Evan Sirls: Social media anxiety

Tuesday, September 5, 2017 - 3:14pm

To a lot of people, not having social media is extremely off-putting. As counterintuitive as it seems, being unable to stalk someone online is a source of unease. It’s a truly fascinating phenomenon of today’s society that I’ve only recently started to appreciate due to the creation of my own Facebook profile. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago I was talking to my roommate from freshman year — I roomed blind — when he confessed his surprise that I turned out to be so “sane, chill, cool, etc.,” considering that he couldn’t find me online prior to rooming together. For him, this was a “red flag” and led to countless amusing theories about my personality. 

Having been on social media for about a year and half now, I see his point. There is something a little unsettling about searching for someone and not being able to find any information about them. Though the main reason I joined Facebook was for practicality — joining groups, creating and discovering events and organizations, networking, etc. — you grow used to the convenience of being able to familiarize yourself with someone before actually meeting them. In a world where privacy is no longer the norm, straying from that norm may lead people to assume that you are odd, antisocial, unpopular or all three. After all, why would someone not utilize the available tools to keep in touch with friends and stalk them whenever they want?

Well, I can think of a few reasons.  

As you may have already guessed, when entering college, my online presence was nonexistent. In fact, the subject of my college essays detailed my animosity towards social media and subsequent hesitancy to participate. Back in those days, I referred to platforms such as Facebook and Instagram as “digital pseudo-realities” and “fenced-in pastures” from which my friends couldn’t escape. It baffled me how they could waste hours looking at pictures of peers’ vacations to exotic destinations interlaced with superficial inspirational quotes and pleas for attention.

In the moments of weakness in which I would sneak a peek at one of my friend’s news feeds, it was like seeing the world from a different perspective. I was suddenly integrated in everyone’s life. As fascinating as this was, I immediately caught myself comparing my life to those of others. How was it that within such a short span of time I could go from being perfectly content with my life to doubting my own existence? Looking at photos of friends’ ridiculous accomplishments or of their yachting trips off the coast of Capri — which they never seem to be shy about sharing — is a shortcut to depression.

Some may feel that this is an exaggeration on my part. However, according to numerous studies conducted over the years, extensive social media use has been linked to negative effects on mood and well-being. In fact, according to a study recently published by the American Psychiatric Association, those who are heavily involved with social media are more than three times more likely to develop depression and anxiety than those who are minimally involved.

I’m not a psychologist, but I would guess that this anxiety stems from spending too much time admiring others’ lives, rather than living a life of one’s own. Whenever people go to a concert, go to their friend’s house, eat dinner, brush their teeth, take a crap, etc., phones are out almost all the time so that the whole occasion can be documented. People care more about their friends knowing that they were at an event than being engaged in the event themselves.  

Social Media Today stated that the average person spends about two hours a day on social media. Over a lifetime, that is equivalent to five years and four months. And for what? In five years and four months you can climb Mount Everest 32 times or run over 10,000 marathons. Instead, many wonder whether Kylie’s lips are fake or brood over a friend’s study abroad in Paris.

However, I must admit that since joining social media, I have developed a better understanding of why people spend so much time on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and other platforms. As depreciative as it is, there’s something addicting and entertaining about looking at memes, people’s opinions on current events and photos of friends. Most of all, I’ve found that social media is the perfect tool for avoiding social interaction and awkward situations. Don’t feel like talking to anyone around you before lecture because you’re antisocial? Perfect, just browse Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat to appear busy. Unfortunately, it seems that everyone under the age of 30 uses this strategy just about anytime and anywhere.

It saddens me that I’ve succumbed to some of the behaviors that were once topics of admonishment in my college admissions essays. While I try to limit myself, I waste considerable amounts of time looking at a screen. And it’s only on an extremely rare occasion that I’ll say to myself, “Boy, am I glad that I checked my news feed!” Usually, I’ll exit social media with indifference, jealousy, a dwindling will to survive or annoyance at something someone said.

Though social media has made my life remarkably more convenient — and for that reason alone I would not delete it — it has done absolutely no good in terms of emotional well-being. I still use social media a miniscule amount compared to most, but my goal is to reduce this amount even further. When it comes to having an online presence, I truly believe that less is more. Therefore, when I’m getting ready to stalk someone and can’t find them on Facebook or Instagram, I will not automatically assume that they are odd. Instead, I will look at them with admiration for doing something that I have lost the strength to do myself.

Evan Sirls can be reached at esirls@umich.edu.