Find me on Instagram – I’ll send you a tweet, then see you on Facebook, yeah?

 

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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.

 

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My depression demolition team

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Depression can be very isolating. Soaring stress levels can severely impede what you can do on a daily basis and trying to keep up with social niceties is exhausting, then there’s the reclusive nature of the illness. Why go out and meet people when you can completely withdraw and spend the evening at home weeping in front of an endless conveyor belt of Mad Men episodes?

Depressed people are no picnic to be around and there have been times I certainly wouldn’t hang out with me.

Because of this the pool of people I spend time with has slowly but steadily shrunk over the last few years, leaving a very select few friends and family members splashing about in the shallows with me. Since I stopped being ‘fun’, my wider circle of acquaintances has drifted away to the point that these days the most intimate window into their lives I have is through Facebook.

It’s not the worst thing in the world to be forcibly reminded who your real friends are. I’ve got some pretty good ones. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss my carefree and frivolous partying days – having a big network of mates can be ridiculously fun. But they’re not the ones who will sit on the phone with you at 3am when you can’t sleep, or take you to the doctors when you’re too anxious to go alone.

So I thought I’d take the opportunity to spotlight a few of the people in my life that are helping me through this relentlessly awful time, and some of the incredible things they’ve done for me over recent years. My loved ones have become a fearsome force of destruction when it comes to battling my depression; picking me up every time I fall and refusing to let me to give up. Without them I doubt I’d still be standing today.

First there’s my parents. Pushing 60 and not without their own troubles, they’ve been my rock throughout this ordeal. They’ve taken me in and looked after me when I couldn’t cope by myself and put up with numerous tantrums when frustration made me lash out at those I love the most. I know they’d do anything for me, that this journey has been horrific on them too, and they’re my main motivation for getting better.

D, my best mate from school, although having no way of conceiving what depression is like – being the most joyful, positive and energetic person I’ve ever met – has never stopped trying to understand what I’m going through. She’s made it very clear that there’s no time limit after which she’ll cease putting up with my hysterics, and is the first to correct me when I question why she’d still want to spend time with someone who has become so tired and boring. I’d be lost without her.

W, my best mate from University, is a flaming ball of positive energy. When I’m about to fall down the well, she rugby tackles me back into reality and forces me to think positive. She once travelled all the way from London to my parents’ home to drag me back to the city on a train because she knew I couldn’t do it alone.

My brother M. He seems to have stolen all the wisdom genes in our family, for there’s no-one else who can shift me from completely panicked to calm, in the space of a phone call, like he can. He takes no prisoners in his approach to dealing with my illness and knows exactly when to call me out on my crap, but I trust him implicitly.

Lastly, there’s my friend A, a qualified psychologist who I know, at times, has found it difficult not to overstep the boundary between friend and therapist, but time and again has provided much needed advice and support with infinite grace and compassion. Despite having to spend most of her day dealing with other people’s problems, she always has time for me.

When I start to feel jealous of my 20-something peers whose colossal social spheres seem to involve nothing but having the time of their lives (damn you, Facebook, DAMN YOU) I only have to think about my little pocket of loved ones. I only need to remind myself how truly privileged I am to have these people in my life, and to hope that one day I can show them the same unfailing loyalty, love and respect they’ve shown me.

And then I remind myself to switch off Facebook.