There is a current movement targeting bloggers and social media influencers for being part of the cause of the troubling increase in teen suicides, depression, and general decreased quality of life. I know this post might seem like I’m gratuitously joining the chorus. However, this has been on my heart for some time. This is an important issue.
This is from my own perspective and experience of having increased anxiety and depression that I believe was in no small part triggered by my involvement with Instagram. Does that mean I had to delete my account? NO! I love that app and all the meaningful relationships and opportunities that have come from it. I don’t kid myself. I believe it has negatively influenced me from time to time. My experience is consistent with studies that show the use of social media can have a negative affect on mental health.
It amazes me to see people just delete their social media accounts and walk away; but for me the benefits of social media have out weighed the negative. I feel called to encourage and connect with others and social media has been the most effective way in doing that. I knew I had to develop a healthier relationship with Instagram.
Early last year I felt like social media was taking me back to my eating disorder days. When I was 19 I learned how to diet and developed an eating disorder that was fueled by insecurity and a drive to make myself look better than the girl next door. I was thrust into a new reality called “freshman year of college”, I lived in a building with 300 other females and felt constant pressure to fit in, stand out, be pretty and small. Comparing myself to these girls was a daily preoccupation. I concluded I wasn’t enough. Over the next 6 years I battled over-exercising, anorexia, bulimia and binge eating…. no matter the diagnosis the underlying issues were the same. I was lonely, depressed, and was certain that I was not enough and not worthy of love. I knew I couldn’t blame food or the pretty girl with the fast metabolism…cause that’s ridiculous. An examination of my thought patterns and emotions was a must. I felt social media dragging me back into that negative cycle.
Here’s what I’ve learned. You can have a healthy relationship with social media and share those healthy principles with others particularly your children.
First, identify why you’re using it. Become more aware of your purpose when you log onto social media… why am I doing this, to connect with old friends, find new friends, communicate with family, to be inspired, to grow my business, create a brand, sell a product, get a date, distract from life, find a recipe, or figure out what to wear? So, ask yourself before you scroll how am I feeling and why am I here, why am I in this space and why do I keep coming back to it?
Second, remind yourself that social media can be one dimensional and often is surface level. Even with the new introduction of Instagram stories you only see what others want you to see. You can’t be aware of their problems, pain, insecurities or shame unless they share it with you. You see the angles, clothes, images of their kids and the parts of their homes that they want to reveal. This is not a bash on social media or those that use it and even profit from it. It’s like my past unhealthy relationship with food. I could not just stop eating. Learning how to have a healthy relationship with food again was where I found healing. Its easy to view social media in the same. Social media provides positive connections that contribute to the greater good.
While social media is in it’s early stages of development, it is already a cultural phenomenon of unparalleled consequece. It feels uncharted and sometimes seems like the Wild Wild West. It’s largely unregulated with universal access. Regulation? Do we really want to be limited in how we express ourselves? However there is a pronounced need to help those who are negatively affected by it particularly those who are inclined to harm themselves.
As a licensed marriage and family therapist who has personally struggled with insecurity, panic, anxiety, and depression I’ve come to understand the role that social media played in this. It’s a perfect laboratory for unhealthy comparison. So I said “enough”, hired a business coach to help me prioritize values and goals and did some significant therapeutic work to release negative beliefs.
I’ve counseled several young people who cut themselves to feel real pain in place of emotional pain; it breaks my heart that this is on the rise with pressure from social media playing a part. So what changes can we make to contribute to a more healthy social media interaction?
#1 Assess Your Emotional State
If you’re depressed or feeling vulnerable stay off social media until you’re confident of the source….call a trusted friend or family member, someone who can share your struggle. One of the most helpful coping mechanisms is to journal, write about your pain or go for a walk, volunteer to help others, go to Starbucks or a public place where being with people can help you get out of your head. I have recommended to my clients to use a technique that comes from Dialectical Behavior Therapy commonly know as the Distract, Relax, and Cope (DRC) plan. First distract yourself which involves actively resisting negative coping like alcohol, food, cutting and social media when it’s used to numb your reality. Take 5 deeps breathes, consider leaving your current location, walk out of the room, leave the party to facilitate relaxation. This helps to creative an environment conducive to relaxation. Next write a list of 5 things that calm you like music, lighting a candle, read or write in a journal, even exercise can be calming. Lastly, COPE….Coping involves processing emotions and thoughts without reacting negatively. This facilitates identifying the source of negativity without judgement. Everyone struggles with negative thoughts. The secret is not to let them control you. In therapy I often say “what you focus on grows!” Think of your life as garden, it’s a constant watering and weeding process. When you’re watering, focus on the flowers not weeds…pull the dang weeds and focus on the flowers. Review the qualities and characteristics you like about yourself…focus on THEM. If you have trouble identify them ask a trusted friend or someone who loves you. Then believe them.
#2 Parents Know Your Kids
Have a meaningful relationship with your child by being involved in their life at their level. Being involved in their life at their level informs you of their emotional health. In my opinion its essential for you to be able to access their social media accounts so you can monitor their interactions and see what they are viewing. This will be a major buzz kill for them but that’s okay, remember you’re their parent not their friend and this very task could save their life. I remember my mom allowed me to subscribe to SEVENTEEN Magazine when I was 14 years old. I was just beginning to learn about culture, style and important things to a teen like how to apply makeup. I can still see my mom now paging through each issue with me, fully informed of what I was ingesting. One day I thought I could get away with purchasing a Cosmopolitan magazine. She threw that thing right out…I didn’t need to be learning about sexual positions at 16! The prefrontal cortex is the brain’s center for rational thought. It’s where we make decisions… good judgement and consequences both short and long term are evaluated here. HERE’S THE POINT! This part of the brain isn’t fully developed until your mid 20’s! This means your child’s brain is far less developed than yours. Children tend to process information with the emotional part of the brain called the amygdala. When teens experience overwhelming emotional input, they are unable to process what they were thinking because they weren’t thinking as much as they were feeling. Parents are the gate-keepers to their child’s social media involvement… the corollary is that parents must be a good role model in their use of social media.
#3 Control Your Feed
Unfollow accounts that tend to generate unhealthy thoughts that make you feel less than you are or that you’re lacking something. I encourage the hard work of asking yourself why is this person or account triggering these emotions. Analyze the source and fill your feed with truth…people that speak the truth with accounts that create joy and post words and images that encourage and inspire. Its the same as having real friends. Ask yourself, would you spend time with someone with whom you had nothing in common? Or would you spend time with someone who consistently made you feel bad? The answer is obvious, NO! So take control of your feed and it’s probably not a good idea to cruise the explorer page…I find it to be a trap and a potentially dangerous path.
#4 Social Media Influencers
The common misconception is that a social media influencer is someone with many followers. The reality is that every person who posts is a social media influencer… whether you have 10 or 10,000 followers. We all have influence over the people that follow us and see our posts. Think about your values, define them, write them down. Think about how you want to be known, write that down. Be careful of the content you post. Does it reflect who you really are and who you want to be? When you do this think about your audience. What do you want them to think about you and about them? Posting comes with responsibility. Here’s a thought, don’t photoshop yourself or stage things to perfection. That’s not you… people want to know the real you.
Comparing yourself gives envy an opportunity to come in. When this happens stop, walk away, log out and identify what made you jealous. Resist making judgments about the post or the person. Envy is destructive, reformat it into a goal! I guarantee you the quality of your life will not increase if you instantly got what you wanted. You will become a far better person for setting goals and working towards them. Winning the lottery doesn’t necessarily make you happy. In fact, one study of lottery winners states that 70% of them had spent every last dime of their jackpot within 5 years of winning. The process of acquiring real wealth and achieving real goals means more and shapes you as a real person.
I have a feeling I’ll be revisiting this topic from time to time because I know social media isn’t going away and neither are it’s negative and positive effects. Please feel free to leave a comment below expressing your thoughts on this matter.