Social media is damaging. I’m sure that this is something everybody is aware of. In this digital age, it’s easier to be a part of a world that never switches off than to distance yourself from it. It doesn’t really matter what Sally got up to this weekend, and yet it feels necessary to know. Not only that, but it feels necessary to keep people updated with your own life, too. And that’s a lot of pressure.
The problem with social media is not that Sally tells us what’s going on in her life, it’s that we are consumed by a constant need to rate and compare. The thing is, we create a different version of ourselves on social media. We use platforms like Instagram to put on a front that everything is okay, and that our lives are fun and interesting. We cover up the bags under our eyes with Juno or Valencia and increase the brightness until everything looks less bleak. Then we post it and wait for the likes to rack up, craving validation from all these people that we never speak to, because that little heart or that little thumbs up confirms that yes, you did look nice today, or your view looked pretty today, or your life gets my approval today. But why are we so desperate for everybody’s approval? Why are we so concerned with what people think of our lives?
My life is fully immersed in social media, and I’m sure yours is too. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, Pinterest… all those little apps waiting for me to open them every morning, to validate other people, to read about their lives and feel a pang of jealousy over the way they look, the places they’ve been, or the things they own. How materialistic and sad. But do I stop? Of course I don’t. And I’m not sure I can pinpoint why.
There is something nice about feeling included in somebody’s life, getting a glimpse of the way they live, and telling them that you like it. But this is life through the lens of a smartphone, and not life as it actually is. If I was brutally honest on Instagram, my account would be full of pictures of me in bed looking like a potato, flashing my double chins, probably crying. But of course I’m not going to upload that kind of thing, because that’s not how it works. We all manipulate our image to come across as much more put together than we actually are. And that’s what I have to remind myself of every time I find myself getting foolishly jealous over somebody’s social media posts. This is a tiny piece of their life – a front put up purely for the internet. Nobody’s life is perfect.
The ability to follow beautiful women, dedicated gym-goers, and adventurous travellers as they go through their seemingly rosy lives has caused me to tear myself apart on more than one occasion. Why don’t my legs look like that? Where’s my jawline? Why can’t I afford that dress? Why don’t I have their motivation? It’s all too easy to self destruct over a heavily filtered image. It’s all a set up. Instagram’s menacing little magnifying glass is the bane of my existence, showing me all the lives I’m not living, all the women with the defined bone structure and abs that I just don’t have. I have spent many nights scrolling through endless square photographs, slaughtering myself from the inside out, because I don’t look like some girl I just found on the internet. I cannot even tell you the amount of times a single photo has reduced me to tears. I have looked at my reflection and picked myself apart, finding something to dislike about every inch of myself, until I can no longer stand to see myself – all because of social media.
The thing is, all of these platforms are supposed to keep us connected, and yet they make me feel so detached. Surely I can’t be the only person who feels like social media has distanced us. Why meet up for a coffee when you can just send a Snapchat? Ten seconds of interaction through a horrendous selfie, hiding yourself behind a filter of a dog or a flower crown, is much easier. You don’t have to show people what you really look like or how your life is really going. You can take a picture at the right angle, smooth out your skin, make your face look slimmer, and then you don’t have to worry about if they’re staring at your spot the whole time you’re talking or thinking about how big your forehead is. Somewhat convenient, and yet unmistakably damaging and deceiving.
I have just dug in to the newest series of Black Mirror. Don’t worry, I won’t dish out any spoilers, but I’m going to talk about the first episode of season three. Charlie Brooker never fails to amaze me as he pushes the boundaries and tests the limits, forcing us to think about what direction the human race is heading. In this episode, people don’t just offer up a like on your social media posts, but they provide star ratings for each other as they meet in real life. Rate people as human beings from one to five, and affect their overall score. That score dictates how people react to you, the kind of chances you can have in life, and even the places you can go – it becomes a label, one that people use to judge you. Just add it to the long list of other things that people will discriminate against: skin colour, sexuality, gender, class, and now your social media score. This episode made me think – just how far are we going to go? Which point is too far? Have we already gone past it?
In a world where we obsess over likes and shares, it’s hard to get a break. Our whole world is moving online, and it’s hard to take time away and just breathe. I feel anxious without my phone, bored without Twitter to scroll through, lost without Facebook messenger. What if somebody needs me? What if something important happens? I’m scared of missing out, of not being a part of something. I’m aware of how pointless it all is, but I can’t seem to stop myself.
The way I have calmed my anxiety over social media might sound silly, but it’s worked for me. One word: animals. That’s it. I ditched the gorgeous billionaire models and swapped them for furry friends. My Instagram feed is purely cats, dogs, foxes, any kind of animal that you can think of. Have you ever seen a video of a hedgehog getting its tummy rubbed? I see that kind of thing ten times a day now and it’s the greatest, most soothing thing ever. Videos of dogs running about plague my timeline on Twitter and overwhelm my Facebook news feed. The Explore function on Instagram is now nothing more than the happy faces of animals worldwide. I don’t have to worry about taking another blow to my self esteem when I just watched a video of a kitten playing with a piece of string.
Of course, there are still bruises. Social media is wonderful and harmful all at once, and no amount of cuddly raccoon pictures can reverse the damage that has already been done. We are increasingly social media obsessed, and while I may have been lucky in having a childhood that was mostly free from the grasp of the online world, children today are growing up in an environment where they are learning that their value is based on how many likes they can get. Instead of fretting about the photoshopped images and distorted messages pushed upon us in magazines, we have to worry about the more constant and increasingly accessible threat of social media, where millions of people can be influenced by a single image. An opinion voiced in a tiny package of 140 characters can be infinitely more influential than the 2000 word columns of a tabloid or fashion magazine, and they can build somebody up or horrifically tear them down with the same amount of strength, if not more. It’s a powerful tool that can be used so brilliantly, and yet more often than not we use it in the wrong way.
We are all consumed by this online obsession, but sometimes it pays to take a step back. It is through Facebook that you find out someone you love is in love with someone else, Snapchat where you discover your friends went out without you, and Twitter where you read a sly comment and wonder if it could possibly be about you. It’s a lot to handle, and it’s emotionally very weighty – ignorance would be bliss, and yet we deny ourselves that release. It’s hard to separate ourselves from the rush of posts and messages, but taking some time to ourselves, just to breathe and think, is what we all need once in a while.