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Why Social Media is Making You Unhappy

I had an adult conversation with my 16 year-old daughter. She’s meets the profile of the standard-issue smartphone-addicted teen. I asked to see her phone usage logs for the previous week. She was averaging 5.5 hours a day staring at her phone. If that seems like a lot, many of her peers average 8-10 hours a day. That’s more hours in the week than a full-time job.

While my kids and their peers are mostly hooked on Snapchat (not owned by Facebook) and Instagram (owned by Facebook), many adults have similar issues with social media. We're starting to realize just how damaging social media has become to our society and to ourselves. Rates of anxiety and depression among young people are soaring. Loneliness and feelings of isolation are increasing as well, despite lofty goals of “connecting the world.” In many instances, our addiction is even changing our brain chemistry – and not in a good way. Why is that? (I’m not a mental health expert, so please do not construe this as professional advice.) From what I’ve read, I will summarize why it’s making us so unhappy.

  1. Fear of Missing Out. The fear of missing out, or “FOMO” is responsible for a ton of unnecessary anxiety, especially among teens and young adults. These days, it’s possible to keep tabs on everyone you know in real-time. Not joining in, “liking” stories or posts, or missing something funny or important happening can be construed as not being a good friend. Which can cause people to compulsorily check their phones hundreds of times a day (and at night) to make sure they don't miss anything. Likewise, seeing pictures of friends doing stuff without you can make you feel excluded.

  2. Everything is curated. Social media curating is the process of filtering what gets shown to the world. Many people carefully decide what they post, creating an image that everything is perfect all the time. For example, I had a friend “living her best life” and her feed was full of pictures of her perfect family and her perfect life. Picture perfect vacations, looking fabulous after spin class, family shots where everyone is smiling and happy. From the outside, everything was awesome. The truth was that she was buried in debt and in the process of a getting divorced. Behind most people’s life is about imperfection. As you scroll through the feed every day, it seems like everyone else is living a much better life than you by comparison. The reality is that everyone has bad days – It’s just that nobody posts “here’s me in my sweatpants, eating ice cream from the tub and binge-watching The Office for the sixth time.”

  3. Comparing yourself to illusions. Beyond the normal curating process your friends do, many social media “influencers” (a title that didn’t even exist until recently) present a completely fictional representation of reality. From celebrities, to fitness models, to photos of food, most of the media we consume has been photo-shopped or CGI’d to a level of perfection that is simply untrue or impossible to accomplish. A few years ago, I heard an interview with a very successful author who said the best thing he did for his mental health was unfollow fitness models on Instagram. Their perfection was making him feel inadequate in his own life. When you compare your reality to what you see online, it can drive insecurity and feelings of failure.

  4. Algorithms don’t care about you. Most social platforms are constantly tweaking their algorithms to one end: keeping your eyeballs glued to their platform and engaged for as long as possible. Our time, data, and attention are what they sell to the real customers: advertisers, corporations, political parties, Russian spies, etc. They have figured out that the more outrage a post generates, the more engagement it gets. Which is why normal posts get crowded out by the outrageous, the paid promotions, and the professionally polished like-bait. Your mental, physical, and fiscal health might be taking a beating, but as long as you are engaged, mission accomplished.

  5. Opportunity costs. There are immense opportunity costs of all that screen time. Physical fitness, mental fitness, creative and educational pursuits are all suffering. In a recent study, 75% of young people are unable to serve in the military, most due to lifestyle choices, physical or mental health issues. or lack physical fitness. In my conversation with my daughter, who is a budding artist, I asked her how many paintings she hasn’t created due to her screen time? That put it into perspective for her somewhat. She’s spent much more time since then working on art in her free time than scrolling through memes.

  6. Ersatz connectivity and experiences. The connections we make and foster on social media are not inherently bad – but they are not a substitute for actual human interaction and experiences with people in real life. On a personal basis, we might have hundreds or thousands of “friends,” followers, or connections on various social media platforms, yet people who report they are chronically lonely is on the rise. You might get a hundred likes, but not have anyone to confide in.

  7. Understand the math. Statistically speaking, someone, somewhere is doing something much more fun than you are right now. If you have 200 friends you follow, that’s at least 400 weeks of vacation time. Any given day, a bunch of your friends is posting pics of themselves on the beach with drinks in hand, traveling to fabulous places, and generally having a good time. The aggregate is that it may seem like everyone is having a much better time than you are in your life.

I’m not sure there is an easy fix – simply dropping off the social media grid might be impossible for most us. However, there are some tools and tricks I have distilled and can share.

  1. Be mindful of your screen time. Both Apple and Android have screen time trackers. (Apple’s is called Screen Time and can be found in the setting page. Android has a Digital Wellbeing app.) I have an iPhone and iPad and so can speak to Screen Time. It tracks how often you pick up your device, unlock it, and how much time you spend on each app. You can get updates on your average screen time. You can even set limits on how much time you (or your kids) spend on a specific app or categories like social or games. Just looking at this once a week can be eye-opening.

  2. Tweak your settings. Go into the notification settings on your devices and turn off all the notifications that are not essential. You can even get rid of the little numbers on the app icons (You have two unread messages!) – which are designed to get you to open the app. One like from Aunt Suzy on that picture you posted of your dog and you can disappear down the social media rabbit hole for thirty minutes. You can also set do-not-disturb hours on your phone, where you won’t receive any notifications unless it’s urgent, like a 911 from your contacts. I use this feature when I’m deep in a project and don’t want to be disturbed, or regularly in the late-evening when a text from another time zone will keep until morning.

  3. Clean up your feed. When you do get into your social media apps, it’s ok to unfriend, hide, unlike, or unfollow the people, products, companies, media organizations, the people in your life that bring you down. It could be that obnoxious ex-coworker that is ALL CAPS, ALL POLITICS, ALL THE TIME. It could be your high school classmate who is always hawking their multi-level-marketing scheme. You might find that 10% contribute to 90% of the negative noise in your feed. Likewise, feel free to purge anyone or any brand that is only trying to sell you something or promote a brand that offer you little in return.

  4. Buy an alarm clock. The most frequent advice I hear is to keep your devices out of your bedroom. The blue light from the screens can mess with your brain’s ability to wind down and the temptation to look at your phone to check the time can lead to interrupted sleep. An old-fashioned, single-function alarm clock can help keep the devices somewhere other than the nightstand.

  5. Set aside screen-free time. Find time each day to have screen-free time, either individually, work group, or as a family. Whether it’s an all-day event like Screen-Free Saturday, or just a few hours that you set aside to work on a project, read, exercise or socialize it can be a good detox. I witnessed this summer when I took my Scout troop to summer camp. By the second day of no internet or cell phones, the Scouts had gotten over their withdrawal symptoms, and were playing cards with each other, working on leather work projects or whittling, reading in hammocks, and getting over their FOMO. They were just living in the moment, and it was a beautiful thing.

  6. Find Synergies. Social media is not ALL bad. It can take a little work to surround yourself with positivity, motivation, and knowledge that will help you achieve your goals. If you are trying to lose weight, pass Organic Chemistry or start a business, you can find a supportive tribe online, to augment your tribe in real life.

  7. Practice being bored. One of the biggest casualties of having the entire internet at our disposal all the time is the time to just think and observe the world around you. Instead of checking your phone during a couple of minutes of down time, spend some time inside your head. Boredom can lead to bursts of creativity, problem solving, strategic planning or goal setting. Just having a few minutes to think might lead you to some great places.

Practicing a little moderation (and skepticism) in your social media consumption will pay dividends. I hope you found at least one point helpful.

If you have gone on a social media diet, we’d like to hear from you and your experience!

Have other topics you’d like to know more about? Let us know how we can help.

The Rivet Group is an Executive Search and Consulting company dedicated to working with professionals at the top of their game. If you are ready to make a career move, we'd like to hear from you.

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