An in-depth reflection on the pros and cons of social media on our wellbeing

This is not another of those articles urging you to take up a ‘digital detox’. But nor is it a biased post with a commercial ulterior motive. These are my reflections on the social media age that we woke up to one morning. At least, that’s how it seems to me. I’m old enough to remember the pre-digital era, but only just. Like most of us, I slipped into using Facebook without a second thought. It went from a niche network of university friends to an online network with an astounding 1.94 billion active monthly users, according to Statista [1]. Rarely has anything so suddenly infiltrated so many parts of our lives, with Facebook messaging often replacing email or text, with photos often being shared in the network, political viewpoints announced to the world, objects bought and sold, jobs advertised, groups formed… the list goes on. But how many of us have really stopped to think about how we use it and how well it serves us? It took me a while to do so, but I’m mighty glad I did. Here are some of the things I thought about social media use (especially Facebook, but also other network.

Envy

Something that often comes up when you talk to people about Facebook is the green-eyed-monster that rises up in us as we scroll down the news feed. Instagram feeds can provoke similar issues. For many, the feed is composed of people showing what a great time they’re having, and, in many cases, how many friends they supposedly have (in the form of likes). No matter how much we tell ourselves we know it’s just a facade and that the number of likes is pretty meaningless, do we believe it? According to new research by disability charity Scope, 62% of Facebook and Twitter users felt their own achievements were inadequate when compared to the posts of others, and 60% said that the sites had made them jealous of other users [2]. The test, I think, is to observe how you feel as you scroll down. Do you feel happy for the people there? Bored? Envious? Competitive? Depressed? Then let your feelings dictate what you do next, be it continuing as you are, limiting how long you spend on Facebook, stopping viewing the news feed or leaving Facebook altogether. For me, this reflection led me to stop viewing the news feed and I chose a photography page I like to be listed first so that generally when I log in I see its latest post. I find that now I more often message friends directly to see what they’re doing, which leads me on to the next point…

natalya-zaritskaya-unsplash-happy-family
Facebook and Instagram often seem to be filled with images of people having a great time with friends or family. Beach holiday image by Natalya Zaritskaya on Unsplash.

 

Unsatisfying communication

Another issue I’ve heard discussed is the unsatisfying nature of relationships that don’t exist beyond Facebook. Much as it’s nice when someone likes something you post, it’s not a conversation. I do sometimes wonder if actual one-to-one communication has diminished because people spend idle moments scrolling through the news feed rather than sending a text or giving someone a call. Ever since I stopped using the news feed, I’ve definitely been interacting more with people one-to-one, which I find so much more satisfying.

Of course, it is possible to get into discussions on Facebook, but it’s not something I see a lot of. WordPress is much better for in-depth discussion I find, while Twitter is rather worse, due to the character limits.

That said, apparently finding out you’ve received a ‘like’ literally gives you a mini high [3], so on one level it is quite satisfying.

facebook-like-button
It is very difficult not to be at all competitive about likes and not to feel envy when we see someone has got a lot of them.

 

Good for groups

In my experience, Facebook is quite good for groups. It’s easy to set one up and people don’t need to log in twice. It’s easy to share photos and videos and comment on them. Facebook groups are the reason I’m still using the network. Of course, face-to-face groups are great too, probably more so, but Facebook groups have the upper hand when it comes to convenience and reaching people from all over the world. Again, it’s no doubt well worth checking in with how you actually feel when you use online groups; if you’re just getting into arguments or using it as a distraction, it might be time to leave.

Facebook: the graveyard of friendships, if you don’t have regular ‘clear outs’

A friend once described Facebook in this way as we chatted about its negative side. It struck a chord right away. I’ve never found the time or the heart to do a ‘friend cull’ and about 80% of my Facebook ‘friends’ are people I knew long ago. Needless to say, the Facebook algorithms love to let me know that some person I once vaguely knew is happily married, or has had a baby. Facebook also likes to remind me of people I was once friends with via it’s ‘what you were doing x years ago’ feature.

Facebook can be great when you are at school or university with a big network of real-life connections, and you’re meeting new people all the time, but when it begins to look and feel like a dismal graveyard it’s time to either do that cull (hopefully if there’s been no contact for several years no-one will take offence), stop looking at the news feed or leave.

If you keep your network fairly small, maybe the news feed items will provide a genuine encouragement to stay in touch with more distant friends rather than simply informing you about people you’ve ceased to care about.

graveyard image
Facebook: the graveyard of friendships unless you’ve had a clear out

 

Political tools, but use with care

I have mixed feelings about politics and social media. Certainly we now have the opportunity to find likeminded people from all over the world and co-ordinate political action. But we also have the opportunity to rant and say the first thing that comes into our head. To anonymously intimidate and threaten. To be highly reactive, not reflective. And to sound off in an (often rather depressing/angry) echo chamber of people who share our views, or bombard those who will simply ‘mute’ us as soon as they see a view they don’t agree with. I’d much rather read a considered blog post, or listen to a vlog, and get into a discussion around that. And I think face-to-face discussion with people we know is probably more likely to impact on their views than a ranty post.

As for getting informed about politics and news on social media, it’s certainly more fun than newspapers but of course there is the risk of fake news when there’s no-one vetting the accuracy of the posts. Social media is also a convenient soapbox for populist characters to make all sorts of claims (you know who I mean, I’m sure…).

Social media use can make us too focused on ourselves and on selfish goals

On the whole, people are happier when they see the bigger picture in life. The more I focus on MY popularity, my likes, my photos and so on, the more self-absorbed I am. We all know someone who is constantly uploading pictures of themselves, and this intense focus on appearance can’t be good for us. Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of having a ‘brand’ either. I want my friends to be my friends on good and bad days, through boredom and adventure, regardless of my popularity or attractiveness. For me, that means having real-world friends and not investing too much time in the airbrushed version of myself that social media so strongly encourages.

annie-spratt-woman-talking-selfie
There’s no doubt that social media can make us more self-involved

 

I’m also not really a fan of the fact that Facebook posts are so often about marriage and kids. I’m not sure if it’s their algorithms doing this or purely what gets the most likes, but, while I have nothing against marriage or starting a family, I’d rather see posts about people making the world a better place more generally. And I’d rather see creativity than the consumerism encouraged by checking in and constantly posting about restaurants etc.

I even read that the more photogenic dogs are the most popular ones to be taken from dog rescue centres. No doubt some people even get a pet purely to get more likes – pretty silly.

Thinking about these aspects has reinforced my decision to avoid the news feed, which is even easier if you have the messenger app so don’t need to log into Facebook to see your messages. I only post about myself from time to time and always try to remind myself that I’m not on a quest for likes. Another thing that’s interesting to do is to ask yourself why you are thinking of posting something, and if it’s a very shallow reason, decide not to do it.

Facebook is good for appreciation, but is it creating an environment of forced positivity?

The comments that tend to get most likes are positive ones, and I’d certainly agree that it’s wise to appreciate the good things in our lives. However, I do wonder if the fact that most comments are of the ‘I’m so happy’ type might be making it more difficult for people to talk about their struggles. Prior to the introduction of the sad face, angry face and amazed face, negative posts usually received little reaction, and maybe the introduction of those other options came too late to change the fact that most posts are of the gloating kind. In my experience, it’s only worth airing your troubles on Facebook within the context of a support group.

A few other thoughts:

– encouragement of procrastination

– distraction from work/family/relationship/social life/crossing the street safely!

– there are a lot of bots and prostitutes on some networks

– Twitter is extremely commercial: it can be hard to use it for social ends when so many users have commercial aims

BUT…

– social networks are great for sharing information, and indeed I use them to share bits of ‘unconventional wisdom’ and these posts

– easy to connect with people around the world

– sometimes an enjoyable distraction during a tea break etc.

 

What are your thoughts? How do you use social media? Would you like to change how you use it? Share your thoughts below.

 

References

[1] https://www.statista.com/statistics/264810/number-of-monthly-active-facebook-users-worldwide/

[2] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/nurturing-self-compassion/201703/mental-health-and-the-effects-social-media

[3] http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/parenting/teens/how-facebook-is-like-a-drug-addiction/news-story/ad4d1f2cc2cc8ec191dcae6d874b9b47

Related links: (some of many!)

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/behind-online-behavior/201408/the-psychology-behind-social-media-interactions

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-first-impression/201611/the-psychology-social-media

https://fashionandstylepolice.com/2017/02/28/is-social-media-making-us-more-vain/

http://www.itsbeccajayne.com/2017/04/01/is-social-media-all-its-cracked-up-to-be/

https://lilpickmeup.com/2017/03/06/21st-century-breakups-divorces-are-harder-with-social-media/

Friendship is undervalued

We are obsessed with romantic relationships

As a society, we seem to be obsessed with romance. The majority of songs seem to be about romantic relationships or sex. A whole genre of books, Chick Lit, is devoted to romance, and romance often features as a life-enhancing situation in many other novels. And then there’s the Romcoms. Dating sites abound. And if all that weren’t enough, there’s that much-dreaded day for many singletons: Valentine’s day. No friends’ day, at least not here in the UK.

Where’s the celebration of friendship?

Where are all the homages to friendship? There’s a saying that lovers come and go, while friends remain, but there’s really little celebration of friendship in popular media. Everyone knows that friends are the ones you go when you have a broken heart; no matter how sure you are that your relationship will last forever, 42% of marriages end in divorce [1]. Who will be there for you then? Unless you’ve made the effort to nourish friendships even while juggling work and family responsibilities, the answer could be that no-one will. Even for those fortunate couples whose relationship remains strong, one day one of them will die and the other will be in certain need of supportive friends. I remember being very struck by that common regret of the dying (observed by a palliative nurse): I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends [2].

tom-pumford-wedding-photo
There is a great deal of celebration of romantic love, but when do we celebrate friendship? I’d love to see more books, songs and films about friendship. Photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash.

 

The best friendships are not based on selfishness

And I don’t think we should just stay in touch with our friends for selfish reasons alone. Friendship should be about a mutual bond and the willingness to go out of our way to support the other person when they need it. I worry that we are coming to view friendship in quite a selfish light; many popular internet memes encourage us to ditch our ‘negative friends’. And yet, approximately one in four of us will experience a mental health problem at some point in our lives [3]. Are we expected to be constantly positive, encouraging and in agreement with our friends? Surely the occasional argument, or grumpy mood, or patch of depression is natural and part of being a good friend is to be able to resolve conflicts, not over-react to less-than-perfect behaviour and to support our friend through a difficult time. (That said, it’s another matter if your friend is routinely putting you down or acting aggressively etc. I would not suggest anyone risk their own mental or physical health for the sake of a friendship.)

Loneliness is rife

I often come across people online who have no friends, and indeed felt like I had none at various points in my life. Some might say that these are difficult or selfish people, but I think that’s unlikely. Many are people who come across great online. Many attribute the ‘disappearance’ of their friends to a decline in health, which they assume made their friends feel uncomfortable or view them as too inconvenient. Others have moved away from their university friends and are finding it impossible to make friends in their new town, and yet others attribute their lack of friends to a disability or depression. The emergence of friend-making sites such as Girlfriend Social and Together Friends is a response to the large numbers of people struggling to make new friends.

nick-abrams-couple-and-lone-man-at-sunset
Photo by Nick Abrams on Unsplash.

Perhaps we should not be so quick to write off old friends

I admit I now regret writing off a couple of former friendships. I’m quite slow to do… I generally cherish every friendship and don’t turn anyone away. But after two of my best friends said hurtful things, I considered our friendships over, and wonder now if I was a little hasty to do so. I’m sure I’ve also been a bit neglectful of some friendships during very busy patches of my life. I’ve also been on the receiving end of friendship neglect, and I find it very sad that people I’d gone out of my way to support in difficult times don’t value our friendship enough to maintain contact.

Friendship is a great gift, and need not be a burden

I have always thought that the gift of friendship is an easy one to bestow. A kind word and a bit of genuine listening costs nothing and need to take up much time. Grabbing lunch with someone, or dropping someone a text or email is not a momentous task, but can do a great deal to relieve someone of loneliness, provide sympathy or advice, and make them feel cared for. I think often it’s a matter of finding what works for both people, be it periodic phone calls, Whatsapp messages, Facebook etc. Even parents busy with young children can find a way to check in with old friends from time to time. When you look out for people in this way, not only do you store up people who will support you when you need it, you also help reduce mental health problems and even suicide.

kevin-gent-young-male-friends-bonding
Supportive friendships are a precious thing. Photo by Kevin Gent on Unsplash.

I think parents should also not assume that friends will want to see them without their kids or partners. Often friends will accept that it’s not easy for them to continue as they did before marriage and parenthood, and will be ready to accept – or even appreciate – different types of get-togethers.

And how about some more books, music and films celebrating great friendships? Heroic, impressive, beautiful friendships. I don’t know about you, but I’m quite bored of it all being about romance.

What do you think? Is friendship undervalued? What have your experiences of friendship been? How do you stay in touch with friends? Comment below!

References

[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/12011714/Divorce-rate-at-lowest-level-in-40-years-after-cohabitation-revolution.html

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2012/feb/01/top-five-regrets-of-the-dying

[3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-35322354

Related links:

https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/16/when-friends-disappear-during-a-health-crisis/comment-page-2/?_r=0

http://princessinthetower.org/how-chronic-pain-affects-your-friendships-and-what-to-do-about-it/

http://www.tesh.com/articles/why-is-friendship-so-undervalued/

http://www.therisingblog.com/blog/2016/6/10/why-dont-i-have-friends-anymore

https://lifeinprogress290296.wordpress.com/2017/02/07/loneliness-knows-me-by-name

 

 

 

Why we’ve got to stop pretending disability doesn’t exist

Britain is a nation that prefers to ignore what it doesn’t like. And it doesn’t like disability.

Britain is a nation that prefers to ignore what it doesn’t like. And it doesn’t like disability. We live in a society where people believe a number of erroneous things, on one level or another.

We believe we’ll never be disabled

First of all, we all think we won’t become disabled. I know I did. For a start, young people are known to believe they are invincible. And we think we’ll never be the 0.1% or the 1% or even the 10%: it’ll be someone else. We don’t, in general, make any kind of preparation, such as taking out income protection insurance, which provides you with a monthly income if you become too ill to work and your sick pay runs out. I’d never heard of this until recently, and once you have a condition of some severity, forget it, they’re not insuring you.

We also don’t really care about how rubbish government disability provision is. When I say ‘we’, I mean most people who haven’t had much contact with disability. If we did care, there’d be more fuss about how little the government provides, how difficult it is to access any provision, and how humiliating the process can be. There’d be more fuss about how the many of disabled people live in poverty [1], and how difficult it is to access the workplace, and how rubbish public transport can be. And so on.

There’s also a pervasive view that medicine can fix almost anything. People frequently seem surprised that doctors weren’t able to resolve my health problems.

We believe disabled people deserve lesser treatment

A wild claim? Is it really though? I think secretly a lot of people think that disability is often someone’s fault. Some of a hippy inclination think it’s all a matter of mindset. Others think a good diet (whatever their definition of that is) will solve everything. Others may even blame parents for bringing a disabled child into the world. And even those who think none of these things may think disabled people shouldn’t have access to affordable transport options and carers, at the taxpayers expense.

Having become a disabled person in my 20s, it sometimes amazes me how little people are sometimes prepared to do to adapt. For example, my local Abel and Cole delivery man was visibly not at all keen on taking the boxes of food to the kitchen, even though it only took up a minute of this time: maybe less. One day he just didn’t knock and left it all outside, despite knowing I’m disabled. I’m not alone in this: in one poll, 28% of respondents, all of whom were disabled, had experienced people refusing to make adjustments [2].

marcus-spiska-unsplash-basket-of-vegetables
Is it too much to ask for my ‘vegman’ to bring the box in my kitchen? Image by Marcus Spiska. Sourced from Unsplash.

The world often feels pretty unfriendly to disabled people. So many things could easily be adapted to our needs, but aren’t.

We see disability as black and white

People generally accept that someone who can’t walk at all is disabled. But shades of grey confuse them. Almost half of disabled people taking part in a poll said they had talked to someone who didn’t believe they were disabled [3]. A friend once told me that if people saw me getting out of my wheelchair and walking (which I frequently do) they’d think I was ‘an actress’. No doubt some think I’m some kind of benefit fraudster, so beloved is this conception (largely a myth: there are hardly any) [4]. Fact is, I can only walk 15-25 minutes a day without getting so much pain later that I can’t sleep. You can’t get far with 15 minutes, or indeed 25, so sometimes I use a wheelchair or mobility scooter. But the fact that when I walk, I do so completely normally really fries people’s minds. As someone once said to me, ‘It’s hard to believe you need a wheelchair when you get out and walk normally’.

Invisible illness is, in general, difficult for people to take in. This is compounded by our obsession with ‘fakers’. From teachers at school to bosses at work, anyone and everyone is liable to being labelled a faker when they take a sick day. Yes, people do fake sick days. But when you haven’t been faking, and you get treated like you have, it really sucks. You are expected to look and sound awful to ‘prove’ your illness.

I often hear the same sort of problem arising with people whose disability involves exhaustion. People see them weeding their garden and think they’ve recovered.

These perceptions raise dilemmas for the disabled person. I often wonder if I should try to look like I’m having more difficulty walking. I know someone who can only speak a short time before pain sets in. She sometimes doesn’t speak at all, using technology instead, rather than speak a little and then use the app, because people are less confused that way. One disabled person jokes about shouting ‘it’s a miracle!’ when she gets out of her wheelchair to get into her car, again highlighting how strange people tend to find intermittent wheelchair use [4].

Those with M.E. often seem to have the most problems with black-and-white thinking, as some can have patches where they’re fine, then be really ill for a while, and people sometimes think things like ‘well, if you just rest up before our dinner date, you won’t need to cancel’, which might not be the case.

wheelchair-and-feet-pixabay
The general public is not yet used to seeing a wheelchair user get up and walk. Image sourced from Pixabay.

We think it’s ok to phase out the disabled people in our lives

Since becoming part of online support groups for the chronically ill, I’ve discovered that chronic ill health is very often accompanied by isolation. We often see on social media ‘inspirational quotes’ like ‘cut out the negative people in your life; find those who energise and inspire you’. I fully understand cutting out an abusive, unsupportive friend, but these days many people will happily leave by the wayside anyone who’s inconvenient to meet up with or anyone who’s feeling depressed. Even an otherwise wonderful guy I dated at uni didn’t want to hang out with the disabled guy on his course. I’ve heard many a story from the chronically ill of friends just ‘disappearing’, stories that have brought tears to my eyes.

Why do people do it? Surely it must link in with what I said earlier about how we believe it will never be us in that position, and how we believe, perhaps only on a subconscious level, that it is somehow their fault. I am not completely immune to this myself, but I catch myself and think ‘come on, this is ridiculous!’

Many of the chronically ill suspect some friends disappeared because they are uncomfortable with the idea it could happen to them. I think this must happen, just as it does with elderly people. We want to be around happy, shiny people in a bright, perfect world, just like in the adverts. Many people will admit they fear death and so ‘just don’t think about it’, and I suspect much the same attitude is taken to disability. It’s a bit like avoiding hospitals. This is backed up by research which has found that 26% of non-disabled people tend to think of disabled people with awkwardness and discomfort. [5]

The reality is uncomfortable, but we urgently need to face up to it so we can be there for our disabled relatives, friends, employees, colleagues and neighbours.

Learning to live with a physical or mental impediment is hard enough as it is.

 

unsplash-jules-fuchy-man-alone-dark-sky
Many disabled people find their friends ‘disappear’. Photo by Jules Furchy on Unsplash.

Related links:

UK government-commissioned surveys into attitudes to disabled people

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/325989/ppdp.pdf

——

Articles on politicians ignoring disabled people:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sarah-blahovec/politicans-ignore-disability-and-its-a-big-problem_b_7784824.html

http://www.disabilityrightsuk.org/news/2013/october/govt-ignores-disabled-people-over-pip

http://theconversation.com/ignoring-disabled-people-and-carers-could-cost-parties-thousands-of-votes-40052

—–

Ignoring disability in international development plans:

https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/oct/13/development-ignores-disabled-people-poverty

https://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/developments-cinderella-why-do-development-organisations-ignore-disabled-people/

—–

Ignoring abuse of disabled people:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/26/the-abuse-of-people-with-disability-is-a-national-shame-that-were-ignoring

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-21674047

—-

Ignoring disability links with incarceration and the needs of disabled prisoners:

https://themighty.com/2016/09/we-cant-ignore-the-link-between-disability-and-mass-incarceration/

http://www.miamiherald.com/news/state/florida/article56734053.html

——–

Uk politicians: some raising disability issues, others ignoring them:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/george-osborne-pip-cuts-disabled-disability-laughs-house-of-commons-john-mcdonnell-parliament-a6946176.html

———

On businesses ignoring disability:

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/sophie-morgan/disabled-accessibility_b_6840528.html

https://crippledscholar.wordpress.com/2016/07/13/but-it-wasnt-designed-for-you-how-ignoring-accessibility-becomes-the-excuse-for-perpetuating-inaccessibility/

http://www.bighospitality.co.uk/Business/UK-businesses-lose-1.8bn-a-month-by-ignoring-the-needs-of-disabled-customers

References

[1] 30% of working age disabled people live in poverty according to Scope http://www.scope.org.uk/media/disability-facts-figures

[2] & [3] Polls commissioned by Scope and carried out by Opinium http://www.scope.org.uk/Scope/media/Images/Publication%20Directory/Current-attitudes-towards-disabled-people.pdf?ext=.pdf

[4] http://www.mumsnet.com/Talk/guest_posts/2292261-Guest-post-Invisible-illness-Im-fed-up-of-having-to-perform-my-disability

[5] http://www.scope.org.uk/media/disability-facts-figures