Ever since I created my Facebook profile in eighth grade, I became vaguely aware of the purported evils of social media. Teachers warned that it would reduce attention spans, decrease face-to-face interactions and distort perceptions of reality. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the constant distraction of online communication and therefore ignored the skeptics. Until I disconnected from technology for the better part of a month this past summer, I had no idea the extent to which I let social media dictate my feelings of happiness and self-worth.
As part of my job as a summer camp counselor, I was not permitted to use my phone during the day. This rule meant that I was free from the pressures of comparing myself to the images with which my peers presented themselves on social media. Instead of devoting energy toward creating a facade of constant happiness and achievement, I now had more time to live my life authentically.
Getting “likes” on social media can make us feel good about ourselves, but this feeling is short-lived and compels us to rely on external validation for our feelings of self-worth. Prior to this summer, I completely relied on other people’s decision to press a button in order to feel good about myself. I convinced myself that if no one acknowledged that I had an enjoyable day, my day might as well not have happened. I wasted countless brain cells wondering why my friends appeared to be so much happier and more popular than me on social media. With little recognition in the form of “likes” for the content I was posting, I began feeling as if my thoughts and ideas didn’t matter.
Working at a technology-free camp allowed me to relearn how to be happy on the inside. Whenever I did something fun, I made a point of telling myself, “That was an amazing moment in my day. And I didn’t capture it and upload it to social media. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.” I felt warm and fuzzy from the genuine connections I was making with the people and places around me, and I knew this was far more satisfying than any “like” I could possibly receive on social media.
Since refraining from social media usage at the University is unrealistic for me, I have instead chosen to limit the amount of time I spend online and to use that time in a healthier, more constructive manner. Whenever I feel distressed from seeing all my happy-looking friends, I step back and assess the situation. I remind myself that I, too, am happy, and that there is enough happiness to go around for everyone. No one else’s experience of joy can possibly negate my own positive feelings about my life.
I also remind myself that the content people upload only reveals a tiny sliver of their realities. After all, what does a post of happiness and achievement convey about a person? A profile picture of someone looking radiant and flawless tells me that this person had access to good lighting and a high definition camera. An Instagram post of someone holding a Michigan flag atop a mountain in a foreign country tells me that this person traveled to a foreign country, ended up on top of a mountain and took a picture. A status in which someone shares an acceptance letter tells me that this person applied to a program and was admitted.
What these posts don’t tell me is how my friends were actually feeling at the time. There have been numerous occasions when I assumed that my friends were happy but later found out they struggled with body-image issues, had unfulfilling summer adventures or received hundreds of rejection letters before finally hearing good news. While not everyone struggles equally, we all have burdens to bear that we might not feel comfortable sharing online. Those who appear happy, successful and popular on social media are not immune to these issues; they often simply aren’t sharing the full picture.
Now that I partake in social media more mindfully, networks like Facebook and Instagram hold less weight in my life. I see them as additional ways to communicate with friends and acquaintances rather than the main determinants of my feelings of self-worth. Because I no longer try to compare my life to those of my peers, I am able to feel genuine happiness for others when I see my friends post about their achievements. And if I ever become overwhelmed with anxiety while scrolling through my feed, I know it’s time to exit out, put down my phone and go make some authentic, happy memories.
Annie Humphrey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.