It’s been a typical first week back at work. A couple of clients call to say they are sick and need to rearrange, then a new client doesn’t show up, which happens more often than you’d think. People call me when they feel very low and then, if much time passes between them making the appointment and coming to see me, they decide they don’t feel so bad after all and save themselves the trouble. The upshot of it all was that, having envisaged a packed day, I had a wide space in which to put something. It’s easy to spend the first part of an unexpected time rebate wasting it looking at pictures of peoples winter holidays or videos of strangers falling drunk into rivers, but it rarely feels good. So is social media making us miserable?
More than 50% of us think that social media is weakening our interpersonal relationships rather than strengthening them, but we appear ambivalent to its relentless march forwards. It gets worse. Studies have shown that regular use of social media can lead to feelings of exhaustion, low self esteem, anxiety and isolation. It causes us to sleep poorly, and encourages us to present a falsified image of ourselves to the world, believing that we need to be better than we really are in order to compete with everyone else who, presumably, is also “pimping” themselves online. When our efforts aren’t met with sufficient enthusiasm from our “friends” and “followers” we can feel increasingly inadequate and depressed.
In my work one of the aspects of our lives which tends to lead us into trouble is the inability to set appropriate boundaries. Social media makes it easy to set them too high, where you present to the world a two dimensional glossy magazine version of of yourself, or too low, where you forget that posting a picture on Twitter of you dancing on a table with your trousers around your ankles might not play too well in the headmasters office on Monday morning just before you’re due to teach an A-Level English class. The former creates a fog over whether you are really appreciated for who you are or who you pretend to be, and the latter has a tendency to make you feel ashamed, embarrassed and self critical.
But it is the parallel between increased social media use and the startling rise in anxiety which is perhaps of most concern.
One of the ways in which we create a sense of self worth is through comparison with others, and on social media those comparisons are unrealistic and impossible to live up to. Everyone is living a perfect life, and so it’s easy to feel you’re not good enough.
Fear of missing out is a tyrant of modern existence. We know what everyone else is doing, and we can easily see when they aren’t doing it with us. The opportunities to feel rejected, disconnected, worth less and sidelined are everywhere.
On several occasions in the past months I have had people tell me they just want to escape from the constant busyness and “noise” in their heads. We have lost the ability to create “nothingness” for ourselves, believing that constant stimulation is better than boredom, but it is not. In any idle moment we reach for a phone, checking social media, or posting a picture of the bus stop we’re waiting at. Our brains are designed to have space and time to breathe if we want them to work at their best, but we seem intent on filling every single space with something, anything.
When did you last go somewhere or do something without your mobile? How long can you manage without being connected to social media? What might it be like to try it? You may find it more liberating than you had imagined. Ironically, it is the moments of disconnection that enable us to feel properly connected to the real world and the people who inhabit it.
That same morning I’d had the cancellations a book had arrived for me in the mail. Rather than posting another picture of a loaf on Instagram I went and had a coffee and read for an hour. It was just like the old days, and that’s sometimes more wonderful than you might imagine.