Stop trying to control Social Media – we need to control ourselves

(I wrote this for the Governing Emerging Technologies module, as part of my UCL studies)

Why governing our own use of social media is the key to mental wellbeing

4th February 2004.

Sound like a memorable date? Probably not. But it’s a date which has impacted the lives of 1.79 billion people and counting – the start of Facebook. This means that Facebook will shortly be celebrating its 13th birthday, and just like many teenagers, it’s being blamed for a lot. Of course, Facebook isn’t totally innocent either. It provides a platform where malicious intentions can thrive. Actions from anonymous cyberbullying, to planning terrorist attacks would be extremely difficult, if impossible, to coordinate without it. But now, the major talking point seems to be around its less obvious impacts. That is, how it effects our mental health. As Facebook has managed to weave its way into the centre of our lives, it has become caught up in concerns about our wellbeing.

This is the story of the social media as a whole. Or, as it is often referred to: ‘the internet’s love child’. Twitter has been around for 10 years and now has 320 million users. Even more rapid is the rise of Instagram, which has gained 400 million users in its mere 6 years. All these statistics have been used time and time again to testify the power that social media has within society, and they’re not wrong (if a little tedious). However, this power combined with its brief history, makes social media a governing nightmare. Even though it has come to dominate our society, social media is an extremely recent development in technology. Consequently, it’s difficult to trace and almost impossible to predict.

But how much should we really be blaming social media for in terms of our mental wellbeing? Rather than placing all kinds of restrictions on them, do we need to start placing restrictions on ourselves? In one word, yes.

Our love affair with social media has turned sour. Modern day life is commonly described as complex and stressful but, more and more often, social media is being identified as the source of much anxiety and sadness. We’re looking at a stranger’s Instagram and comparing their seemingly perfect life to our own. Scrolling through Facebook and seeing pictures of friends having fun. Clinging onto iPhones in times of boredom, unable to remove ourselves from the online world. What may come across as futile #firstworldproblems are actually having serious effects on our health.

The problem is, no one knows just how much to target social media when it comes to our wellbeing. Even so, there are some striking comparisons that cannot be ignored. The School of Medicine at the University of Pittsburg found that frequent users of social media are three times more likely to develop mental health problems. If this is the case, then social media must be going beyond the initial reason for its success – the ability to communicate and share things with people when you’re not physically with them.

Social media is not just about communicating with friends and family anymore. It opens up a perfect world of edited reality where users are able create the best version of themselves. This in itself is not a bad thing. By sharing what we think people might find interesting, we now have a source of inspiration and motivation right in our pockets (or most likely, hands) which has created communities who uplift one another. Sharing recipes, outfits, interior design, places to eat, places to visit… there’s not much you can’t find on social media.

However, the danger of this is that we are now starting to compare our own lives to these flawless images. For many, it’s no surprise that reality doesn’t add up. This is a greater issue for women, who make up 8% more of social media users than men. It’s a subject that Alyssa Westring refers to as ‘compare and despair’, arguing that the do-it-all image presented on social media is unhelpful for women. Yet, it goes beyond ‘unhelpful’ – it’s an issue of mental health.

This isn’t social media’s fault, it’s the product of evolution. This was the conclusion of Leon Festinger’s ‘Social Comparison’ theory from 1954, decades before social media was even contemplated. He found that we humans have an innate desire to evaluate our own abilities, and without any objective information to do this, we turn to comparing ourselves with others.

Next is ‘Fear Of Missing Out’ – #FOMO. It’s a term that was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013 and is now an ‘epidemic’ amongst millennials, according to Texas University. FOMO is a feeling, and it can stem from anywhere – viewing a friend’s Snapchat story from last night, to an eagerness to get back to What’s App for fear of missing the banter. The report from Science Daily says living life through this virtual filter is only fuelling “an anxious mindset that we must be ‘missing out’”. Again, this all boils down to the same issue. FOMO is a symptom of the wider problem – mental health.

Fuelling our innate desire to compare ourselves to others, along with the modern mental illness of FOMO, is addiction. Many users have become addicted to social media. According to Texas University, the average college student in the US spends 8-10 hours per day on their phone, and 24% of all teenagers are online ‘almost constantly’. But the youth are not alone, as this trend is emerging amongst all demographics. Regardless of social media’s plus points, anything taken to the extreme cannot be good for health.

So, what to do? Governments can’t exactly take our phones away from us, or limit our time on social media. Policies can’t force us to change our mindset, or banish negative thoughts, manifesting from convincing ourselves that we are not as good as what we see online. All governing efforts need to come from our own control. This is not as extreme as it may sound, and many people are already doing it. Whether that’s banning phones from the dinner table, or not using social media an hour before bedtime, we are choosing to adopt it on own our terms. In this sense, Jamey Wetmore argues that technology is making us more like the Amish. As each of us has an individual relationship with social media, we are forging our own complex rules on how we use it.

That’s not to say that collective initiatives haven’t been attempted. In January 2014, Real Simple magazine launched ‘Get Real on the Internet’ week, encouraging social media users to complete daily challenges posting about their imperfect selves. Just how helpful this was to tackling these issues is debatable, as it implies that social media is a dishonest, inauthentic tool. However, it does demonstrate the power that social media has towards bringing communities together and, perhaps more importantly, encourages users to be mindful about how they use it.

This is pretty much the advice across the field. The blog Tiny Buddha advises that we should aim to spend less time on social media, and use our free time to redirect our focus by doing something we enjoy away from the virtual world. Other advice includes being mindful of who we are comparing ourselves to and realising the limitations behind online profiles. What is important is that these are all suggestions – there is no ‘one size fits all answer’ when it comes to social media. Users should be empowered by social media and learn to control its effects.

As a final thought, there are 2.3 billion people who are active on social media. Policies directed towards social media must have the potential to apply to all 2.3 billion. Such a task is most likely to be impossible. As each of us has a different relationship with social media, we need to apply our own individual policies. That is, being mindful, and adopting it on our own terms.

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