Since the late ’90s, social media has gone from a novelty to a normal part of everyday life. Sure, there are still plenty of memes and selfies. But social media has evolved to include businesses, schools and even the government. These days, it’s almost necessary to be on social media to stay informed.
Social media has plenty of upsides. However, it also has a far more insidious underbelly. Here’s what you can do to protect yourself from the dark side of social media.
You Feel Inadequate About Your Life Or Appearance
Social media is full of users putting their best faces forward. We filter our faces and strike figure-flattering poses. Only the most positive, polished aspects of our lives are shared.
This constant show of perfection has led to rampant social comparison across all ages, genders and races.
Social comparison refers to using other people to determine how we are doing relative to others. We use social comparison to determine how we should behave, think and feel.
We also use it to determine how we should look. Plastic surgeons are noticing more clients requesting modifications to look like a Snapchat or Instagram filter. Researchers aptly named this “Snapchat Dysmorphia.”
Photo editing is nothing new. But with the rise of amateur video editing, the line between what’s real and what isn’t continues to blur more and more.
It’s important to remember that not everything on social media is what it seems. Of course, this is often easier said than done, but practice makes perfect.
Seeking validation through other means is also helpful. Evaluate what you admire in those around you in real life. What do you love about your best friend? Your siblings? Your partner?
Likely, there’s more to your admiration than their perfectly posed gym pics. In that same way, you are more than your superficial appearance, too.
Practice looking past digital beauty and online personas. Instead, focus on qualities you admire about yourself and others that aren’t visual.
You Have Incurable FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out)
The concept of FOMO has been around since the early 2000s. FOMO can apply to both digital and real-life contexts.
One study defines FoMO as the “preoccupation of social media users with lost opportunities when they are offline.” Dictionary.com defines it as a general “feeling of anxiety or insecurity over the possibility of missing out on something, as an event or an opportunity.”
Just like with our appearances, we tend to share only our most fun, exciting activities. And just like with our appearances, these activities are often embellished and posed.
Our desire to capture perfect moments often leads to us missing them altogether. Intrepid Travel and OnePoll recently conducted a survey of 1,500 people about their cell phone usage.
A whopping 84% admitted their cell phones distracted them from daily life. 31% of respondents said they were so concerned with getting a good photo that they didn’t even experience the moment.
So, the real question is—what are you missing? If you’ve ever been to a party where everyone is staring at their phones, then you’ll know the answer to that question is “not much.”
Writer Anil Dash suggests embracing JOMO (joy of missing out).
“Being the one in control of what moves me and what attachments I have to fleeting experiences is not an authority that I’m willing to concede to the arbitrary whims of an app on my mobile phone,” Dash wrote.
Other People’s Stress Is Weighing Heavy On Your Mind
The COVID-19 pandemic brought about a lot of doomscrolling. Doomscrolling refers to the tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news is depressing.
But doomscrolling isn’t just reserved for the pandemic. Social unrest, climate change, mass shootings, natural disasters—there is a lot of tragedy to wade through online.
Even individuals can add to the chaos. Many of us use social media as a place to rant and vent. And while it can be cathartic to express these emotions, it can be taxing to read them.
Absorbing the collective stress of your community is a heavy burden to bear. The good news is, you don’t need to do so.
Though it might not always feel like it, we still have the power to control what we see on social media. Block, mute and unfollow features are there for a reason. Utilize them.
If you feel disaffected by the same people’s stressful posts, you have the right to remove them from your feed.
Similarly, if a certain publication or page is bombarding you with content, you can unfollow or mute their posts.
Still, doomscrolling is an addictive cycle. Finance reporter Karen Ho spoke to NPR about how to break this pattern. Her tips include setting a timer, staying mindful of why you’re on your phone, and swapping vicious cycles for virtuous ones.
It is important to stay informed, yes. But it is also important to do what’s best for your mental health.
You Feel Anxious And Depressed
Social media is designed to influence your brain—more specifically, your dopamine. Our brains release dopamine when we experience a reward, like eating food or having good sex.
Social media focuses on the dopamine released after a positive social interaction. The sites create a dopamine feedback loop by pushing users to seek out dopamine through social media.
Multiple studies show that these feedback loops increase the risk of anxiety and depression, particularly in children and young adults.
The consequences of this cognitive coercion have forced many social media execs to step down. Former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya spoke out against the site’s addictive algorithms in a 2017 interview.
“We have created tools now that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works,” he said. “It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave, by and between each other. And I don’t have a good solution.”
His only suggestion? Don’t use it at all.
Obviously, the best way to avoid the dark side of social media is to log off completely. Just like the best way to avoid a car crash is to never get into a car.
But if social media is how you interact with your work, school or places of business, it’s not as simple as deleting your apps and never looking back. Like it or not, social media is now an integral part of society.
If feelings of anxiety and depression are overwhelming you, consider logging off briefly and practicing grounding techniques. Don’t be afraid to seek counseling or reach out to national mental health hotlines.
Our society existed long before social media. It will continue to exist after it fades out of style. In the meantime, don’t hesitate to log off and give your thumbs, eyes and brain a much-needed break.