Does Social Media Really Cause Loneliness and Mental Health Issues?

Facebook was the game-changing social media platform that soared in popularity while I was in high school (between the years 2005-2009). During a time when socializing with peers was of utmost importance, as an adolescent, social media seemed like an amazing tool for connecting. Although it did connect us through the web, it also began to highlight the deep divides we felt in relation to one another and even within ourselves. It is well acknowledged today that social media is one of the greatest contributors to the rising mental health issues and feelings of isolation, especially among adolescents and young adults. But, it is only the fuel to an already burning fire: social media is not the root cause of these patterns of issues, but our cultural hyper-valuing of competition is.

More specifically, our overvaluing of competition has isolated us within our own psyches, making it much more difficult to deeply connect with ourselves and others without the fear of failure, social rejection, or unworthiness. It is a strange phenomenon that has caused this to happen: the society we want to belong to has wired our minds into believing competition and winning is most important, and in order to belong we must be a “winner”. But, in order to be a winner, we must believe we are “better than”; we must mentally isolate ourselves by raising our personal value over the value of others. So, even when we believe we have “won” (in order to feel like we belong in this society), we are still left with a deep sense of loneliness and isolation.

For the times we feel like the “losers”, it is usually worse – not only does our mind tell us we do not belong to society, but society might as well, (usually in forms such as bullying and social isolation). And, even when society does not actively isolate or bully us, we still feel isolated; a result of learning to doubt our value and worthiness of belonging in a hyper-competitive society.

Competition itself is not evil or wrong, but our relationship to it as a culture is out of balance. This imbalance has created more fear and division in our society than it has created connection and security. Our psychological relationship to competition is deeply ingrained and so normalized in our lives that it can be difficult to see. When competition and winning is so highly valued, there is little room for vulnerability to be expressed; therefore, the deep bonds that humans need for a stable sense of connection and belonging cannot be formed so easily.

Healthy competition can be a fun part of sports and games and can push us to new heights. But, as a species, we have reached the greatest heights through cooperation. The world, as we know it, functions only because billions of people go to work everyday and contribute a small part to the greater whole of a global network. Yes, competition plays a role, but it is far smaller than we believe it is, even as a capitalist economy. One person alone cannot create, run, and grow a business, a school, a team, a hospital, a country, etc. – it takes the hands, minds, and power of many cooperating together. Highly competitive attitudes tend to steer us away from working together and sharing information, fearing the other person’s potential might get ahead of our own.

An Example of Structured Competition in Society

School is a major organ to the larger body of society that creates and encourages hyper-competitive attitudes. You must get the best grades, and you must outcompete others if you want to be successful and worth something in life. It is a dangerous attitude to teach. It encourages winning at any cost, including your mental health and in some extreme cases, even your life. It encourages bullying. It encourages stress. It encourages burnout. It encourages an unease within the mind and body. It discourages expression and exploration. It discourages compassion, empathy, and real cooperation. It discourages time for reflection, and intuitive insights. It isn’t that these qualities are entirely present or absent within schools, only that these are what structured competition generally encourages and discourages.

We see these themes playing out in real life in schools today. The extreme examples of students feeling isolated and traumatized have resulted in horrific school shootings. It is an undeniable trend across the US, a pattern that cannot be ignored. It seems to be those who feel extremely isolated and completely disconnected from others that are able to commit such atrocities. It is more likely than not, since this is a repeating pattern across the US, that our societal values have a hand in nurturing this extreme behavior.

Social Media: Fuel to the Fire

Winning at life is different for different people, but generally looks like leading the “perfect” life, where everything is in order, everyone is happy and successful, and nothing is wrong. Social media has become the easiest and most accessible tool to both convince others you are winning at life and to assess who else is winning at life. But, scrolling through social media platforms usually contributes to thoughts that we are “less-than” rather than “better-than” or even “equal to” when all we see are people with perfect lives, while knowing ours isn’t.

The combination of social media and extreme competitive values creates ideal conditions for mental health issues and feelings of isolation to thrive. No matter how much we rationalize to ourselves that no one is always happy and feeling good, our brain still sees and absorbs mostly that. This information passes through the filter of our cultural values and beliefs where we have been programed to compare and measure whether we are more or less successful than the people we see.

Are we as successful and happy as they are? Are we worthy of belonging? Many times, our minds immediately assume we are the loser in the situation because we know we aren’t always at our best. In some cases, we might see a post that makes us think we are the more successful person, briefly boosting our sense of worthiness but at the expense of another’s. In either case, this hyperactive comparison and competition will always lead to a greater divide between each other rather than connection.

Social media is not innately bad and it is not innately bad to only share the nicest parts of our life on it. The issue lies within our cultural beliefs that dictate how we have learned to relate to one another – through a mostly competitive lifestyle while having little to no exposure to the realities of the human condition outside our own.

These realities being the vulnerabilities we all feel and experience, especially as teens and young adults: the doubts, the fears, the insecurities, the jealousy, the anger, the sadness, the anxiety, the depression, the loneliness, and even the feelings of joy and love. It is important to know we aren’t alone and to listen to one another. It is important to be there for each other in good times and bad and to not judge each other as successful or not, in response. It is precisely this vulnerability that, when shared, creates the deep connections that people need in order to feel a true sense of belonging and to combat loneliness.

To Belong

Social media is jet fuel to the already burning fire of competition and social comparison – people have always been “keeping up with the Joneses”. Maybe it’s about time we ask ourselves, why we do it?

One of the most important things for human mental and emotional health is to develop a sense of belonging. You can be the most famous person in the world, greatest athlete, or richest person, but, if you dont have a stable sense of belonging within a community you will feel much lonelier and less emotionally stable than those who do. But in order to develop a stable sense of belonging, we must allow ourselves to connect deeply with others by being vulnerable and allowing ourselves to be truly seen.

In US culture, we have been conditioned to fear vulnerability because it makes us appear weak and unsuccessful, unworthy of being a winner and therefore, unworthy of belonging. Paradoxically, sharing our vulnerabilities with each other is what builds the strongest bonds between people, they are the building blocks of a strong community. Competition in relationships actually divides and separates, it discourages vulnerability and simultaneously creates an environment of constant comparison. Promoting competition within our relationships creates a sense of inequality and instability which, in turn, gives rise to jealousy, conflict, and bullying. Our extreme competitive values have actually weakened our communities rather than making them stronger. It is time we recognize this and change our beliefs about competition and how we connect with ourselves and one another.

Building Stronger Communities from Within

Long term, sustainable solutions for the rising loneliness (and maybe even mental health issues like anxiety and depression) lie in building stronger bonds within a community. Creating times and spaces that are emotionally safe and supportive for people to openly express themselves is needed. Schools most definitely need to implement deep community building activities and courses. It isn’t an easy solution because it will push people far beyond their comfort zones but, it is what will address the root of the issue rather than trying to mask the symptoms.

It is important for us to express our honest emotions while also seeing others doing so – it reminds us that we are all human, that life is not perfect and never will be, and that we need each other’s emotional presence in order to feel the deep belonging and stability we are searching for. Being vulnerable and seeing others be vulnerable creates a sense of equality, encourages empathy, and connects us deeply. We are likely to foster a natural feeling of worthiness and secure sense of belonging the more we create opportunities for people to truly connect and deeply relate to one another within our communities.

We must change the way we operate as a community for our brains to begin to truly believe that “better-than” and “less-than” are just ideas and not real threats to our belonging. We must take responsibility as a society for the people we produce – adults were once children and children are most impressionable. Humans are wired to have a deep desire to belong…if a society sets a precedent of needing to prove ones worthiness of belonging in comparison to others, that creates a highly competitive, highly stressful environment at a very young age. That is the society we have right now and coupled with social media, it has created wildfire conditions for the rising mental health issues and loneliness we see happening. When humans feel that they aren’t good enough, that they don’t belong, or that they don’t feel loved, extreme emotions and behaviors can arise. It may be contrary to capitalist society, but for humans to be most stable, most productive, and most satisfied with life, we must create an environment that believes all humans to be fundamentally worthy of belonging and try our best not to let people slip through the cracks.

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Authenticity Over Happiness

Everyone has different ideas of what brings one happiness and how to attain it in life, but generally, the media coupled with a consumerist society tends to feed us ideas such as: if we “buy this” or “look like that” then we will be happy. Happiness in this context is a goal to be sought after, a new measure of success even – if you aren’t a happy person, you aren’t good enough or something is “wrong” with you.

In my experience, happiness is not a constant state of being and I try not to be driven by the desire to be happy. What I have found to lead me toward greater life satisfaction and more moments of happiness in life is actually shifting my focus toward living authentically rather than focusing on living happily.

Happiness to me, more or less, seems to be one of the products of allowing ourselves to live authentically, connected to what truly moves us in life while also allowing ourselves to become aware of the things that hold us back or cause suffering.

If we are unhappy or unsatisfied in life, we must be honest with ourselves about it, we must allow ourselves to see the truth within us because this is what empowers us to change. When we continuously avoid the reality that we are unsatisfied or suffering in our lives, through denial and distractions that may even lead to addictions, we cause ourselves to suffer more. Avoiding and distracting ourselves from the truth of our dissatisfaction prevents us from being able to make real, lasting change from within. In my experience, much of the dissatisfaction or suffering in life is a product of being undernourished or malnourished in our physical, mental, and/or emotional lives.

The nature of Life itself is to grow and change. Us humans sometimes forget that we are part of Life. We must allow ourselves to grow if we want to feel alive, if we want to be alive. What encourages us in life as well as what discourages us in life may shift and change and we must also shift and change, like migratory birds or deciduous trees – when the seasons change, so do they, and if they stayed still, they would suffer and eventually die at the least from lack of nourishment. We must allow ourselves to see when we are not being properly nourished in our physical, mental, and emotional life, and we must have the courage to change. This will mean something different for everyone and there is not one path that suits all.

Becoming aware of the things that inspire us and what we connect with are the things that nourish the growth and stability of our mind, body, and spirit. A deep happiness/life satisfaction is the product of continuously allowing ourselves to grow toward the things that call to us, and sometimes the call may just be a whisper. Pay attention to what that grabs your interest and explore these things with curiosity and without expectation.

To grow is a courageous act – we don’t know where we are going or who we truly are entirely, we are always unfolding, blooming, opening ourselves up to judgement, criticism, rejection. It is extremely vulnerable and terrifying, but necessary and strengthening. When we open to growth, we open to the potential within ourselves, to newness and to the shedding of old. Life’s flow from dark to light, unknown to known, seemingly nothing to something. There will always be unknown, life will always be growing and changing and that is what makes life exciting. When we embrace this, we thrive; when we don’t, we suffer.

Anxiety & The Power of Expression

I was in college at the time when I experienced my first panic attack. On the outside, everything seemed great in my life and like I had no reason to be anything but happy. I was studying at a good college, I had a good group of friends, I was getting good grades, I was attractive and healthy, my parents and family love me, etcetera, etcetera. Yet, despite going over these factors in my mind, I continued to experience general anxiety throughout every day and night.

I had terrible difficulty sleeping and felt surrounded by enormous fear. I felt so off, like something was so wrong that I must be dying but, I felt ridiculous thinking that and refused to tell anyone about it. I was so afraid this was going to be how I felt every day for the rest of my life. I was in fear constantly and I had no idea what I was actually afraid of.

I felt lost, alone, confused, and very, very ashamed about it – ‘There must be something wrong with me because everything is great on the outside and my life is in order’ but, it felt like chaos on the inside.

I didn’t know who to talk to and I was too afraid of being looked at differently by the people I love most – I was afraid people wouldn’t take me seriously anymore, or would think I’m crazy or that something IS truly wrong with me. I was terrified to admit what I was feeling. I didn’t want it to be real so I acted like it wasn’t.

But the fear felt all encompassing and like a shadow I could never escape. All I wanted was for it to go away. School helped distract me with the constant studying and doing homework, stressing over papers and exams. But one day I had a panic attack during a lecture. I couldn’t ignore it anymore.

Fortunately, I came across the book “Eat, Pray, Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert, very soon after that panic attack. It was the courageously raw sharing of her story, that served as a beacon of light in the storm that I was experiencing. She lived it, the breaking down, falling apart, panic attacks, depression and was still able to look at it honestly and slowly to heal the pieces of herself. I didn’t feel so hopeless anymore. I didn’t feel so alone and I didn’t feel as ashamed. I still didn’t understand my anxiety and experience yet, but I was beginning to accept it’s reality. And that’s what I needed first.

I began a practice of journaling, inspired by Gilbert’s story. It was strange at first. I felt like someone could see my writing and I felt embarrassed about it – shame was creeping in, but I kept writing, I had to. My intention was to begin expressing my feelings, to get them to move outside of myself since I had been holding them in for so long. The built up emotional pressure inside was the cause for my panic attacks, like a volcano constantly on the brink of eruption and exploding with force from the slightest of tremors. Once I began journaling, my anxiety attacks subsided.

To this day, any time I feel a bubbling of emotion, I write it out. Usually I just start a stream of writing my immediate thoughts and feelings. Especially when fear or anxiety is involved, I write down all that I’m feeling afraid of while being mindful of whether or not I’m allowing shame to hide anything.

I can’t always define emotions easily, sometimes I scribble just because that’s what the emotion feels like. Sometimes when the emotion feels stuck I’ll work out to get the energy moving. Sometimes I’ll dance or sing to music that feels harmonious to the emotion. Sometimes I write poems describing the images, the color, the texture, the movement, even a story of the emotion. Sometimes it feels like a storm, with seas churning and spitting, wind howling and taunting. Other times it might feel like honey, smooth and glowing warm.

Nothing expressed has to be beautiful or has to make sense to anyone else, just as long as it feels true to what you’re feeling at that time. It just needs to move and to be seen. Connecting body with mind. The expression feels true to me when I feel a sense of harmony between my thoughts and emotions rather than discord and confusion. I also usually feel a sense of relief or peace in the conscience. My mind and body can rest.

I think it would do the world wonders if authentic expression and time for reflection were valued and facilitated more widely in society. Journaling became one of the most honest and rewarding practices for my mental health. Taking time to express and reflect on my experiences has lead me to a better understand of what my emotions are communicating to me, how to respond to them better, and what actions I may need to take. The better I understand myself, the easier it is for me to share my experiences and connect with others. It is rarely easy to vulnerably share ourselves, but I find this quote to serve as encouragement:

Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.

– Dr. Seuss

Today I rarely feel anxiety like I did while in college. It doesn’t have to scream as loud as it did before to get my attention. Now it can just give a small knock on my door and I’ll know there’s something I need to see.