Social Media Can Be Depressing, or Not?

Social Media Can Be Depressing, or Not?

I am not a big social media user—I don’t have a Facebook account, just Instagram and LinkedIn. This morning as I was scrolling on Instagram, I was looking at wonderful pictures capturing a moment of a wonderful trip, an adventure, a special time with family, friends or colleagues.  As I read the brief postings along with all of the hashtags (I wish I had invented hashtags), I began to think…..  Wow, this person is on an incredible vacation, or they got so many “likes” on this post.  What a wonderful life this person must lead!! 

At that moment, I realized everything I read on social media paints a positive light about the person or organization posting. Now, I already admitted I am not a Facebook user, but when friends have shown me posts, I only recall happy, funny, fun, entertaining, etc., moments.  I did not see anything remotely related to someone having a bad day.  And I think I missed all of the selfies of people saying they woke up depressed and had a heck of a time getting out of bed this morning. Almost everything we see on social media is all about the glitter and gold.  So how does that make me feel?  Or more importantly, what feelings does it generate in others?

By pure coincidence, today I also took a screen shot of a friend on Instagram, posted by one of her friends, whom I also happen to follow.  The picture was from big charity event hosted over the weekend.  I sent her a text of the screenshot and said, “Looks like a fun evening.” She responded, “Yes, a fun evening, but that pic is terrible.”  My mind began to turn.   While my friend said the event was fun, I could not help but wonder if she was more concerned about a picture she perceived to be unflattering.  I felt I had to dig deeper and find out how show social media impacts our brain and our emotions.  What is the self-impact of what we post and what we read other people’s posts?

 In 2011 at Harvard University, researchers actually hooked people up to functional MRI machines to scan their brains and see what happens when they talk about themselves, which is a key part of what people do in social media. They found that self-disclosure communication stimulates the brain’s pleasure centers much like sex and food do.  The researchers found that 30 percent to 40 percent of daily conversations communicate information to other people about our own experiences.   Previous research has found an even greater percentage of what we post on social media (up to 80 percent) is about ourselves.  So, what is happening when we “light up” these regions in the brain? We are releasing pleasure-inducing chemicals in the brain such as dopamine, the same chemical released in the brains of alcoholics when they drink and nicotine addicts when they smoke. 

We post positive things about our life, and we feel good about it.  The “brain high” continues and further reward comes when we see the responses we get from others, e.g., how many “likes” the post receives.  Well, it is a no-brainer (pun definitely intended) why people like to post positive things about themselves.  But, what about the flip side?  How does the receiver or reader feel when they see what an amazing life other people lead?  Well, the answer is not always, “I am such a loser compared to these other people.”  I suspect most people are genuinely happy for the person logging the post.  Yet, there are some posts we see that may generate feelings of jealously, envy, and depression as we judge our life to the magnificent life being displayed on line.  Whoa!  I am totally guilty of feeling jealous from time to time and generating negative feelings when seeing someone in Nepal, Tokyo, or Kansas City (joking).  But forget about me, what about the greater population?   For the avoidance of doubt, the development of negative self-image and negative self-feelings people associate from social media has been shown in study after study, in all age groups.

Stop the truck!  Think about it, how can we actually compare our life to an image or a post on social media?  Seems kind of funny actually seeing it in black and white, but it is true.  If you can accept this truth, then as you read posts about the glorious lives of others, your mind has the power to put a different spin on a post.  Instead of feeling jealous or envy, you can generate thoughts of happiness for them, their family, or whatever they are doing in the post.  You don’t have to wonder why they seem to get so many “likes” on their posts, and you seem to get so few.  Enough of the comparisons!  Remember that you have the power to create, feel and live a life as perfect as you choose to make.  That’s it! You can choose to be controlled by social media, or take charge and control it.  While that might seem pretty simple, it takes work and practice.  We must realize that while a picture is worth a thousand words, whatever we imagine is behind that image, is just a story we make up and tell ourselves.  Take a deep breath and think about it.  As your mind calms and reality sinks in, you can separate feelings of inadequacy and see the post as simply a moment in time that only captures that moment and nothing else.

You now have permission to see social media for what it is: an avenue for people to share moments in time with others—–just that.   And don’t forget, while they are posting about their “magnificent life,” they are getting higher than a kite on dopamine.  When van Gogh painted “Starry Night,” nobody sat around and said, “why haven’t I ever seen such a starry night.”  No, they looked at the painting, saw beauty and simply moved on.