As many of you may know, I’ve drastically limited my time on social media.
Then recently, whilst at home sick with a high fever and flu-like symptoms, I ended up posting on facebook for the first time in nearly a year, which led to me checking back regularly to see if I had any comments. I then would peruse my newsfeed as, being bed bound, I had lots of time on my hands and nowhere to go and no energy to do much more than scroll.
But after a few days, I started to feel down. I can chalk this up in part to being isolated and feeling poorly, which always tends to leave me feeling out of sorts and a little blue.
Yet alongside the familiar sickness-blues was another familiar sensation that I experience from time to time and have come to associate with social media: a sense of being left out, or not belonging, or needing to do more.
Basically, by the end of my illness (and therefore, the end of my social media usage), I found a number of drawbacks to having used it.
Now, I don’t want to suggest that social media is “bad” or that I’m somehow a better person for not using it (hardly). As with a lot of things, there is no inherent value or drawback in the thing itself; it depends on how you use it.
But I did find it interesting, so here is what I’ve learnt following this unintended experiment in the pros and cons of social media.
A big part of the blue feeling I had after using social media again was feeling left out and not up-to-scratch.
Others’ holiday photos made me feel like I hadn’t done enough with my kids this summer. Someone else’s promotion made me feel less successful in my own career.
And perhaps worst of all, I saw people having conversations and I felt left out – even though I didn’t care to be part of that clique or group.
The perfect example of this was my son’s school having a competition for parents to photograph their kids reading in unexpected or unusual places, with the best photos being shared on the school’s facebook page. I saw lots of people I knew whose kids were reading on ice rinks, at the top of the Shard, or jetting off on holiday, and I felt badly that my son wasn’t included as I had decided not to take part. I felt like I was missing out as if this group of parents were all sitting at the lunch table while I sat off by myself at the unpopular table.
I realise how juvenile all this is. And therein lies the problem. Somehow, social media left me feeling like a pubescent girl stuck at the bottom of a meaningless yet pervasive social order.
I had my own reasons for deciding not to take part in this, and those haven’t really changed. But I felt badly, left out, and not good enough.
I like to think I am an open-minded and non-judgemental person. (In fact, it’s vital as a coach and baked right into being a Quaker).
I can find myself struggling with people who don’t share my values: parents at the school ground who drove to school on a fine day despite living under a few minutes’ walk away… people using ‘disposable’ plastic carrier bags apparently without thought to what happens after the bag ends up in a bin… those in favour of building walls (literal and metaphorical) to keep out immigrants.
This values-based annoyance becomes truly petty, though, when given the opportunity.
Enter social media.
Perhaps in response to feeling down on myself when I size myself up against my newsfeed, I find myself chipping away at others:
I see someone posting their recent run route and time and catch a smug inward smile knowing I can run that faster and without deeming it worth posting about.
Or an acquaintance posts a selfie caked with makeup and I look down my unpowdered nose at what I’ve decided is “too much makeup.”
In ‘real life’, I appreciate myself for who I am, and am more likely to appreciate others for who they are – differences and warts in all. So what gives?
I think a key part of this is that I need a boost. I feel down on myself from certain posts so jump at the chance to feel better about myself when I see other posts.
I’m also a voyeur into others’ lives, sitting in isolation. I’m not actually engaging with these people; I’m an audience. So appraising comes far more easily scrolling through social media than when I’m in conversation with someone.
I remember when I first cut back on using social media that I’d catch myself crafting a post in my head as something was happening.
One of my kids would do something funny and I’d start imagining how I would share this in a humorous way on facebook, then remember that I was consciously not posting and stop. Until something else would happen and again I’d catch myself writing another post in my mind.
I’m reminded of a recent trip with my family to Holland Park in west London. As we sat eating our treats from the cafe under a tree, I saw a girl and her partner lying on a blanket in the grass, with a huge hamper-style picnic basket next to them and a champagne flute in hand. She was taking photo after photo on her phone – of herself with her hair spread just so on the blanket, of their spread and champagne flute from different angles, of her and her partner smiling and raising a glass. Honestly there have probably been shorter photo shoots for a magazine spread. And I wonder how much she was able to enjoy the actual experience of sitting in a gorgeous park under brilliant sun while preoccupied with curating the moment.
A couple of weeks later, my eldest son and I went to the National Gallery. We queued to see some of the impressionist pieces my son had studied at school, and I was struck by how much of our wait was not due to people appreciating the art, but waiting for them to photograph it. Quite a few people only got a cursory glance at the piece before viewing it only through their phone screen. What is the point of seeing this great art in person if you’re not going to look at it, well, in person?
When we spend so much time curating our lives for social media, I fear we sacrifice our experience of life.
Not thinking about how something might look on social media, I find myself making some different choices. A simple Sunday of letting the kids play around the house and getting fresh air at the park in the afternoon doesn’t translate to Instagram as well as taking the kids on a day out. Without social media, and therefore, without an audience, we’ve had more of those simpler days, which actually is just what the kids and I needed.
Moreover, my full attention can be there, in the moment, without the distraction of mentally composing and comparing on social media.
Related to the instinct to curate life comes inevitable white lies to make life look grand – perhaps grander than it is.
Just the other week, I was walking to pick up my eldest from school when I noticed a young mother tucking her preschooler daughter’s dress into her bloomer pants. As I passed them, the mother was showing her little girl how to pose while she got her phone out to take pictures.
It looked like the kind of thing a potty-training child might do on accident, but in this case the mother was directing the whole thing. Presumably the little girl had tucked a part of her skirt into her bloomers and her mother was exaggerating it in order to capture the photo. But the whole thing seemed manufactured and disingenuous.
But this mother is not alone in exaggerating reality or staging photos. A Canadian study found that the use of the #nofilter hashtag on instagram was misleading in about 12% of posts, over half of which were photos of people.
It’s easy to make the jump from ‘carefully curated’ to ‘heavily staged’, and that’s not one I want to make. I’d rather cherish the moments with my kids for what they are, without embellishing them to get me more dopamine kicks from likes and comments.
Lastly, I found social media a poor substitute for what is attractive about it. Connecting to other people, feeling part of a community, keeping aware of what’s happening in the world, having a laugh…all of these can happen on social media, but can happen far better in real life.
And with the time and mental energy I save from foregoing social media, I can do more to achieve all of these aims.