Think about something that you love to do. Actually, think about what you love to do the most in your life. It can be playing or watching a sport, your job (if you’re lucky enough to be doing what you love), traveling, going to concerts, acting in the local theater, or even something as simple as watching television. Think really hard about it. Now think about your friends and family who also love to do this thing. As we go through life and find out what drives us and keeps us afloat, I would wager that many of us have friends and/or family that also like to do the same thing. We as a species tend to naturally gravitate to those of similar interests for a good portion of our social circle.
Now imagine that you can no longer do this thing. Then imagine that every day or so, your friends or family who also love to do this thing are telling you about it. Let’s say that your favorite thing is jumping on the trampoline (I’m not sure why that came up, but it did). Now let’s say that every day you’re hearing from your fellow trampoline-jumping friends about how awesome their trampoline time is. They’re telling you about how many jumps they did, this new backflip they learned, the great time they had at the trampoline park, and all of the new trampoline gear they bought. They know that you can no longer trampoline jump and they feel bad for you, but it is hard for them to contain all their trampoline jumping joy with you whenever the chance arises.
How would you feel? Would you love to hear about all of your friends doing the one thing you love more than anything to do but can’t? Or would you smile and nod, while inside wishing they would leave you alone and be quiet already about the trampoline? I’m not a social scientist and I have absolutely no data to back this up, but I would imagine that most of us would feel some version of the latter and rather not learn about all of our friends’ time doing [insert your favorite thing to do here].
Recently there was a story going around that you might have heard about, the one regarding how emotions are transferred through social networking. In particular, this story was about a group of psychologists who manipulated Facebook to show mostly positive stories for some users and mostly negative stories for others. Greatly simplified, the argument was that, for many people, it’s easy to get depressed about your life when you are constantly exposed to the greatness, fun, and excitement of everyone else’s lives. This in turn provokes a social network user to make more negative posts. When you see people suffering, the opposite happens and you make more positive posts.
While the scientific accuracy of this study has been a topic of depute and some have called it clearly bad research while others have gotten angry, I will say that on a personal level I can relate to the findings of this research and see why people can feel more negative when they are constantly being exposed to positive posts from their friends and families on social networks.
Think about this. When a person is going through a hard time in life, whether it be a medical condition, emotional upheaval, career problems, or anything else, even something seemingly mundane, constantly seeing only the positive aspects of the lives of friends and family on social networks can be depressing and even insulting. It can remind you of how much your life sucks compared to theirs, how seemingly unfair things are, or a constant reminder by your trampoline jumping friends that you can no longer do something that you love. Comparing yourself to others is something I believe only has bad results, but it can be hard to not do this comparison when it is constantly smashing you in the face.
I’ve always tried to limit my use of social networking. I only use one major network and I am not so active on it (I am on a few running networks as well, but I’m referring to the major social networks such as Facebook and Twitter). I post things sometimes I’d like to share with family or friends, use it as a way to keep in touch with certain people, and sometimes organize or RSVP to events, but that’s about it. I do not post often and do not check it everyday.
Recently, due to some uncontrollable circumstances of no fault of my own I can no longer run. I don’t know how long this condition will last, but it is for the foreseeable future. If you’ve read any of my previous posts you’ll know that this is very disappointing for me, as running is a big part of my life and who I am. For me, it’s just like not being able to trampoline jump.
Many people in my social circle are also involved in running. I haven’t been able to join them on runs in the mountains for over three months, and it’s something I dearly miss. If I log onto the social network I use and see my friends’ posts, photos, and stories of their adventures, I’m not going to lie and say that they are not hard for me to see. There is nothing wrong at all with my friends’ actions and I want them to be out there enjoying what I’m unable to. But it’s somewhat hard for me to see because it’s a reminder that I can’t do something I love; something that has been a huge part of my life and gave me great motivation and purpose for many years and that was rather abruptly taken away (I’m still hoping it’s only temporary).
Of course, this can be a depressing situation and I don’t believe I’m alone in this. I think almost anyone would feel a sense of sadness in such circumstances, and no matter the criticisms I think this is something that the researchers who were manipulating Facebook were trying to find out. The funny thing is, I also believe this is rather obvious and if they just would have asked people they would have found out their answer.
Yes, social networks can be an insidious thing, slowly creeping up on your emotions and feelings of self-worth. When everything is going great it’s easy to want to share it and equally easy to not be phased by all of your friends’ great lives. This is a lot harder, though, when everything isn’t going so great, and when everything you see online serves to remind you of your problems, inadequacies, what you are missing out on, or feelings of loneliness, sadness, or just about any other negative emotion.
In the end, do social networks cause more harm than they are worth? I grew up in a transitory time. I remember writing letters and posting them to my friends, or sending a girl a letter confessing my love for her at 9 years old and patiently waiting for days for a reply by post that never came. I was fine without social networks or the Internet. As I got older and entered university, the Internet arrived in force and things changed. Instant gratification and communication became ubiquitous. Kids growing up nowadays have never known a world without email, the Internet, texting, and social networks.
I’d wager that many of them would be better off without such constant access to these social networks and the potential harm they can do. It’s something I’ve felt in the back of my mind for a while, but it has really hit home recently as I have learned firsthand the unassuming potential dangers of social networks.
Of course, I’m not arguing that you have to run off and close your social network accounts. I’m not doing that, as I believe they do serve a valuable purpose. Like anything, I’ve found the best course of action is use in moderation and this has served me well thus far. If you ever feel sad, angry, disappointed, or bitter when seeing a positive post on your social network feed, or even feel like you spend too much time looking at other people’s lives and not your own, I’d recommend giving it a try. You might like what you find. We all have a mountain to climb and whether we can see it or not, there is light above the clouds.