Social Media and Mental Health: Why Nothing is As It Appears to Be

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” -Theodore Roosevelt

We find ourselves isolated in a highly connected world. This oxymoron expresses one of the most significant and fundamental dilemmas of modern times: How can we foster intimacy when we’re closer to each other than ever before?

Social Media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc…) was, seemingly, designed to help us sustain relationships with those whom we would have otherwise lost touch with. Since we lead such busy lives, familial relationships are usually the only ones that we’re able to maintain as we age; while friendships, on the other hand, tend to encompass monthly or bimonthly catchups, entailing limited emotional depth. Thus, enter social media, with its promise to change the world.

The past decade witnessed a boom in online networking platforms and, concurrently, a rise in depression and anxiety among adolescents and teenagers. Counter to what we expected, social media engendered an increase in loneliness, sadness, and fear among most, but especially among teens. Instead of genuinely connecting with others, we began using these platforms to compare our lives to those of others, particularly those whom we believed were happier. In essence, rather than utilizing these platforms to maintain our relationships (which some did), social media use was pivoted to bolstering our belief in life being a zero-sum game, where few win while the rest remain losers.

But, reality often deceives us.

Because life isn’t easy for most of us, including the rich and famous. In his commendable recent article on the pitfalls of meritocracy, law professor Daniel Markovits noted that our zero-sum thinking and accompanying cultural standard of success were driving us into ever deeper levels of despair. He wrote:

A person who extracts income and status from his own human capital places himself, quite literally, at the disposal of others—he uses himself up. Elite students desperately fear failure and crave the conventional markers of success… Meritocracy traps entire generations inside demeaning fears and inauthentic ambitions: always hungry but never finding, or even knowing, the right food.

Yet, if one were to examine their social media accounts, she would see a group of rich, successful, and happy people living their best lives. For, social media affords us the chance to present our best selves to the world so that we could utilize its envy to delude ourselves into believing that we’re fine, or even happy. But, the truth is much dimmer.

I played my role in that damaged and damaging world. And, I wanted this article to be an open and honest revelation of social media and the ways that I’ve used it in the past. Most of my usage has been to bolster my image and brag about my accomplishments, which always left me wondering if I truly possessed anything worth having. On the face of it, I seemed like a happy and successful guy with a decent amount of friends. But, on the inside, I felt sad and isolated for the majority of the time. Because as others may have compared themselves to me, I, in turn, compared myself to others; my life was a seesaw of achieving and comparing, bereft of sustainable joy.

Where individual success reigns supreme, I was just another of its trivial casualties. I had followers but few friends; I had likes but few who really knew me. So, while most perceived me as happy and driven, I hid the empty hole that expanded whenever the applause faded. Advancing envy and receiving praise does little to improve our moods and does even less for self-acceptance, as those who need constant validation continue to harbor a deeply-seated sense of shame, which can only be quelled when others love and accept them for who they fully are.

Thus, all of this begs the question: If most on social media are unhappy, then how should we use it? Dr. Craig Malkin, in his book Rethinking Narcissism, argued that we should use social media to share our positive and negative experiences, presenting the world with a holistic image of ourselves. While this should of course be within limits, it can help reduce our incessant need for comparison and create a level of intimacy and compassion seldom seen on social media.

I fell in love with all of the wrong things, and I have myself to blame, at least partially, for my perpetual sense of alienation. But, sustained joy now seems to be in sight. I’ve recently decided to share more of my struggles and less of my achievements. While I still want approval, I also want to become more honest about my accomplishments and the way they make me feel. Everything that I’ve accomplished so far has only moderately made me happy. I achieve, I enjoy, and then, as always, I move on; for, success isn’t the epitome of a good life. And because it’s so infrequent, much of my time is spent yearning for its glow, rather than basking in its glory.

To end this blog post with a short personal story: When I was a kid, I often ditched school and, subsequently, got in trouble. But, there was one particular moment that stood out for me, when my dean called my mom to come in and meet with him. He lectured her on the significance of success and the importance of a solid work-ethic. At that point, I felt certain of her sense of shame and embarrassment, so I didn’t look at either of them while he spoke. And when he finished, I was sure she’d be upset. It was then that she looked at him and responded, “What’s most important is that my son is a good person.” That was it; that was all she said. And I recall how powerful it was, yet I constantly forget it.

To combat the envy and isolation stemming from social media use, we have to re-prioritize and remind ourselves of what it is that really matters. The fruits of our achievements, and our social media accounts, will eventually fade into oblivion; but, our stories will remain true for all of time, locked in the cosmic history of our universe. It’s up to us to decide on how we want them to be written.

Meritocracy Harms Everyone by Daniel Markovits

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