Trigger Warning: Mention of suicide and suicide prevalence.
Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of images and conversations popping up in my Facebook feed to the tune of “Keep any unhappy news off of face book. You are bringing everyone down.” Stuff like that up there. In the past, I may have nodded in agreement, perhaps smirked at the snark and scrolled on. But recently, I been thinking a lot about the roll social media plays in society.
The other day I was listening to a podcast by author Gretchen Rubin who’s famous for writing The Happiness Project (which I have read but that’s for another day). The topic of social media came up and her co-host and sister Elizabeth Kraft, mentioned that she found out someone she considered to be a good friend was moving to Italy via a Facebook post. That struck me as both strange and completely normal at the same time.
The way we communicate is different than it was in even the recent past. I graduated from high school almost 10 years ago to the day. We had MySpace (Facebook was a baby bird populated solely by early adopters) but at that point in my life, I called my friends on the phone or loitered in the mall if I wanted to talk to them. Social media wasn’t a way to communicate daily. It was kind of like your bedroom wall displayed on the internet for everyone to see. Texting was a thing but smart phones weren’t so it was tedious and only worth doing if you were killing time in the back row of Algebra class. Now, I don’t even have my phone number on my business card because I would rather communicate via email and answer exactly 0% of calls from unknown numbers. We used to see each other, not Facetime but actual face time. We would call each other on the phone in tears or yelping in joy or make an emergency lunch date to talk in person whenever something big, good or bad happened. Now we find out that our friends are moving across the ocean only because a carefully tended Facebook algorithm decided it was important enough to climb to the top of an ever propagating overload of information.
Which brings us to another topic, which is mental health. Many of you have probably heard about the very tragic story of Penn State freshman Madison Holleran who ran and flung her self off the ninth floor of a parking garage and onto the street below. Since her highly publicized death, her family and friends have scoured her life, including her social media accounts, looking for insight into what make Madison leap that night. Her instagram shows a normal, even popular, successful track athlete training, going to class, drinking a lot of coffee, and partying it up as most coeds do their first year away from home. Her diary tells another story, one where she is literally begging for help. What if she had been more open about the severity of her depression in those days leading up to her death, would she be alive? If it was socially acceptable to post “emo” material to Facebook would someone have been able to de-rail the swift moving train that took Madison straight off the side of that parking garage?
Social media is an amazing tool. It brings us together in ways that were never before possible. We can video chat with friends on the other side of the nation, share photos with a friend who in in Africa serving in the Peace Corp or the Army. We can meet people to collaborate with and even find jobs. It’s also a false front to a very complicated maze that makes up a whole person. It’s our best, most interesting selves. Exciting trips. Luxurious meals. Social events so fancy even Scarlett O’Hara would find herself green with envy. White wedding dresses, adorable puppies, and round-checked babies with perfectly coiffed hair and clean faces. Posts about broken down cars, paychecks eaten up in entirety by a single month’s rent, spending a Friday night alone for the umpteenth time, a particularly viscous fight with a trust friend, the struggle to get a developmentally delayed child the resources they need to succeed, or another negative pregnancy test after a year of trying, are too raw, too honest for social media consumption.
Then the problem with the way we consume social media is then two-fold.
The first is that we are looking at the crem de la crem of a life, and even then we feel compelled to run them through a filter, making them even more shiny and perfect than they really were. We look at other people’s posts and uploads and we translate that into them being more happy and fulfilled than we are. Even knowing that we meticulously cultivate our own accounts, we can’t seem to grasp that most people are probably doing the same thing. Science tells us that the more we consume the worse we feel about our own lives. A study done by the University of Michigan showed that anxiety and loneliness amongst college aged people increased with their Facebook use. At 28, I’ve found myself feeling that way frequently, to the point that I almost deleted my Facebook page until I realized I needed it for work anyway. How much more would I be affected by it if I was a teenager and social media had been deeply engrained into my life from the get go? How impossible would honesty about feelings of depression and suicide be if I was constantly surrounded by perfect prom dresses, hunky quarterback boyfriends, and smiling supportive parents?
The second is that because the way we communicate has shifted, and some topics aren’t approved via these next methods, issues that need to be talked about aren’t being talked about at all. People feel unable to share how they are truly doing on Facebook or in real life because they feel isolated in their struggles. That well-maintained feed on information we put out online is creating riffs between people unnecessarily. We might be sitting with a friend talking about a trip to an exclusive resort in Jamaica when we really want to talk about the fact that a five-year romantic relationship is in such a disarray we don’t plan on sitting next to each other on the plane. The listener might be able to help or even have something just as heavy weighing them down , but instead she’s waiting for her turn to talk about a weekend in Palm Springs because for all she knows, your life is just how it looks online. No one wants to be the only person who can’t seem the keep their head above water at a pool party where everyone else is skinny and beautiful and sipping on a martini. No one wants to be vulnerable alone.
I once saw someone say people who posted negative anecdotes to social media were blinking neon arrows that said “Needs attention!” All posts to social media are calls for attention. Look at me. Look at my beautiful life or my beautiful latte or my beautiful new car. Its unfair to punish someone for seeking out actual heartfelt attention, perhaps needed attention that could prevent them from harming themselves under dire circumstances or an imbalance of brain chemistry.
In the United States, suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death in young people ages 10-24. Every year suicide is responsible for more young adult deaths than AIDS, heart disease, cancer, stroke, pneumonia, chronic lung disease, and birth defects, combined ; everyday approximately 5,400 youth suicide attempts are made. Mental health issues are not isolated to young people. In fact, according to the CDC suicide is the 10th leading cause of death across all age groups in the US.
Someday my kid is going to have problems that are much more serious than scrapped knees and school yard disagreements. And she’ll probably have an account on whatever Instragram looks like in 10 years. I’m not sure if social media will change even by the time my now four year old is deemed old enough to delve into it. It makes us feel good to know other people think we lead almost perfect lives. I would love to see more openness and willingness to accept that sometimes people need others to help validate and regulate their feelings and sometimes the only way we have to communicate with people is through social media.
I’d like to try and experiment. Post a photo from a social media account in the comments but give the whole story. Not just the smiles but the 100% true story. This is mine. Harper and I fight about her hair all the time. She hates having her hair brushed and I hate brushing it because I know how much she hates it. She screams like I’m killing her before the brush even touches her head and there are days where he hair goes unbrushed because I don’t have the energy or the patience to deal with it. It took over an hour to her this braid done even though she begged me to do it. It should have taken like 10 minutes instead it was an hour of empty threats and tears. Not a big deal but not the idyllic scene that plays through your head when you think of a mother, daughter hair braiding session.