Since 1997, dozens of social media platforms have come and gone. Some of the more popular networks that most would remember were applications like AOL Instant Messenger, which offered “instant” messaging to a manually created list of friends, and LiveJournal, which allowed its users to create entries into their own digital journals. These applications were enormously popular, incredibly useful, and most of them lasted for many years. Unfortunately, though, as internet access grew in popularity, so did their eventual replacements.
During the early years, most social networks typically offered each of their users a limited circle of influence and exposure, with an equally limited set of features that usually didn’t extend outside the scope of the application’s original purpose. This meant that, while very useful, they offered little opportunity for discovery and growth without additional—and often manual—effort by the user.
Since then, the social media giants of today—like Facebook and Twitter—offer their users the ability to stay connected to anyone (and everyone) they want with just a few clicks of the mouse. While these platforms have created an unprecedented level of connectivity, some are concerned that this super-connectivity may actually be detrimental to our happiness—especially to our impressionable and developing youth.
Before the massive adoption of the internet, the only people who heard or saw what we did was often limited to our closest friends and family—people who we regularly saw in person. Oftentimes, this meant that most of us had to learn to find value in our activities intrinsically. However, since then, this has dramatically changed with the advent of social media connectivity.
When social media is concerned, the currency we all agree to use is not our dollars (at least initially), but rather likes, shares, and re-tweets. Everything we submit on these platforms is often in search of the greatest number of these things. By using these services, we have all agreed that the value of our broadcasts can be measured by these reactions. Seeking the approval of a select group of our peers is perfectly healthy and a great way to find joy. But, when that group automatically includes everyone we’ve ever met, it can be problematic because receiving some negativity is almost inevitable. For most adults, this is okay because they have perspective, but for our youth, this can be very difficult to cope with.
As the desire to receive likes and retweets grows, many attempt to optimize their messages by restricting them to only the most outrageous or extravagant. As a result, many of their recipients may develop an unrealistic impression of their peers and eventually compare that to themselves. For many who live perfectly normal lives, watching a peer accomplish seemingly impossible feats can manifest into painful feelings of jealousy, inadequacy and unhappiness.
From the beginning, the internet has offered us the ability to communicate more efficiently than we could without it. However, all of the content that has ever existed on the internet has always fundamentally lacked an effective way to include context. As a result, we are all left to use our imagination to fill in the blanks about an event or activity when we’re interpreting the messages and stories of others. When this is combined with the painful feelings mentioned above, it can lead to a destructive developmental spiral.
Of course, with a little perspective, shifting focus to a daily responsibility (like work), and perhaps applying some self control, any detrimental effects from an abundance of social media use is either dramatically reduced or completely eliminated. However, for our youth, who typically have the most free time, applying these principles seems like a task reserved strictly for the stoics. Because of this, with many young social media users spending the majority of their day ruminating about where each of their friends has been, what they all did, and other externally-focused thought processes, many lose focus on their own value. With internet use only increasing, avoiding connectivity is actually quite unproductive, so rather than attempting to avoid it, remind yourself and others to focus on what can actually affect them today instead.
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