By Clara Fortuna Sol

Observations on the Relationship Between Technology and Self 

Social Media is used to connect, inform, advertise, share, and pass the time. We’re constantly entertained, or at least preoccupied, with a seemingly infinite amount of content. Many of us are more than willing to contribute our views and images. It’s fair to say most of us “do it for the Gram” as much as we do it for ourselves. The gratification received from social media engagement produces a high that subconsciously weaves into our perceptual experience. We may personally and professionally reap benefits from posting, but excessive social media usage could be a double-edged sword raised against our minds.

The Echo Chamber Effect

Consider the doom–scrolling escapades that keep you in the loop as we collectively shuffle from one controversy to the next. You may have noticed people in your network vehemently pledging to unfriend anyone who disagrees with their sociopolitical opinion on whatever meme is up for debate. While homophily is a natural behavior, when expressed through social networks, the divisive “us vs. them” mentality is accentuated to villainize those with opposing views. We tend to create enemies in whoever disagrees with whatever belief system we’ve adopted or conjured to govern our experience. Social media algorithms reinforce the paradigms we have built to define what is right and wrong. This creates an echo chamber that thickens the lines we draw to represent our perception of right and wrong.

Fight and Flight

Polarization naturally accompanies the echo chamber inhabited by anyone who regularly engages with people through social media. Important and trivial topics of discussion frequently spark debates that quickly devolve into the sharing of misinformation, personal insults, trolling, and cyber-bullying. We have a great deal of control when it comes to whom we interact with and how we respond online. In defense of our views or our character on public forums like Facebook and Twitter, we may opt to respond to negative feedback rather than disengage in hostile conversations.

Arguing on social media with friends or strangers can lead to embarrassing, frustrating, and hurtful situations. Like arguing in person or via phone and text, verbal tussles online add to whatever stress we already have built up. Stress can worsen symptoms of depression and anxiety, and if one becomes a victim of harassment or cyberbullying, they may even see an unhealthy drop in self-esteem. Knowing when to walk away from conflict online can benefit your mental health and may even preserve your friendships.

The Insanity of Vanity

Content on platforms like Instagram, Tumblr, and YouTube emphasizes photography and videography. As seen with advertising in the modeling and fashion industries, people, and businesses will release content that sets a standard of beauty and projects an ideal body type onto viewers. Users compare themselves to what they see from influencers, models, and athletes online. Regardless of how much work goes into maintaining an IG model’s high standard of beauty, or whether the content may have been edited, some people suffering from low self-esteem only see their own perceived inadequacies reflected in the hyperreal images of others online. 

Body Dysmorphia may exacerbate as a result of social media overuse. Trendy diets and a desire to stay fit and maintain a healthy appearance can lead to eating disorders like Orthorexia Nervosa, which could result in malnutrition and unhealthy weight loss. By tailoring our social media profiles to focus on showcasing our highlights and always getting our good side, we may find ourselves in a constant feedback loop—riding the highs and lows that come with seeking validation outside ourselves. 

Detriments to the Diagnosis

While there isn’t a wealth of documented research confirming that social media alone causes mental illness, studies have shown that social media could make pre-existing conditions worse. Those prone to depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem may notice that their symptoms become more pronounced the more time they spend online. Heavy users of social media may see their social circles shrink in their waking life. People spend less time with their families and allow misconceptions observed through social media to change their perception of themselves and other people.

Sufferers of addiction and OCD could develop an unhealthy fixation on social media. Coupled with other mental illnesses that negatively affect a person’s mood, overuse of social media may be a contributing factor to one’s inability to effectively manage their mental health. Overuse of social media can also impact a person’s quality of sleep, as exposure to blue light interrupts the circadian rhythm. Those with sleep disorders like insomnia will have an even harder time falling asleep after using their phones and computers at night. Over time, the lack of sleep from prolonged sessions online may lead to burnout. Limiting social media consumption could promote mental wellness.

The Digital Detox and Mindful Social Media Use

Research into how social media conditions our minds and leads to addictive behavior is still ongoing, and there has yet to be a diagnosis that clinically addresses social media addiction. One study exploring the implications of social media detoxification found that most participants experienced a positive mood boost, a reduction in anxiety, better quality sleep, and an increase in professional and academic productivity upon lessening their social media use. There is no conclusive evidence to support the possibility of long-term benefits from a short-term social media detox, but it’s safe to say that logging off to focus on your mental health is probably a good idea.

Another study concluded that limiting or discontinuing social media use relieved depression and loneliness among test participants. Anxiety induced by FOMO (fear of missing out), a phenomenon many attest to experiencing, is one reason people might return to social media after a break despite the negatives. Taking inventory of how we’re feeling, addressing addictive behavior, and mindfully disconnecting from social media regularly to nurture ourselves and our relationships will undoubtedly help us improve our mental health. 

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