Arif is an entrepreneur and freelance writer that has posted several featured articles and has a passion for the arts and popular culture.
Elon Musk said that human beings have become cyborgs. Our mobile devices have somewhat become a part of ourselves—an extension of the human psyche. From looking up nearby hipster cafes to finding your life partner from a dating app; we rely on our phones for pretty much everything. But of all its usefulness, social media make up the majority of our phone usage.
According to a 2018 Pew Research Center study, about 88% of respondents between the ages of 18 to 29 reported using some kind of social media, and 78% of 30 to 49-year-olds said the same. Even among the older generation, 50 to 64-year-olds, 64% reported using social media regularly. It is clear that social media has almost totally embedded society’s culture.
Famous clinical psychologist and author, Dr. Jordan Peterson said that humans are not yet evolved enough to understand the mechanics of social media. We don't exactly know how to act and react to it in that digital space. Someone who is friendly and conscientious on a personal basis can become vengeful and cynical online. Why does this happen?
Are we in control of technology or is technology in control of us?
The Bombardment of Emotions
Everyone’s triggered about something nowadays. May it be left/right-wing ideology or a politically incorrect joke, social media has aggravated people’s sense of entitlement and right to be offended. And it is often observed that platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have become the perfect place for these kinds of interactions. Why has it become so toxic?
From a neurological perspective, social media has the ability to provoke a plethora of emotions in quick succession. The very act of scrolling through endless video feeds with a flick of your thumb gives you access to a variety of content that can both anger and bring joy to the viewer. So perhaps that is the cause of a trigger-happy society—able to ignite with such passionate fury or joy in a split second. This ease of access can cause its users to become extremely impulsive, and have the intense need to say whatever that's on their minds.
The toxic environment of social media and its ease of access have been described to have negative effects on mental health, especially among teenagers.
According to a published report by RSPH and the Young Health Movement (YHM), social media use has been linked with increased rates of anxiety, depression, and poor sleep. The report also describes that social media like Instagram and Twitter are more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol.
Anxiety and Depression
Research suggests that teenagers who spend more than 2 hours a day on any form of social media are more inclined to experience poor mental health, including psychological distress and symptoms of anxiety and depression.
But the true meaning of “depression” has been somewhat lost within social media. Depression, on a clinical definition, is a major depressive disorder that people suffer as a result of a chemical imbalance in the brain that causes lack of motivation to do simple things like eating, sleeping, or talking. And it is almost always diagnosed by a trained professional like a doctor or psychologist.
However, nowadays, people—especially teens—are self-diagnosing themselves with "depression" without ever consulting a professional first.
It's astonishing what you would find in one’s Instagram feed under the term "depression". Although you can find professionals giving advice on the subject, it is, however, more prevalent to see young adults posting themselves crying incessantly on camera and acting up for attention. And using captions like “no one understands me because I’m depressed”, or “I'm going through a break-up and now I'm mentally ill”. If they were really serious about their mental health, they would go seek proper treatment, not post videos about how they “feel” on their IG stories.
Depression has been used as a fluff word to get attention, and social media is the perfect place for it. It has been romanticized. Not only that, those who are really suffering—their symptoms are perpetuated even further.
The term “sadfishing” has recently become a thing on social media. The term—coined by Rebecca Reid, online editor of Grazia Daily—has been used to describe people (especially young adults) who “fish” for sympathetic reactions and comments by posting sad, sobby, stories and images.
“Boohoo my life sucks! I'm so sad! I can't stop crying. Everyone and everything sucks. AHHHHH”
And on and on it goes until the video ends. Oh and looky here, so many comments and likes. YAY.
Look, one is not criticizing those who are going through tough times, in fact, although these “sadfishers” tend to exaggerate their so-called pain, teens who post about their unhappiness on social media are often truly experiencing difficult emotions. But it is hard for anyone to distinguish between those who are real and not. This presents an important issue, because those who are actually in need of professional care may not get it—because the depression queuing-up line is too long.
Which begs the ultimate question. Why are you seeking help/advice/attention on social media in the first place? You’re looking for it in the wrong place, my dear.
If you’re suffering from mental health issues, seek professional help. Not likes.
Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)
How many times have you scrolled through your feed and seen someone you know having a good time WITHOUT YOU.
“Oh no, how can they? I'm the fun one in the group! I'm the coolest guy in town! How come I’m not doing anything fun right now?”
This is FOMO. It is a pervasive angst one feels when seeing people other than themselves having rewarding experiences from which they themselves are absent. This form of apprehension has been robustly linked to higher levels of social media engagement, meaning that the more one uses social media, the more likely they are to experience FOMO.
People have the strange tendency to briefly peer into someone’s life and think, “Wow they must be like that all the time”.
It doesn't take a genius to know that this notion is never the case. We all have our ups and downs. But the thing about social media is that the only parts of our lives that are captured digitally and shown off to the world are the good parts—the trip to the beach, the group photo at the bar, or the selfie at the concert. No one posts their broken-down car, their loss of job, or the breaking down of their relationship (unless they’re sadfishing of course).
Remember, no one's life is THAT perfect. And that’s okay!
Social Media Is Not A Real Place.
I had a friend who had recently posted a picture of himself and his adorable 1-year-old nephew on Instagram. And I thought, “oh that's nice, uncle and nephew are bonding—such harmless fun”. But here’s what shocked me.
My friend later expressed to me how upset he felt that no one commented on it. He did not get the online reaction he was hoping for. He later ranted to me about how people in the world now don't care about toddlers and babies.
“WHAT!?”, I cried in disbelief.
My friend has equated his lack of comments on social media to the downfall of humanity. I was bewildered. Does that mean if they had commented, then the world is better for it? I started asking the following questions to myself:
- Why does he think the morality of the world rests singlehandedly on their ability to comment on HIS picture, specifically? Who does he think he is? Gandhi?
- Why does his sense of self-worth derive from getting compliments on social media?
- Why has his social media interactions skewed his judgement so drastically?
Social media has now the strange ability to distort our reality of the world. And to answer these three questions would take an entire scientific research paper done by people smarter than me. But, if I could at least surmise a possible solution, it would be this: Social media is not real.
It is a virtual sandbox where people can create digital personas of themselves. And any interactions (or in my friend’s case — lack thereof) cannot be perceived as a genuine action or reaction. There is absolutely no way to truly know what someone is thinking or who they are as a person if you don't meet them in person.
Take the comments section, for instance. It is a virtual battlefield for a bombardment of surface-level opinions taken out of context that seek to gain instant self-gratification, while at the same time inciting a possible immediate response by the reader.
It's important for us social media users to understand that the virtual world does not (and will not) ever represent the real world. Human beings are so filled with intricate nuances that it is impossible to fit it all in a single social media post.
Look, the benefits of social media should be celebrated. Although this article focuses more on its negative effects, it is not without its merits: communication is much easier, businesses can promote products faster, and apps like LinkedIn can help people find jobs.
But with all good things, it must be experienced in moderation. Apps like Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat are not only new pieces of invention, but they have become a new way of how we communicate with one another.
The idea that the virtual world will soon fully consume us may not be so far-fetched. But once in a while, it’s a good idea to look up and see the real world too.