Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Myspace, Friends Reunited, Tumblr, Instagram – modern society is infinitely connected. Isn’t it fantastic? You’re never more than a swish of your iphone from the rest of the world. On the downside…you’re never more than a swish of your iphone from the rest of the world.
The modern culture of online sharing – or the endless sea of links to videos of transsexual dogs and articles slagging off David Cameron – has taken off like Apollo 11 in recent years. While this has opened us up to a glut of easy-access information and learning opportunities, there are drawbacks, especially for those of us vulnerable to depression and low self esteem.
Social media is a playground for narcissism. Every Facebook-status-updater, Tweeter and Instagram addict is in the business of marketing his or her online presence in the best possible light, aiming to incite news-feed wide jealousy and admiration, whether they’ll admit to it or not. Retweeting that filthy political joke Caitlin Moran posted because you ‘want others to enjoy it as much as you did?’ No. It’s a thinly veiled attempt to affirm your status as a hilarious wit who ‘gets’ high-brow comedy. Posting that selfie because your friend wanted to see your new haircut? You’re fooling no-one, it’s obvious you just want people to see how a bob sets off your delicious cheekbones. If instant gratification is measurable in ‘likes’ then Facebook is essentially the internet’s answer to crack cocaine.
The average person in the UK apparently spends 12 hours a day staring at a screen, and for some a sizeable chunk of that involves scrolling through their friends’ carefully edited digital lives, practically expiring with jealousy, before plotting clever status updates and uploading flattering photos to create the illusion their life is even more perfect.
Living in the moment, we are not – and it’s impacting our mental health.
I’ve never been a massive consumer of social media – I had a brief flirtation with Twitter but these days it’s solely Facebook that I dip in and out of – but even I’m not immune to being sucked into the narcissism vortex. Recently I noticed it had become habit to wander onto the Book even when I was working, and I was actually doing this several times an hour. I wasn’t even particularly enjoying this time – aimlessly scrolling through friends’ holiday snaps, reading boring status updates about cats, updating the online world on something I thought was hilarious – it had just become an ingrained habit, and it never made me feel particularly great about myself.
Luckily, just as you can create bad habits, you can undo them too.
I started by setting myself a strict thrice-a-day Facebook check in policy – only allowing myself to log in once after breakfast, lunch and dinner. Initially I had to exercise a modicum of self restraint and resist the urge to stray into social networking territory while working, but after just a couple of days I found I wasn’t even thinking about who might be checking into Heathrow on FourSquare, and I was much more focused on work projects. After about a week I started to find that looking at Facebook three times a day was too much, so I cut back to two browsing sessions. Then one. Now I probably log in no more than once a day and my primary objective is to read any private messages that have come my way – I’ll take a cursory glance at the newsfeed but to be honest it doesn’t really interest me any more.
The hyperactive stream of status updates, news stories, photos and videos that used to assault and engage with my brain every time I looked at Facebook has become like the gentle hum of background noise in a cafe. I’ll occasionally tune in to the clinking of china and distant sounds of chit-chat, but primarily I’m focused on my own space in the room.
Do I feel any different for my less socially-networked life? Yes. There are palpable changes for the better – I’m calmer, more focused and I feel far less compelled to tell the online world every time I think of or see something amusing. I don’t need to write something witty and have people ‘like’ it to feel validated, I’m just happy to enjoy the moment by myself, or maybe with a close friend. By spending less time peering through the keyhole into my friends’ fabulous online lives I’m less concerned with how my own life compares. My self esteem is actually higher.
All this from just spending less time on social networks? It seems crazy. But it just goes to show what kind of effect these sites have on the psyche – and serves as a reminder that the only person I need to impress is myself, not a virtual room full of online ‘friends’.
That’s not to say we should all forever avoid Facebook like it’s an overly handsy Uncle – it certainly has it’s place for occasional fun and boredom alleviation – but you know what else is fun? Going outside. Where there are actual trees, not just the kind that adorn your screensaver. Do it.