our relationships with social media platforms will become a lot healthier, and this in turn will mean that we become a lot healthier.

 

Brad is 32 years old and lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.

He is a freelance technology writer by day and barman (who doesn't drink) by night.

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