I was at university when social media first started to rear its head. I was supposed to be studying for final year exams, but wait – have you heard of this thing called Facebook?
It was a novelty, of course. A distraction, definitely. I searched out old friends and nosed at former boyfriends. I wrote pointless, mostly untrue updates on what I was doing, back when the only option was to finish the sentence ‘Lottie is…’. I added 50 blurry, unflattering photos from every night out. A couple of weeks in, once I had added everyone I knew and stalked everyone I didn’t, the novelty wore off.
If you had told me then that 15 years later there would be a global pandemic and this strange online popularity contest would be our only social lifeline, I would have laughed in your face and said you’d been reading too much dystopian fiction. Yet, here we are.
I’ve been thinking for a while now that there must be some kind of endgame on the horizon for the monster that social media has become. The drunken photos and self-conscious updates of my 21-year-old self’s Facebook profile look like museum pieces compared to today’s myriad of platforms and filters that rob us of time, self-esteem and much more besides.
Dove’s , Reverse Selfie, quotes the terrifying figure that by age 13, 80 per cent of girls distort the way they look online. As this generation grows up, will social media grow with them – or will there be a point where we decide that enough is enough?
After a turbulent relationship with my own social media use throughout the past year, I’m starting to wonder whether the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic could be that tipping point; the shift that finally bursts our social media bubble.
in January 2020 reported 3.8 billion social media users worldwide – an increase of almost ten per cent year on year. The same report showed that the average internet user spent over 40 per cent of their waking lives online.
I’d love to say I’m shocked, but I reached a point last spring where my iPhone usage stats were eye-wateringly high. With no rhythm to my days and nowhere to go but between rooms in my house, my time scrolling started to rocket until it was increasing by over 100 per cent per day. I tried to convince myself it was necessary – this was the only social life we all had during lockdown. It was all about maintaining connection, after all. But deep down, I knew it wasn’t healthy.
Entrepreneur Libby Brewster, co-founder of mental health toolkit , had a similar experience, realising during lockdown the extent to which her time online was “racking up”.
“I found myself beginning to over-analyse anything I posted and endlessly scrolling for news updates and entertainment,” she says. “I was struggling to switch off and I was over-stimulated by everything that’s been going on in the world in the last year.”
I can definitely relate to this sense of over-stimulation and reliance on online platforms. At first, I thought the unprecedented nature of a global crisis might make the internet a better place to be – bringing people together and closing the gaps between the haves and the have-nots. After all, we’re all stuck at home. We’re all in the same boat. Except of course, we weren’t. Some people’s boats were spacious and spotlessly clean. Some were full of extended family bubbles, all home-cooked meals and quality time. Some were fortresses of self-improvement, endless shots of yoga mats, crafting and baking. And don’t even get me started on the Instagram reality TV posse’s mass exodus to Dubai for ‘work’.
It turns out that even when you take away almost everything, the comparison monster still wields surprising force.
Life coach Sarah Perugia tells me we shouldn’t underestimate the impact of losing out on those ‘real’ face-to-face conversations, and their ability to balance out the feelings of inadequacy that social media can trigger.
“When we see others face to face, and talk about all aspects of life, we create a higher level of honesty and ‘psychological safety,” she explains. “In this forum we are likely to share the good, the bad and the ugly with friends. This builds empathy connection and true understanding.”
By contrast, this year, we have seen only a heavily filtered version of what is going on with everyone else. Sarah tells me that “we consciously know that what we are looking at is a ‘curated’ story. It is a moment in time and not necessarily true. However, our unconscious minds still leap to ‘compare and despair’. This can be enormously damaging to mental wellness and self-esteem.”
Fake news and filters
Unhealthy comparison and self-criticism aren’t the only dark sides to social that have come to the fore this year. One of social media’s more questionable roles is that of an unofficial newswire, spreading breaking stories often before they have been verified by mainstream media. In a constantly evolving, scary situation such as a global pandemic, this has been particularly problematic. On the one hand, unverified stories have frequently been widely circulated, often reaching hundreds of thousands and causing untold panic and fear.
At my lowest points, I often found myself obsessively refreshing my Twitter feed, waiting for a rumour on the next lockdown and wondering whether the NHS could cope with rising hospital admissions or the arrival of a new, vaccine-resistant variant. Along with this misinformation has been the obligatory wave of anti-vaccine, anti-mask sentiment, seeding doubt and division across an already deeply anxious nation. Not to mention a soaring number of adverts, taking advantage of our increasing online presence.
For TV producer Rob, the decision to take back control of his social platforms was based on an increased understanding of the power these platforms wield. “While I was never under the illusion that social media existed purely for the good of humankind, I had never, in reality considered the ‘business’ of it,” he explains. Then, during lockdown, he noticed he was spending much more time than usual ‘just checking’ social media platforms.
“Due to spending more time there, I noticed I was seeing less about my friends and their lives and more and more adverts. The nail in the coffin, as they say, was when I watched the Netflix documentary Social Dilemma.”
He has since turned off all social media notifications. “I wasn’t convinced it would have any meaningful effect – yet hand on heart, it has totally changed my relationship with social media. I feel like I have gone from being an unquestioning and unintentional slave, to a happier and in control grown-up again.”
After a year where everything, from work and finances to simply leaving the house has felt precarious and unstable, this desire to regain control seems universally relevant. As we start to reemerge, this year represents a chance to question everything; to ask whether we want to go back to how things were before, or whether we want to build something a little different. It remains to be seen how, or even if, social media has a part to play in this new normal.
There are definitely a few rays of light I don’t want to lose completely: beautiful, hopeful drawings, shared on his Instagram account, have frequently brightened my days, as have the fascinating, heartbreaking stories on the account.
While some influencers have spectacularly missed the mark with their content during the pandemic, others have used the time to portray a more positive message – ‘filter vs reality’ Instagram filter, which launched last year and uses a split screen to demonstrate the full extent to which filters can change your face, is a prime example. She told me she wanted to “create something unique, to show people how these dramatic beauty filters rid selfies of skin textures, tones, scars, everything that makes you – and how it’s affecting our mental health.”
So, what now? If ever we needed proof that online connection is no match for the real deal, the pandemic has left no room for doubt. I finally made the decision over the last lockdown to delete social media apps from my phone, removing the immediate temptation to automatically click and scroll. I can still access them, I just need to decide to log in, rather than feeling like that decision has been made for me. It seems like a small step, but the reduction in anxiety it brings is anything but small.
Interestingly, the less time I spend on social media, the less I want to be there. There’s a flash of that initial disappointment I felt back in my university library, scrolling through the same photos on Facebook and looking at the same people, thinking – is this it? Is this what everyone is so excited about? I’m sure I’m not the only one.
Brewster tells me that deleting social apps was a game changer for her, and one she plans on keeping as lockdown begins to lift. “I’ve found that I’m worrying less about what other people think and I’m getting more of the important stuff done,” she tells me.
“Covid has made me realise how much I want to enjoy life in the real world.”