Mr Gay Europe 2019 Alexander Petrov shares his thoughts about social media and mental health.
Social media and mental health
I got inspired to share my thoughts on the topic by a favorite line I have from Blaise Pascal’s “Pensées,” where he says: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
I find the words of Pascal to be extremely profound and relatable to much of today’s mental plights that a lot of people, especially the newer generations, face.
In our world of easily accessible and fast entertainment we have taken for granted that we should be constantly doing something fun, interesting, new and better. We are in an everlasting race with the people around us to do, to be, to have, to experience everything else but ourselves. Why is solitude a sign of social ineptitude and borderline stigma, and why just the thought of being alone with oneself or not doing anything for a prolonged period of time seems tedious and torture-like? Why can’t we be sufficed with just staying home and doing something trivial for a day or a week, stepping down from our millennial merry-go-round?
I believe this urgency to connect or be “connected” all of the time inevitably leads to pressure and anxiety. And those two have a way transforming us into warped mirror images of ourselves. So how did we end up here drowning in want and instant gratification? People say it’s a generational thing but I, personally blame social media and the way we use it.
Instagram and Facebook being the main culprits. Everything we do and post there is to portray our best and highest moments. It’s a natural impulse to show off when you are proud or happy with something and to prefer not to shares how ugly, poor, uninteresting, unsuccessful you felt at some point. Which sounds normal but creates this inherent problem of turning those types of social networks into shiny boutique shops of eternal happiness, success, affluence and fun.
And when you have one of those days or weeks, where you feel down, or you are just a more modest person and you enter that boutique shop, you witness others having fun, doing exciting things and visiting interesting places. Then you start feeling left out and that you have to catch up. You need to start doing, being and having things, to show to those people that you are not less and that your life is comparably engaged.
This is how we start competing with each other, trying to prove to each other that we are not inferior in any way, but ultimately making each other feel inadequate and insufficient. In our want to measure up and prove that we also are living a fulfilled life we feed into this vicious circle and start producing superficial posts aiming to oversell whatever we have in exchange for external validation. And boy do we become good at it.
Social media and Instagram have turned us into artisan illusionists creating an expensive vacation out of any somewhat sunny day, earning Michelin stars out of any edible arrangement, portraying any party gathering as a Burning man, Coachella, Tomorrowland crossover, and that has us flaunting our unsustainable Apollo-like physiques, our fancy important friends that we just met or our new expensive clothes, phones, cars and jewelry, while barely scraping up for the rent.
We either make out things to be way more than they are or portray success without mentioning the accompanying grind. The one thing we all do is try to stretch all those things and make them seem grander and eternal. No human can compete with this utopian never-ending rollercoaster ride that just seems to always go up. It does not matter if you are a more casual user or a really active one, spending a few minutes a day in this social media wonderland will make you feel like you are dead and not doing anything worthwhile with your life, while everybody else seems to have figured things out and is living perfect fulfilled lives. Given time this slowly and surely is going to open you up to a plethora of mental issues such as social anxiety, depression, feelings of inferiority, panic attacks, mood swings, addiction to external validation and more.
I recently got in contact with a young gay man in his early twenties, here in Bulgaria, that needed someone to talk to. As he was from a rural town he was closeted and did not have gay friends. After talking to him for a while I understood that he had low self-esteem, an ongoing depressed mood, suicidal thoughts, and episodic panic attacks. At first, I thought that those were kind of expected as he was a young closeted gay guy living in a conservative small town in Bulgaria. But as we talked more, he started mentioning a lot the social networks that he was using and the amount of time that he spent on them.
Obviously, these media outlets were his window to the world. But boy did he not have any idea that the glass of the window was extremely rose tinted. He was feeling such an intense feeling of envy that it engulfed his existence. He was constantly angry that he does not and cannot have all those things that everybody else in the pictures, had seemingly by default.
He was envious of the trips, of gay couples, of the “success” of others, and even of heterosexual women. That last one may have come to me as a shock, as I do not recall to have ever had such a feeling. But he passionately envied them for how easy they get heterosexual men and how undeserving they are of them. Bombarded by the ever-shine of social media he developed such an intense feeling of envy that it spiraled him into mental instability.
We may not all be in the same somewhat isolated situation as that boy, and we might not be impacted that severely, but it will happen. It will be in a different way, at a different rate and will result in different mental disruptions. Our generations’ inherent need of instant gratification paired up with the overwhelming and addictive positive feedback loop of social media, are chartering us on a mental collision course.
I too have been guilty of partaking in the glibness of social media and succumbing to its mentally destabilizing peer pressure effect. I’ve too focused mostly on the positive aspects of my life, boosting the light and contrast, getting the right angle, photoshopping, and envying people for their physiques, activities and success.
As I grew older and realized more and more the slow effects of them over me, not wanting to become that likes-starved image obsessed social media user, I gradually developed ways to combat the negative effects of social media that work for me. As the role of social media in our modern life is already extremely intrinsic, completely disconnecting from social media will just trade one problem for another. So, I will focus not on quitting social media, but on moderating its effects.
What you can do, firstly, is to limit the time you brainwash yourself with social media as this will lessen its effect. Most smart phones either have an inbuilt function or you can get an app for it, but you can monitor or limit your social media screen time. Set up an arbitrary maximum, let us say 30 mins per day, and try it out for a week. See how you feel about it and take it from there. The goal is for you to spend the minimum required time in social media, so you can properly function in society or receive the needed information/news for the day.
Secondly, sift through the content you are brainwashed with. Remove any content creators or “friends” that don’t seem to bring value, information, inspiration or development to your life. Even if you consider them friends, but you feel that their posts mentally trigger you in any of the aforementioned ways, it would be best for your overall wellbeing to do without them, or at least make sure your feed does not show you more of their posts. I for one, try to focus on people that have a creative side and attempt adding a concept to whatever they are doing, be it amateur photography, art, philosophy, comedy or something else. If I see a friend focusing too much on food pictures, clubbing, recent purchases or the luxurious part of a trip, instead of the cultural aspect of it, I do not hesitate to unfollow him as this brings no value to my life and future development.
The things above will prevent you from falling prey to the peer pressure effect of social medial, but we need to also stop feeding it with over polished material. Create posts sharing low moments, everyday moments, ugly moments, sad moments, things that portray us not only in our highest, but in our middle and low points as-well.
People relate to flaws, not to flawlessness. Through our days, statistically, most of the time we feel insecure about a lot of things like being alone, or losing weight, or going to the gym, or earning more money, or not feeling beautiful, or in the best-case scenario we just feel average. So, if we start seeing more average things on social media, we won’t feel bad or singular in our worries. It will help us to relate more to others and to feel more at peace with ourselves.
I am sure this is one of the hardest things to pull off, as I know I am not doing a great job at it. It’s only a natural animal brain instinct to hide weakness and portray strength as this means survival. It’s hard to show vulnerability and imperfection in our marketing drowned world. But we have to force ourselves to override our instincts and present our true and full selves, as this will ultimately help us and others. For every 1-2 high point posts we can try making one that does shed us in a more imperfect everyday light.
Another way I battle social media pressure, which might not be for everyone, is by carefully applying Nihilism and our preordained mortality. For the ones of you that are not super sure of the exact meaning of Nihilism, it is the belief that life has no intrinsic meaning. Humans and everything they do is inconsequential. So often when I see something that triggers my envy, I override the negative feeling with the cosmic pointlessness of everything we do and are. There is a calming feeling in the fact that no matter how handsome, rich, successful, happy, traveled, engaged in activates and altogether superior someone might be, in the end, given some time it will all be meaningless and forgotten, it will all be like it never happened in the first place, and his and your worth will be exactly the same – nothing.
Both of you will die and turn to dust. Both of your names, after a few generations, will be forgotten. Whatever you have built or erected, in time will collapse and someone else will build something over it. All of your earthly possessions that you have left will be spent. All your ideas, beliefs, achievements and success, might at best spend a few centuries in a book and be even taught, but again, ultimately, they will become redundant and fade into nothingness.
Sometimes I even think of how we know for certain that at some point ahead in the future, the sun will die out and all of humanity, as we know it, will cease to exist. This inevitable expiration date of everything and anything sobers me up and culls any feelings of want or envy I have, as they look so petty and meaningless on the cosmic scale.
Lastly, I believe in self-sufficiency. This is the meaning of the tattoo I have on my neck. It’s a lone wolf. When the pack cannot provide for every wolf, some wolves may break from the pack and focus on their survival. They function perfectly fine on their own and when the time comes, they rejoin their pack and continue contributing to the group. Applied to humans, our packs don’t necessarily provide what we need all the time, as humans tend to be a lot more self-centered and egotistical. So ultimately times when you need to focus on yourself and not rely on the others, will arise.
Here is where Blaise Pascal’s quote comes into play. We should all try to be a little more mentally and socially self-sufficient with ourselves. We should be our own best friends and spending time alone with ourselves should be a good enough prospect and not something to avoid. I, as a gamer, find peace and refocusing in indulging in my hobby – gaming. The mental focus and enjoyment of the activity ejects me from any feelings of loneliness, depression or constant need of social interaction. This distances me from my perceived issues and shows me that even if I never achieve any of those things (success, affluence, boyfriend, love, possessions, travels, etc.) I will always have me and this fun thing that I can do by myself. And it will be enough.
It definitely lightens the load put on me by social media to do or be things that I am not at the moment. Hence, find something relatively basic that you enjoy doing alone – playing games, reading, watching series, doing crosswords, puzzles, sewing, painting, pottery, writing, origami, meditation, etc. The goal is to find something that you enjoy doing quietly in a room alone. And when you have a night of no social calls or an uneventful weak day, instead of ruminating on what might be, indulge in that something, knowing that you are not missing out on anything as you already have everything – yourself.