At this time of year, newspapers and magazines are full of articles advocating self-care, whether that be through a new fitness routine, a healthy diet or taking part in an initiative like Dry January or Veganuary. While last September was the month when we were initially encouraged to go ‘scroll free’, a New Year’s resolution to spend less time on or even to dispense entirely with social media could make a huge contribution to our mental wellbeing at this dark time of year when we are more prone to low mood and more vulnerable to the threats posed by negative self-talk.
What are the downsides of social media?
The first negative side effect of social media is the sheer amount of time it can consume. Modern life is hectic and time poverty can have a significant impact on our mental wellbeing and levels of anxiety. Despite this, many if not all of us will have laid in bed, endlessly scrolling through social media and ignoring all the advice we have been given around good sleep hygiene. I caught myself doing this just last Sunday night, unable to sleep, my head full of thoughts of work the next day and eventually drawn to my Instagram and Twitter feeds. It struck me how even in the moment, an awareness of just how much time I was wasting did not preclude a sense of compulsion, driving me to trawl through more and more posts, going further and further away from my initial starting point, even though I would have struggled to articulate any reason for my apparent need to do so.
This sense of compulsion contributes to the second and most pernicious side effect of social media. Studies have consistently shown that the use of social networks has a negative psychological impact. More specifically, it creates and then feeds acute feelings of envy. In fact, envy as an emotion is so closely associated with the experience of using social media that it has made FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) the acronym perhaps most closely associated with it.
What is envy?
When considering the impact of social media and how to counter this, it is first important to have a clear understanding of what envy is, and the difference between envy and jealousy, two terms that are close cousins, along with resentment. In essence, envy is about wanting what we don’t have, whereas jealousy is about wanting to protect what is already in our possession.
We feel envious when we see a desired attribute that we lack in another person. We feel jealous when something we already possess (often a special relationship) is threatened by someone else. Envy involves two people whereas jealousy often involves three. People often find it difficult to distinguish between the two emotions: ask someone to describe a situation in which they felt jealous and they are as likely to describe an experience of envy (I wish that I was as attractive as my friend) as one of jealousy (my attractive friend danced with the man I like.) This can create a sense that jealousy and envy are really similar, when in fact they are quite different.
How does social media feed feelings of envy?
Social media has given envy a new lease of life. My envy can be provoked by something shallow, like a new pair of shoes captured in a selfie, or by something more meaningful. It can be provoked by an achievement in an area of common interest or in an area that is yours alone but which somehow connects with something I would wish for myself. The envy can focus on something tangible – the beautiful new house you have just bought with your partner – or on something more abstract, such as how happy you and your family are, despite your limited financial resources. As we all know, social media images and posts often represent the edited highlights of a person’s life, and create an impression that may only bear a passing resemblance to the reality of their everyday existence. Yet while we may at times be able to rationalise and imagine the truth behind what we are seeing online, these posts and images can still have a powerful emotional effect.
Social media can increase feelings of envy since it also increases our sense of being close to the people who are the object of our feelings. The philosopher Aaron Ben-Ze’ev explains that our envy tends to be directed at people who are socially close to us: “because those who are close to us, but still above us, emphasise our own inferiority more than those who are distant from us.”
The accessibility of other people through social media makes a wider range of goods, experiences and lifestyles feel like they are within our reach. We have at least an illusion of intimacy with, and proximity to, a much wider range of people. On a practical level, this means that we have a greater number of people with whom to make comparisons, and who may provoke feelings of envy. My circle of friends on social media includes not only my actual friends, but also childhood friends, former and current work colleagues, and an assortment of other people whose paths I’ve crossed over the years. It includes the childhood friend who has married a very wealthy man and who posts pictures of her attractive children, happy family life and beautiful home. It includes the former colleague who has found another new boyfriend and is constantly flying off for Instagram-friendly cocktails and dinners in idyllic holiday locations. At least, these are the stories that the pictures are telling me.
What is the point of receiving a new designer handbag if you don’t post a picture of it on social media?
Social media is like a huge algorithm that rewards, promotes and celebrates certain life events over others. It erodes diversity and encourages us to share a singular view of what happiness and success could look like and therefore of what should be considered enviable. Our envy is then reinforced by the fact that social media also brings lives that were previously unknown and out of reach to somewhere within our grasp, or at least appears to. We may envy our friends or work colleagues, but by narrowing the distance between us and them, social media also enables us to envy the confidence of Mary Portas, the wealth of the Kardashians, the influence of David Lammy, or the talent of Taylor Swift.
This artificial sense of proximity to public figures is linked to the way in which social media is gradually dismantling the social strategy of encapsulation. Encapsulation creates sub-societies within society. These sub-societies are separated from each other by social, psychological, cultural and often physical boundaries. You and your circle of friends are members of the same sub-society: you probably share similar values, and it is likely you share a similar quality of life to those to whom you feel closest, not least because you value and enjoy similar experiences.
Beyond shared values, these sub-societies often share a sense of who should or should not have access to them, and actively work to exclude the latter group, either through circumstance or by design. Private clubs with restricted membership, expensive new housing estates in fashionable parts of the city, suburbs whose house prices reflect easy access to good schools and good transport links, universities whose entrance requirements often exclude those from more disadvantaged backgrounds; these all bring together people of comparable means and status (whether financial or otherwise) and exclude those who are deemed not to meet the entrance requirements.
Social media is not the only mechanism that is challenging this process of encapsulation, but it is playing an extremely significant role. Social media, along with the proliferation of online news, celebrity gossip and reality TV, has meant that boundaries between sub-societies are being broken down. The advantages of the haves are now very much visible to the have-nots, not least since social media has made is acceptable for people to flaunt their possessions and achievements. In the past, a strategy of concealment was regularly employed by those in the public eye, to ward off others’ envy, since the latter was seen more negatively than it is today. Now, the opposite appears to be true, across all sections of society. What is the point of receiving a new designer handbag if you don’t post a picture of it on social media? Can you really feel truly excited about your pregnancy until you have shared the scan on Facebook?
Is envy bad for you?
As with so many technological advances, we have stumbled blindly into bad habits whose effects we are now beginning to realise but which are also incredibly hard to break. It is clear that a re-evaluation of our relationship with social media – along with a reduction in the amount of time we spend engaged with it – can have a significantly positive impact on our wellbeing. Studies have consistently shown that increased use of social media is in direct proportion to increased feelings of dissatisfaction and unhappiness. While it allows people to make instant connections, it is ‘offline’, face-to-face social networks that have been shown to enhance wellbeing. Social media, on the other hand, is linked to greater feelings of social isolation. Whether the individuals browsing Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and so on really are socially isolated or not – though they certainly are in their moments of solitary browsing – it is the perception of social isolation that has been shown to be more damaging, both mentally and physically. Research has also shown that all kinds of comparisons via social media – whether we feel we are better or worse off that the friends whose posts we are reading – can have a negative impact and can lead to depressive symptoms. Perhaps because continually drawing these comparisons and then evaluating our own position in some kind of virtual pecking order is incredibly emotionally draining.
These comparisons can lead to a vicious cycle that is psychologically damaging. Recent scientific studies have belied the suggestion that envy can act as a useful motivator and instead found a clear correlation between increased envy and slower growth of psychological wellbeing. Rather than spurring us to improve our own situation, our feelings of envy or jealousy are more likely to make us want to make our own lives look better. Furthermore, according to the psychologist Sherry Turkle, the lives we then construct online induce envy not only in others but also in ourselves, since we inevitably fail to live up to the idealised, virtual identities we create on social media. And yet we continue to feel compelled to come back to social media, even though we know it will not make us feel any better. This is called a forecasting error, and is a well known symptom of many addictive behaviours, such as alcoholism or drug addiction. We think that a fix of Facebook will help, but it actually makes us feel worse. We are unable accurately to predict our own response to social media.
How can we change our relationship with social media?
The first step is to limit the time we spend on it. While going scroll-free for a short period of time is an option (and one that I certainly found liberating) it may not be realistic in the long term. However, we can limit the number of times we log onto social media each day, or the periods of time within which we allow ourselves to do so. Opening our social media apps has become an almost automatic habit but it is one that we can break. Why not carry a book or a magazine to keep you occupied on public transport or while sat in a waiting room? Try to apply the principles of mindfulness to your daily routine and develop the habit of looking around, engaging with and enjoying your surroundings. Resist your apparent need for constant stimulation and notice how your mind feels better for it.
For those who might need it, there are plenty of apps out there that can offer extra help. I use Moment, a great smart phone app that enables you to monitor your screen time, to limit it, and to see which apps are taking up most of your time. On my laptop, I use Freedom to block internet access while I am working, to ensure that I don’t get distracted by social media or other websites.
Beyond these practical adjustments, we all need to reflect on our use of social media and the negative impact this may be having on our own and others’ psychological wellbeing. We need to be more honest with ourselves and others in terms of what we choose to post, and need to examine the motivations that underpin our decisions. If we continue to use social media, we should think about how we can celebrate a whole range of definitions of success and contentment. We should aim to be as honest and vulnerable online as we might be in person, and expect the same from our friends.
Failing that, we can always post more pictures of cats!