An interesting discussion took place at my home last night. It involved social media – specifically facebook – and feelings. The participants were me, my husband, my step-daughter, and my step-son. My husband and I are former facebook users, and my step-kids are both too young to have their own accounts, but that does not necessarily mean any of us are immune to being a part of the social media platform. As anyone who uses the service knows, your picture can be posted without your permission, and anyone can mention you or post about you without your permission. You can have a presence without your knowledge or consent (that’s a bit frightening, but not what I want to talk about today). Our previous conversations have focused primarily on the fact that once you post something online, it’s out there and you have zero control over what happens to that information, but this time our conversation was mainly about self-esteem, self-worth, and comparison.
Our conversation specifically centered on receiving and not receiving accolades on social media, and the feelings surrounding both. I won’t go into details, but let’s just say that one child was mentioned on a facebook user’s page for the child’s achievements, and the other was not, due (presumably) to the fact that the other child had not achieved quite as much. Now, in my opinion, both children achieved, and achieved well, and I made sure each knew that, but that message probably lost out to the original message which was that one was left out while the other was essentially paraded to who-knows-how-many “friends.”
My husband and I frequently discuss facebook and other social media platforms with the kids. They know we both had facebook accounts, and they know that neither of us have them anymore, and they know why. They are growing up in an age where social media is the norm, but we do not want them to just accept the norm without questioning it. We want them to decide for themselves, after being fully informed, whether facebook, Instagram, twitter, or any other social media platform is right for them before joining just because seemingly everyone else has an account.
I fear that we are raising a generation that will look to social media for approval… that if something they post doesn’t garner enough “likes,” then they’re, well, not liked. And if something they post does receive a lot of “likes,” then they’re set – they’re liked. The problem with this (ok, just one problem) is that the online community is not community. “Friends” are not real friends. Connecting on facebook or Instagram is not connection. And we are hard wired for connection. Connecting on the internet is shallow and will never provide the authentic connection that we as humans crave. Authentic connection means connecting authentically. Ok, I know that was not very helpful. Authentic connection means sharing meaningful conversation, opening up and revealing feelings, needs, desires, successes, failures, heartbreaks, dreams, hopes, and fears. Who does that, truly, with all of their facebook “friends”? So when we connect on social media, often we are left hollow. And that ultimately leads to shame. It’s a path that one has to travel, and shame is the result. If we are not connected, we begin to fear something is wrong with us because of the lack of connection. The next step is to begin to think that the something that is wrong with us is that we are unworthy of love and belonging. No one wants to connect because we are not good enough. Ick.
During our family conversation last night we talked about the various feelings involved, and they ranged from being proud to be mentioned to being sad and a little hurt for not being mentioned. My husband and I could understand both sets of feelings, and knew there were teachable moments for both. Being proud of oneself is great. It took me a long time of living this life before I was able to say I was proud of me. But when I did, it was because I embarked on something I never thought I would be able to do (law school), and I actually did it quite well. I said I was proud of me before anyone other than my family and closest friends told me. I came to that conclusion nearly on my own and it helped me push through when it was most challenging. Social media was not a part of my life when I applied for and began law school, and I am so glad, because I shudder to think of how I would have been affected throughout that part of my law school journey if I had been relying on others for my confidence to make it through.
Not being mentioned and feeling sad and a little hurt about it is also completely understandable. In fact, my husband admitted that he struggled with that very thing when he was on facebook. But the danger here is taking it to that next level of “because I was not mentioned, I am not worthy.” And again, feeling unworthy always leads to shame. Looking for our value and self-worth from comments or likes on facebook or any other forum will, at some point, leave us feeling empty, especially if we start comparing ourselves to others. There always have been and always will be ready opportunities to compare ourselves to others, but never has it been easier than now. When I was growing up, I compared myself to my sister, my friends, and people I saw on TV, movies, and in magazines. That was plenty. But now, the comparison web stretches so much further, and it seems to be never-ending. It’s hard enough to sift through what’s realistic and what isn’t as an adult, but imagine trying to do that as a child. I shudder.
Finally, our conversation touched on perfectionism. As one who has struggled my entire life with perfectionism, but who has only recently been made aware of the struggle, I believe it is more important than ever to discuss with our children that what you see on social media is not real life. It is a snapshot of what people want you to see. As I have said before, few of the billions (I don’t think that’s an exaggeration) of social media users actually post their real life ups and downs. So what we’re left with is a skewed version of life. If we don’t filter what we see through a strong reality check, we can begin to believe that everyone has a perfect life but us. And I can tell you from what I have read and from my own experience that perfectionism leads straight to shame. Because perfect does not exist in our lives, and because there is no possible way to become perfect in this life, we are fighting a losing battle. And if we believe that we can, in fact, achieve perfection is some area of our life, because we will ultimately fail, that failure will lead to feelings of unworthiness. I must have failed because I suck. Because I suck, I am unworthy. I don’t know about you, but I do not want the children in my life to be saddled with perfectionism because it’s the primary message they are receiving from this social media world we live in.
At the end of the conversation, we thanked the kids for being honest with us about their feelings and encouraged them to think about what they want for themselves regarding social media. As I mentioned before, this was not the first conversation about the topic, and it certainly will not be the last – much to the kids’ chagrin, I’m sure! But every time we talk about stuff like this – including their feelings – it gets easier. Every time we talk about something that is uncomfortable, it gets a little less uncomfortable.
I have said it before and it bears repeating: I am not on a mission to get anyone to stop using social media. What I am on a mission to do is to get people to start thinking more about the impacts social media has on their lives and the lives of others. Something that seems innocent might actually cause a lot of harm. We cannot tiptoe through life constantly worrying about what may or may not hurt someone else’s feelings, but we can become more aware, and often simple awareness can lead to big positive changes.