Social Media Versus Reality

(Before you read this article, it is important to note that I am not a doctor or healthcare professional – This article is based on my experience with social media, my own research and interviews I conducted.)

How do we differentiate between social media and real life?

Nowadays, it’s very easy for people to compare themselves to others, something that is labelled as ‘social comparison’. This theory was first proposed by psychologist Leon Festinger in 1954 – as mentioned in this paper titled ‘Selective Exposure Theory’. It explains that there is a “drive within individuals to look to outside images in order to evaluate their own opinions and abilities. These images may be a reference to physical reality or in comparison to other people. People look to the images portrayed by others to be obtainable and realistic, and subsequently, make comparisons among themselves, others and the idealized images”.

Social comparison can often be executed through the internet. If this is performed in a somewhat healthy way, it can and should be great motivation to grow and improve, in your personal and professional life.

But what happens when social comparison online turns negative? The stalking on social media begins and we start looking at perfect images that are filtered or photoshopped, at others celebrating job promotions or at someone who seemingly has their life together – while you feel you don’t. This is, along with the number of ‘likes’ and ‘followers’ one may have, all flaunted in front of our eyes and it can create an enormous amount of self induced pressure and self doubt.

Of course you can care for your friends and family and you can be delighted for them when they share good news or personal achievements. But, you do not have to be on the same level as them at all times – it’s exhausting and unrealistic. Remember too, that things online are not always what they seem. For example, one might post a really funny tweet or a gorgeous Instagram picture and may garner over 1,000 ‘likes’. They may have posted these while they were having a particularly bad day and were looking for validation or a confidence boost from somewhere or someone.

It can be very hard to recognise this constant comparison cycle we may fall in to. However, it is very important to at least try and to focus on ourselves without the involvement of the internet. Here’s a great quote by Roz Purcell during her interview with Caroline Foran on her ‘Owning It’ podcast: “Make sure your life offline is better than your life online”.

I’m not saying that social media can’t be used in a positive way to promote one’s work or keep in touch with family and friends: it can. It’s also a nice place to share beautiful images you may have taken or to show off your new haircut. I find social media great for promoting my work, including this blog.

However, when you find that social media impacts you in a negative way rather than positive, then it’s time to take a step back and focus on reality.

It’s not just you that has these feelings of self doubt, or the tendency to compare yourself to others:

I can’t say that everyone feels the same, but I can say that a large majority of people do – even those in the public eye. This article on Elle.com, where model Hailey Bieber (Baldwin) speaks about her experience with social media, proves that no one is safe or immune from these feelings of self doubt. Hailey deleted her Twitter account and has recently implemented a rule to only use Instagram at the weekends.

Our very own Paul Mescal also deleted his Instagram account to focus on his personal and professional life. This article on Her.ie explains in detail.

Gavin Cooney is a sportswriter and podcast host with The42.ie. The main social media platform he uses is Twitter, to which he says he is “hopelessly addicted”.

“I work in sport so it can be great around big sporting moments or ill-conceived super league ideas. And there are benefits to it, of course, in terms of promoting one’s work and building contacts or getting to know people,” he said.

Gavin does compare himself to others, which to him is “overall a bad thing, only slightly mitigated against by a tiny crumb of insecurity that’s quite good motivation for work”. 

Meghann Scully is a presenter and author and according to her, social media was always a “fun place where we shared loads of photos with friends”.

When Meghann’s followers grew online she became “very aware” that more eyes were watching her so she started to “share less insight” into her private life.

“I share my work and adventures but you will rarely see my extended family and my friends because they are private people. Also by sharing less personal aspects of my life, I have a more positive experience online,” she continued.

However, Meghann has not always had a positive experience online: “I have gotten a few nasty messages about my body shape and comments about being single but I block those people, they are not worth acknowledging.”

“People unfollowing me used to upset me because I felt people didn’t like me and it turned out to be mainly people from home and school that did this. Which initially hurt but then I just had to remember that people often don’t like to see other people doing well in life. If they can’t be happy when you share good news, then you don’t need those people, ” she continued.

I asked Meghann if she compares herself to others, or if she has done so in the past:

“I used to compare myself to others especially people that are in the same line of work. But, the media is a very tough and hard game. There is so much rejection and losing out on opportunities so now when I see someone get a job, an opportunity that perhaps I applied for, I congratulate them and think ‘fair play’. Me comparing or being annoyed does not do any good for me or my day. Being happy for others is good news and will in fact make you feel happier.”

Photo supplied by Unsplash.com. Thanks to @dole777.

Does a social media detox help:

A few months back, I deleted my Instagram app to give myself a break from the online world. Did I miss it? No. Did I realise that I might have been slightly addicted to the app? Yes. Did I go back? Yes I did after six weeks, but I don’t use it the same as I used to.

Six weeks to some people may not seem like a lot. But, to me, it was a pretty big deal. My FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) decreased dramatically, I no longer cared about what others were doing and the most important lesson I learned; to live in the here and now and to surround myself with genuine, kind people. I enjoyed every minute of not being on my phone scrolling mindlessly.

I exercised way more, my sleep improved, I spent more time with my family and I focused on my writing. I started listening to more Podcasts and I now find that I use my Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat accounts way less than usual.

Why did I go back you might ask? Well, I felt like it was the right time for me. I had taken my break, I had recharged, I had rewired my brain to think differently and I learned how to use the app differently. I am no longer ‘addicted’ to the mindless scrolling, and I only go on it now to share my work or personal news. I try not to engage with what others are doing, and I certainly try and stay away from negative content.

Gavin found himself taking a “slight” step back from social media during the pandemic: “I understand people venting their anguish, sadness or frustration with this nightmare but I’ve found reading them [posts] does nothing but make my mood worse”.

Meghann often takes a little digital detox: “With work, I am very active on social media so when I am quiet at work, I take it as a sign to stay quiet online. Or if I am with friends or doing something, I’ll keep my phone in my pocket and enjoy the company. My phone is set to sleep mode every night from 9pm and I’ll often put it on airplane mode during the day”.

How social media can have a negative impact on your mental health:

According to a paper by Karim et al titled ‘Social Media Use and Its Connection to Mental Health: A Systematic Review’, it found that “age did not have an effect but gender did”, stating that, “females were much more likely to experience [detriment to their] mental health than males”.

It also explained that social media can “create a lot of pressure to create the stereotype that others want to see and also being as popular as others”.

According to a different paper by Keles, McCrae and Grealish titled ‘A systematic review: the influence of social media on depression, anxiety and psychological distress in adolescents’, social media could be “regarded as a ‘double-edged sword’”.

It also explained that while they did see a link between social media and mental health problems, the online world could not entirely be blamed.

They state that: “Although results of the studies were not entirely consistent, this review found a general correlation between social media use and mental health problems. However, most authors noted that the observed relationship is too complex for straightforward statements”.

The main point to take away from this article is that a little break every now and then from social media is a step in the right direction.

So there you have it: my take on social media. While I am aware that not everyone will relate or agree to this article, I do feel like it will resonate with some people. If anything, I hope it helps someone feel just that little bit better about themselves.

Published by Anna Cullen

Substantial experience in radio, digital and print journalism.

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