How to Live Well in a Social Media-Crazed Culture
Updated: Aug 10, 2022
This is not an anti-social media soapbox. Not at all. In fact, chances are you landed on this page via Facebook, Instagram, etc. I’ll be the first to call myself out on the battle to establish and maintain boundaries when it comes to this topic. It’s a growing phenomenon and not slowing down anytime soon. Social media use has rapidly become- for most of us- a part of everyday life. While we can’t possibly know for sure, one source took 2020 reports, averaged daily social media use over the course of the lifespan and suggested that ABOUT 6 years and 8 months of the typical person’s lifetime is spent online. This is more than the categories of eating and drinking combined, to give you a frame of reference.
Whether you’re an avid user or anti-Facebook, social media is a huge part of the modern life, a method of connection and communication with others. Not only do we crave these things as human beings, but we also by nature tend to suffer from FOMO (fear of missing out.) No one wants to be left in the dust. So how exactly does social media impact personal well-being and how we can live well in this social media-crazed culture?
The Comparison Trap
This seems like an obvious downside of social media, but this one has been around a lot longer than the Internet. If you're human, you've been engaging in social comparison since the beginning of time. Remember standing back-to-back as kids to determine who was taller? Even during years of early development we were looking to answer questions about ourselves from the world around us. And that doesn't stop when we hit adulthood. This is called the Social Comparison Theory, which the APA Dictionary of Psychology describes as the notion that we all tend to evaluate our "abilities and attitudes" in relation to others. This plays a huge role in developing our "self-image and subjective well-being." It’s just what we do.
Social media has made the comparison slope all the more slippery. For the first time in history, we have 24/7 access to someone else’s life. Not only that, but we have access to the best of their life, the highlight reel that remind us that our lives are looking rather drab in comparison. We start looking to people we don’t even know to gauge our progress in society, personal productivity, career advancement, and success in various relational roles.
Social Comparison isn’t bad, per se. In fact, it can be highly motivating. But if we’re not mindful to keep a tight reign on this innate tendency, the comparison will only be used to tear others and ourselves down. We’ll be either looking for affirmation from strangers that we’re doing okay or judging others to confirm self-worth. The best way to combat this I’ve found is to cling to truth about who you are and pause to question your own motives the next time you scrutinize someone else on Instagram. A girl who is living well will “...rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). Build your inner circle, people that you trust who often encourage and uplift you. While they don’t define your self-worth, the words of these individuals should hold significantly more weight than hundreds of social media associates put together.
Let’s Talk Mental Health
The effects of social media use on mental health vary, and many are positive. Connection with others online, meaning actual interactions, have shown to improve overall mental health, as you would expect. I am often encouraged by photos, comments, shared pages, etc., not to mention the bond that is maintained with long-distance friends and family members.
Adolescents and young adults, however, are especially at risk for higher anxiety, depression, stress, and loneliness. One article notes that some people experience extreme stress when unable to access social media, responding in a manner similar to an addict. It CAN become an addiction, absolutely. We can become anxious, irritable, almost a different person entirely when prevented from social media use, or cell phones in general. We even think that hopping online will make us feel better. How many times has this actually given you a mood boost? Yet, we keep going back. I’ve worked with teens and adolescents enough to witness several cases in which a child threatened to hurt themselves or someone else because their phones were rightfully confiscated by a parent or teacher. One client, age 12, threatened suicide unless her mother returned her phone. It is truly an epidemic, but it can be managed.
Our brains are amazing and resilient but also very easily influenced. When we scroll for hours until the eyeballs burn (you know the feeling) our brains are taking in an incredible amount of information- media, messages, opinions, news, you name it. Even funny TikTok videos we can all enjoy from time to time require some brain processing power. Within seconds you‘re connected to any type of information you could possibly seek. And while this benefits us in many ways, it’s a lot.
If you notice your consumption of media is negatively impacting your mood, prompting irritability or anxiety, it’s time to take a break. Delete for a week, a month, whatever you need to do to step away and regroup. Around election time last year I finally stepped away from the complaining, accusations, and mean words in the online world I felt were constantly bombarding my brain. I also thinned out my crowded newsfeed, too, by unfollowing certain people. This isn’t being narrow-minded or discriminatory, by the way, it’s taking care of yourself. We do have some control over the messages we’re taking in, so make some changes!
Relationships and Social Media
Excessive social media use does indeed impact our relationships. That pesky comparison trap can promote jealousy, unrealistic expectations of our relationships, or the feeling that our little lives are mundane and boring compared to so-and-so. More time spent on Facebook was linked to increased interpersonal conflict between couples. My sweet sister-in-law told me several months ago that she gave up social media altogether and notes she can’t recommend it enough. She has noticed overall improvement in her general well-being. The clincher was when she found herself becoming irritable or impatient when her kids disrupted her “me time" online during the day. For her, it was a bold but healthy personal decision.
Obviously, we crave that connection and community. We’re wired for it! I’ll never forget trekking through the countryside of West Africa dotted with dilapidated shacks yet bumping into a stand selling mobile phones. People didn’t have clean water but yet owned a smartphone. Clearly, global connection is important to us. But we need to be teaching our kids (and training ourselves) that it’s not the most important thing in the world. And this starts, like most things unfortunately, by demonstrating it yourself. If you don’t post evidence of your romantic getaway, it doesn’t mean your marriage isn’t thriving. Actually, it seems many times the least documented moments are the sweetest. The best thing you can do for yourself and your kids is to teach them to embrace reality, the real- time life passing by while we study our devices. Embrace a past life where people actually struck up conversations in the coffee line. Revive the lost art of letter-writing and send a note to an old friend. The life outside of the screen is too beautiful to miss while building your online profile.
Living life well with a presence online is definitely an opportunity to intentionally uplift and encourage your fellow human. Even if she looks like she has herself together and her baked goods actually do look like Pinterest, she might be internally bursting at the seams and need a some encouragement. Catching yourself passing judgment on someone else? As a friend’s mom once wisely told me, it’s hard to feel ill will toward someone you’re intentionally loving. Find like-minded people on social media that fill your screen with things that will actually add encouragement or make you laugh when you log on. You can be a positive, uplifting voice as well, don’t forget.
Pause to Ponder
While time spent on social media may pose more challenges, it can be done well. I am in no way trying to convince you to delete every account, but to carefully evaluate. Some questions you can ask yourself as we wrap up here:
How do I feel before and after spending time on social media?
What are my accounts like- what is my goal for this account?
How could I be using this platform to encourage/uplift others?
How much time am I spending on _____ and am I neglecting other things/people?
Is it time to set some limits or take a break completely?
Like almost everything else in life, social media use can be done well in moderation. It can be used as a platform of encouragement and truth, a method of connecting with loved ones or reaching someone that would otherwise be in isolation. Maybe someday I'll go rogue and surrender my accounts for good, but for now these words are a convicting step for myself to evaluate the effects of social media overall and how it can utilized as a tool to live well.