But we really do need to talk about Facebook.
In the past, commentary of mental health issues around social media have mostly centred around the ‘envy’ problem. That you are seeing the curated best of someone else’s life, the good stuff that they are willing to share, and that is making you feel inadequate in comparison.
That might be true in some respects, but for me it isn’t even the tip of the iceberg.
For me, there are many other issues with social media - the gamification of your life through brief dopamine-fuelled bursts of attention (and the addiction that comes with it), the apparent need for binary divisiveness of opinions to stand out from the crowd, the ease of fear mongering and “fake news”, the prevalence of a technology taking over your life, loves and relationships.
ADDICTION TO FAKE RELATIONSHIPS
I’m just going to come out and say it. The relationships and social interaction you have on Facebook is all fake.
Think about it; your updates are simply shouts into a void in order to get some kind of attention from people you might not even have any personal or social relationship with if the social network didn’t exist (would you even be friends with a lot of these people outside of these computerised, impersonal relationships?).
Society has been reduced into a huge mess of rubbish headline writers - everybody has resorted to trying to write snappy - or even purposefully controversial - posts with a hook to get someone to ‘like’, or even comment. Admit it - when you’re composing your updates you word it to stand out and grab those likes and comments. You’re basically writing click-bait (it is in this environment that far-right and far-left idiots have been fostered, encouraged and grown into public figures - everyone seems to need a binary opinion nowadays, there is no middle ground or nuance to debate… and we all know facts don’t matter nowadays).
YOU’RE BEING MANIPULATED
This is where the gamification of your social interactions comes in. When the algorithm gods are shining down on you, the interaction happens and you receive a blast of the reward-triggered dopamine chemical in your brain and nervous system. This is the same bodily reaction as you get when gambling and winning a bet. Your body likes and gets used to those dopamine hits, subconsciously motivating you to post more; and with that to post more attention-seeking content.
I bet there’s been times you’ve ‘finished’ Facebooking and closed down the tab/app, only to not be sure what you’re doing next, then immediately and automatically open it up again and continue. This is a classic sign that you are addicted.
The nefarious part of all this? Facebook knows this happens and ensures its algorithms work to keep the dopamine coming in order to addict you to the platform and use it more, which in turn increases its appeal to advertisers - that is how such networks are making their money from you. You are the product they are selling to their advertisers - and they know everything about you in order to target products and services you are interested in (several years ago US retailer Target infamously sent specific emails to women promoting baby products before even the women themselves knew they were pregnant - if a basic retail loyalty programme can do this a decade ago, imagine what the likes of Facebook can do knowing all your interests, friends, web-browsing history, locations you’ve visited and more nowadays!).
THE RED DOT PROBLEM
Notifications are a big part of how social networks are manipulating you. Facebook keeps you coming back by intruding into your life. They pray on an intrinsic human fear of missing out. You HAVE to go back to Facebook to see what is going on, what has been said, who has given you the attention you crave. When you see that little red circle the social networks are teasing you to come and spend more of your precious time with them, right now.
Instant message platforms are as guilty of similar too - they play on the same triggers by showing you the delivery status and creating an anxiety. How many times have you sent a message, seen the blue tick or ‘read’ notification and been annoyed that they haven’t messaged back yet? Answer me this - what is more rude: not replying immediately or being so self important that you expect the recipient of your message to drop everything and immediately reply?
HOW IS THIS CONTRIBUTING TO YOUR DEPRESSION?
Add up all the above and basically you are being manipulated into technology taking over your life in a very bad way for your mental wellbeing - yes, there is the ‘envy problem’ but deeper than that your valuable social interactions are being reduced to clicks, comments and arguing online.
Humans are social animals, we need genuine personal interaction. It is part of the fabric of what keeps us sane. We need proper conversational stimulus, interpersonal relaxation and to regularly engage in critical thought and discussion - face-to-face, with real people, in a social environment (work colleagues and family you see every day don’t necessarily count).
Reading text and tapping buttons isn’t a replacement for those things.
THIS SOUNDS LIKE ME! WHAT CAN I DO ABOUT IT?
There are steps you can take from the subtle (simply self-limiting your social network use) to the extreme (deleting all your accounts!).Help is at hand. Don’t worry, I’ve tested some actions you can take and despite the headline to this article I’m not going to tell you to go totally cold turkey. I have some ‘life hack’-type top tips though… you’ll have to wait for part two to see what I did to help with my own issues, so check back here in a few days for my expert advice (and as someone who has spent lots of time on Facebook, made a career out of marketing on social networks and now has a very real worry for people with such problems, my word doesn’t come lightly on this topic!).
If you have any concerns about your personal social media habits in the meantime though, do think about taking action yourself right now. From little steps of consciously reducing your social network usage to reaching out to friends or family for a normal chat or even seeking some professional help. Just recognising the signs are the first steps and trust me, you can and will eventually start to feel better if you make a start from there.
(‘Facebook’ throughout this article is interchangeable with any social media platform).