Social Media’s affect on self perception

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The idea of having a quick and relatively easy way to both find and reconnect with friends and colleagues sounds harmless. And for some, perhaps it is. However, here’s my experience that I later started to observe in my clients, as well. Facebook: I was actual friends with very few of my “friends”. People from high school, kids who I actually never had any sort of actual interaction, were asking to be friends. And then there are all of the random birthday wishes and e-cards and people “tagging” me in photos from forever ago (without my permission!) and the constant stream of updates and links to articles about everything from politics to silly pet videos. Wha??!

It actually has an addictive quality to it for many with whom I’ve spoken personally and those I work with professionally, myself included. You see people updating their statuses and checking the status of others in line at the store, in their cars (yikes!), and anywhere else they might otherwise look up from their electronic device and interact with the actual world around them. Socializing in this way is an illusion of connection with others without all the messiness of actual human interaction.

Facebook, twitter, instagram, etc. promote exchanges where users start collecting “followers”. I’ve worked with teens who say that the number of followers they have and “likes” of a picture are incredibly important to their sense of social status and actual experience of being “liked” in real life. I’ve also worked with teens and adults, alike, who have intense regret over postings they’ve made themselves or by others about them. Not every moment should be documented for others to judge, scrutinize, and ultimately like or dislike. With such long lists of friends and followers, why is addiction so rampant? Why are we all so lonely and isolated despite being ever more “connected”? Why aren’t we feeling more esteem for ourselves and more grounded in our relationships with others?

In twelve step communities there is a saying about addicts engaged in an endless cycle of “compare and despair”. In other words, there is always someone lesser or greater than you, someone smarter, thinner, in or out of a relationship, in a better career, etc. Seeking out opportunities to size yourself up against others (and isn’t that really what is mostly going on with these sites?) is often a way to find things to feel bad about, especially for someone struggling with mental health challenges who is already feeling out of balance. Isn’t it hard enough to find one’s sense of self without a constant state of feedback from the outside about one’s worthiness? Beyond the obvious concern about posting unflattering photos or making statements in a forum from which they can never really retracted, I’m very concerned about how this form of relating to one another is and will affect our emotional development and ability to be with each other in real and authentic ways.

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