January 1, 2019, was the day I decided to share my personal writing for the first time.
As a researcher, I was accustomed to sharing my work — my scientific and objective observations of data. But let there be no mistake: when I hit "publish" on that first post, and then invited all my social media followers to "check out my blog," it felt nowhere near as safe as sharing my work.
No sooner did I share my first blog post than social media seemed to control my life. It was funny; at work, as a scientist rigorously studying the relationship between technology use and adolescent mental health, I knew there was insufficient support for the idea that social media poses a risk to the typical user’s mental health.
But as a writer, a person who had just voluntarily revealed the contents of her own brain to every one of her Facebook and Instagram followers, I found myself quite certain that social media was now a danger to mine.
It isn’t Straightforward
At work, I remained untroubled by social media. Part of my job involves sorting through all the latest research articles investigating the relationship between adolescent mental health and social media. Thankfully, as a scientific discipline, we're moving past the obsession with "screen time." We're finding instead that sometimes, for some people, on some social media, certain activities can threaten our mental health. At other times, social media can be positively fundamental to well-being.
Despite the scientifically-supported nuance in the relationship between mental health and social media, my personal relationship with social media seemed as stark as ever.
When my experience of the data at work is very different from the data I collect at home, it’s uncomfortable. At home, the facts were these: When I share a new blog to Facebook, I careabout whether people read it. When I share something to Instagram, I wonder who will actually click through. I've cyber-stalked exes, I've waited for the follow back and I've obsessed over indicators like "seen" and "last active." On one hand, I believed that people can and do use social media for good. On the other, social media threatened to drive me crazy.
How could I square these two realities?
It Makes Us Vulnerable
In his Ted Talk, psychologist David Ellis handily dismisses the idea that technology itself is the problem. “I don’t think that the majority of people are addicted to their smartphone,” he says. “But one thing we are addicted to is social interaction."
In other words, perhaps my social media anxiety wasn't about likes or comments or clicks. Perhaps it was about the wealth of social information that is seemingly represented by clicks. Perhaps it was about the fact that, as a human, I evolved to pursue social connection and to avoid disconnection at all costs.
Social media offers a way for our us to meet our needs as humans. And when those needs aren’t met — whether it’s support, affirmation or simply to feel like we aren’t alone — well, no matter the medium, that hurts.
When I first began blogging, everyone was advising me to connect with other artists. After all, I was entering into a world that felt significantly more vulnerable than that of people keeping their guts neatly inside their bodies, rather than spilling them all over the internet. I have never been the advice-taking sort, however, so for a long time I forged on alone.
About two months ago, my colleague, Amanda, a filmmaker, posted a video to her own social media. Rather than spotlighting the work of others, like she normally does, this film featured Amanda herself. As soon as I saw it, I was proud. I texted her: “So awesome that you shared a video featuring YOU!”
“I'm still sweating about it,”she responded. “So stressful... I had a tidal wave of doubt last night. I believe you said you had heart palpitations when you first started blogging?”
That I did. And over a year later, I finally felt the relief in hearing another artist say, "me too."
It isn’t Always Easy
Chances are, your social world is hard to separate from social media. In the era of quarantine, the question has changed from if we should share ourselves virtually to how?How can we be authentic online? How can we experience the connection that makes life — even a socially-distanced life — worth living?
The good news is, it's possible. The bad news is, if you’re doing it right, it might involve heart palpitations.
After Amanda posted her video, she told me that she felt an intense feeling like a rush or a high that she didn't recognize...“I started freaking out,”she told me, “so I went on a long run without my phone.”
Within a few weeks of beginning my blog, I too had to put down my phone. To this day, when I share a new blog post to Facebook or Instagram, it's a few days before I log back in. I don't look at likes, I don't look at comments and I don't look at views.
And yet, over the course of 18 months, I’ve published over 100 posts. I’ve covered increasingly tricky topics, from my journey of recovery from alcohol use disorder and disordered eating, to my ongoing struggle with anxiety and depression. I shared with many unsuspecting readers when I first started dating a woman, and I shared again my personal journey to become less racist (and more anti-racist). Part of me wants to say it gets easier with every post, and another part of me knows that something even more important is true: It doesn’t get easier, because I get more real. I level up.
But it Might Be Worth the Risk
When it comes to mental health, perhaps social media is not such a paradox. Because it represents the social world, it can feel scary. It can spark anxiety, insecurity and loneliness. And because it represents the social world, social media can also offer the opposite: serenity, confidence and community.
Rather than lamenting your "addiction" to your phone or the bane of social media, try this instead: Author your own relationship to your social world. Use social media to share the things that matter to you and suddenly social disconnection may feel like a risk worth taking.
And, because connection is at the heart of this, find others who are taking risks, too. Text them and say, “I shared, and I’m scared.” Sigh with relief when they text back, “me too.”
Anna Jolliff is the program manager of the Technology and Adolescent Mental Wellness Program (TAM) and a research specialist on the Social Media and Adolescent Health Research Team (SMAHRT). If you too are passionate about the intersection between technology and mental health, consider attending the virtual TAM Colloquium in September. You can also check out more of Anna's writing at www.onawakening.org.