The modern world is filled with anxiety triggers, from stressful work-life environments to the pressures of raising a family in the constant shadow of potential worldwide catastrophe. But one of the greatest anxiety triggers that we have at the beginning of the 21st century, is in fact one of the very things that defines our generation. It is a wolf in sheep’s clothing that we bring into our beds at night and to our breakfast tables in the morning. It is of course social media.
Touted at one time to be good for anxiety sufferers thanks to its ability to bypass real-life human interaction and therefore ease the stresses of social anxiety, it has in fact brought with it a raft of ways in which it can produce anxiety in its users.
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Viber, and Line have all brought out about new and novel ways to cause anxiety in a population that was by no means prepared for the social media explosion, and certainly not ready for the responsibilities and changes in social interaction that came with it.
So what is it about social media that brings about anxiety? Surely social media are warm and fuzzy and friendly media, right? Well of course they could be. We can never truly blame the media for the results. It is the people that use them that are ultimately responsible, and the way that they interact with each other. And sadly it is these same people that ultimately also suffer the consequences.
The first problem that we have to deal with when it comes to all social media is the addictiveness. Dopamine is a drug in the brain that makes us feel good. Long ago when the only medium was smearing paint onto cave walls, dopamine was the reward for a successful hunt, or well built fire. It is a drug of reward that makes us feel good after succeeding at something. The more we get it, the more we want it. It makes us addicted to trying to stay alive.
Back in those days, though, a dopamine hit was received every few hours or even days.
With social media, however, the same dopamine is released after every ding or chime of an app notification. Every email or message received, every like, poke, or mention prompts a hit of dopamine as we enjoy the satisfaction of inclusion and social acceptance. This means the release of dopamine for many people is now measured in seconds or minutes rather than hours or days. We have become addicted to the drug and, by association, addicted to the media. When there is no notification, we find ourselves checking our phones every few seconds in anticipation of the next hit. When the time between hits grows, so does the anticipation, and so does anxiety. We become like junkies waiting for their next hit. Always checking. Always waiting. Anxiety growing.
But dopamine withdrawal is not the only way that our social media can cause anxiety. There is also the dreaded fear of missing out (or FOMO) that fills our time away from the media with the anxiety that we are going to miss out on something important. Something that, were we to miss it, would leave us on the sidelines of a mass inside joke, or on the wrong side of the gossip bandwagon, both of which scream social pariah. Of course there is never really anything to miss at all, unless you count Mimi’s avocado toast. But nobody ever said anxiety was logical.
Just in case you were thinking that FOMO might be rare, in one study of social media users, 45% of responders said they feel worry or concern when email or facebook are not accessible. 45%!!
But we’re not done….
Then there is the anxiety spawned from unconsciously comparing ourselves to everybody else on social media. Well, not exactly everybody else. We don’t feel bad when we see Richard Branson, Elon Musk, or Angelina Jolie showing off their new cars or homes, because we are too far detached from them to be affected, but when it is someone we know, someone we grew up with and went to school with, that is an entirely different story. Seeing Dave with his beautiful new wife, or Debra lying by the hotel pool in Barbados, can fill us with an unconscious envy and a seeping anxiety that our lives just don’t seem to measure up. Of course we know that people only ever post the highlight reel of their lives on social media, but it doesn’t seem to matter. We know that Debra doesn’t spend her life by the hotel pool, and we can’t be sure that Dave isn’t as miserable as hell with his new wife, but our anxiety doesn’t care. Their lives LOOK better than ours, and that’s all that counts.
Of course, even if we feel our lives are awesome, and we don’t think we are comparing ourselves to others (although we are), then we can still get caught up in the competitiveness of the whole thing, and this competition can bring it’s own anxiety issues. Of course a bit of healthy competition can be a good thing and can drive us to do great and wonderful things, but often the competition on social media is of the not so healthy variety.
We are social animals and we thrive on feeling part of a social group, and this is of course one of the reasons we seek out social media in the first place, but what begins as a refuge for safe social interaction online, very often devolves into a competition for attention, for recognition, for adoration, or validation. It becomes a virtual dick measuring contest of the highest order.
Of course not everyone is trying to make themselves look better than others. There are many people that will compete on the opposite end of the scale. They will try to make their lives seem as miserable as possible, actively competing to be the saddest person, with the saddest story, in the group. They will put themselves down in the hope that someone will disagree and temporarily boost their self-esteem. They will post meaningless and incomplete thoughts such as “I’ve had enough”, or “Why does this keep happening?” in the hope that they might provoke caring or concerned responses in the vein of “are you okay hun?” that will boost their flagging self-esteem.
But none of this is good for self-esteem. And none of it is good for anxiety. The precariousness of our self esteem in these situations leads to uncertainty in how it will fare in the long run, and this can lead to the anticipation that self-esteem may be lost, which can ultimately generate anxiety.
Of course all the time that we are spending competing, means that we are not actually socially bonding with anyone, and so the uncertainty of where we stand in our friendships and relationships can also trigger anxiety.
The saddest cause of anxiety through social media, though, is that of the internet troll or bully. Their constant cyber-bullying is a vicious cycle of battered self-esteem and anxiety for all concerned. The troll is, of course, by his very nature, a sad individual that more often than not dwells in a pit of his own inadequacy and low self-esteem that constantly feeds a raging anxiety. This anxiety is only slightly alleviated through temporarily boosting his own self-esteem by tearing down others, or the work of others, and trying to destroy other people’s self-esteem. This of course can create huge amounts of anxiety in the victims, who are better off just ignoring the troll or bully completely.
What the bully does not understand is that tearing down others only serves to lower his own self-esteem in the long run, and worsen his own anxiety over time.
What most people fail to realise, is that building others up and being generous when others are not, will do far greater things for their own self-esteem and anxiety, than tearing others down ever will.
If only everyone was more honest, more open, more accepting, and more generous than they are now, then social media would be much, much better places to spend our time, and we could strike one more unnecessary anxiety trigger from the list.
If we can’t do that, then the next best thing is to put the phone down, turn the computer off, and go and talk to somebody. In real life!!