Guest post: Dr. Linda Papadopoulos - 'how does spending time online affect our sense of self?'
According to psychologist Dr. Linda Papadopoulos, we've always compared ourselves with others. Now, however, social media means that the lives against which we're measuring our own don't necessarily reflect reality - and this is potentially much more damaging
Linda will be taking part in Always On, our panel on how technology shapes the way we think, at Blogfest on November 8. Join her, Nick Hornby, Rebecca Front and a host of others for our annual celebration of sharp writing and big ideas
Psychologist and Blogfest speaker
Posted on: Thu 30-Oct-14 15:10:48
(23 comments )
In recent years, technology and social media in particular has become a crucial part of all our lives. Our social worlds have expanded dramatically and we now have almost limitless access to, and interactions with, people online. Where's the harm in that, you may wonder. Well, think of it this way: whereas once we developed our identity through those we came into direct contact with and a narrow range of societal influences, today we live in a world saturated with behavioural narratives and ‘portraits’ of who we are supposed to be, whether it's a Diaz-esque ‘cool girl’, a Megan Fox-ish ‘hot girl’ or a Gwynnie-style ‘yummy mummy’.
There is a sense that we need to promote ourselves and our lifestyles to ensure that they comply with what society deems worthy or acceptable. And while wanting to live up to societal expectations is nothing new, what is different is the fact that our lives are more visible. Unlike face-to-face interactions, where listing, for example, our child's latest achievements, or the outfits we've bought them, would seem odd, in our online lives we feel the need to update with ever more detail. The simple ‘yep, nothing new’ you would happily say if you bumped into a friend just won't do. This, combined with the visual superficiality of the online world, means that we look to archetypal indicators of success as a means of conveying how well we're doing.
There's not much we can do about it, either – we are programmed to compare, we are socialized into it. Psychologists call this Social Comparison Theory and it centres on the belief that we are all driven to gain accurate evaluations of ourselves by assessing how we are doing in relation to others. The reason we seek out these comparisons is because they provide an objective benchmark against which we can compare ourselves in different areas, giving us a sense of validity and clarity.
We are all driven to gain accurate evaluations of ourselves by assessing how we are doing in relation to others - we're programmed to compare ourselves.
There are two ways we do this:
Downward social comparison is a defensive tendency that people use as a means of self-evaluation. We look to another person or group who are considered to be worse off in order to dissociate them from ourselves. It makes us feel better about who we are, and is probably why watching bad reality TV is such a popular guilty pleasure.
Then there are upward social comparisons, and research has suggested that comparisons with others who are better off can lower self-esteem.
Unfortunately, the latter are exactly the kind of comparisons that we tend to seek out online when we're feeling low. Online, we make upward social comparisons because we are all portraying our ‘ideal’ selves. The best photos, the best dinners, the trips, the stories about our kids’ achievements… it's the superlatives of each other's lives that we are using as benchmarks. And we make upward comparisons both consciously and subconsciously, so often we aren't even aware we’re making them.
To complicate things further, research has also shown that we tend to spend more time online when we’re feeling low or lonely, which means we are also more likely to see the fabulous, well-edited lives of other people at a time when we are feeling the lowest about our own. This has given rise to something that researchers call ‘FOMO’ or ‘Fear of Missing Out’. FOMO is the upshot of seeing friends and family relaxing on holiday while you are at home exhausted from night feeds, trying to hold down a job and keep a household ticking over. It's the fear that everyone else is having more fun, more excitement and more anecdote-worthy experiences than you. And given that our friends’ lives, accomplishments and experiences are plastered across a multitude of devices, it's easy to feel you're missing out.
The truth is, our world has always 'socially constructed' us to some extent. Our families, the cultures we identify with, both national and social, have always played a role in defining who we are. But what we are seeing now is what happens when social comparisons are made not with each other in ‘real time’ or even in ‘real life’ but with edited online versions of each other. In many cases, we aren't aspiring to be like the 'real' people we actually have an affinity with, either through direct knowledge or research, but rather the much revered but fictional characters we see on screen. I think we need to read profile pages the way that we would read a press release or sales pitch – with a healthy degree of scepticism. They are edited version of peoples’ lives and the ‘editors’ are all trying to figure out what their audience wants and give it to them.
Don't get me wrong, I don't think that social networking is bad and that we should all be walking around with brick-sized mobile phones again, but we do need to realise that our online identities can affect who we think we need to be offline, too. In fact, the two worlds are becoming ever more intertwined. As such, it is so important to learn to disconnect from our ‘false’ identities to gain the freedom of who we really are.
By Dr. Linda Papadopoulos
So interesting. And true. And apt.
Taking a month off social media as it's so so addictive I much prefer my bubble.
Children should be taught from KS2 that online identities can be as fictional as the books they read and to believe less than half of what their friends will be putting on social media (when they do start creating online profiles).
When my dc are old enough, I intend to tell them that believing everything online about others lives is akin to believing in Santa and the tooth fairy again (but not right now because they still believe).
Too pessimistic for me. Time online need not just be on social media - but can be on documentaries, research, furthering interests and hobbies, stuff that broadens horizons - with huge positive effects on sense of self. Also in the age of unprecedented mobility social media is a useful tool for finding connections relating to new opportunities. We'd wait a long time to meet/connect in real life with a person on the other side of the world who has the job we want without social media.
This is so true. I used I work with newish mothers and so many of them felt they were doing everything 'worse' than others with small children, everyone was getting out and about more, doing more, had tidier houses, we're baking etc etc. every single one of them felt the same about each other - so who we're the glossy, relaxed, perfect ones?!
I gave up fb for lent as I was always saying (and feeling) that I had no down/me time and DH pointed out that I could be on fb for ages sometimes and that could be the me time. I now read and feel that I've really relaxed. I've only briefly revisited fb sometimes - (it's almost impossible to communicate with some wools/businesses without it) - and I do feel like I've cracked an addiction. Now I'm the other side of it, I realise how much it affected me. Even down to the fact that I take a lot less photos now - I was clearly subconsciously snapping stuff with a view to posting it online. Now I love on the moment rather than viewing it from outside.
There is a lot of good out there, but I'm not sure that the overall affect on how we communicate etc is that helpful.
Very true. I don't use facebook, twitter, instagram or any other form of social media.
It's the same as RL. You choose who to mix with and how you mix with them. You need to be strong enough to switch off your device if the content upsets you.
I don't agree with Facebook - full stop. The information is a rose tinted view of someone's life, complete with bragging. I never ever intend to use it.
A website like Mumsnet can be very supportive. If you post a relationship problem or a mental health problem for example, lots of people will do their best to help you and give you a lift with practical and caring advice. But if you post in other sections where people like to argue or on a subject that inflames tempers then you will not feel so great!
The Internet is packed with information which can be highly valuable, particularly for researching health issues. It's great to be able to access this on a phone.
Since people have their phones on and with them most of time, their use should be carefully restricted if updates are upsetting. Eg on my iPhone, I receive texts, emails and phone calls. These will either be from people I know who want something specific (eg to arrange something) or it will be junk from companies (inconvenient but not upsetting). I don't have it set to receive Facebook and Twitter updates because those are going to be containing mindless brags/fake nonsense in most cases.
Great post - I think I need to take more heed of this.
DH calls Facebook "a rolling press release". He's got a point.
Not how I use online time at all.
I have a son who is severely disabled. I was lucky enough that he was diagnosed just as the online world was taking off. Okay so it was dial up & people might still look blankly at you when you talked about it, but even before he was formally diagnosed I had an online community of people who shared my world. This was important - I
would have known no- one else with a child like mine without that online community.
When we moved 300 miles away I moved around the corner from
someone from that community. I wouldn't have met her normally as her child has been to different schools than mine - and is slightly older but from having met online we became firm friends.
I met someone two days ago that I first met on here 10 years ago. We have a similar family set up & similar disabled children. We started out agreeing a lot on here, then talked elsewhere & finally met this week. Both of us forgot we hadn't met each other & the kids all slotted together as well (similar families).
Every school holiday I am pretty isolated. We can't go out & do normal family things, but when I go on Facebook I find my feed full of people having similar issues. We support each other (not compete) through those times. If someone has had a dreadful day it doesn't make me feel good it makes me feel bad for them, & hopefully I can make them feel less isolated as they know we have the same sort of things.
In my life it's the real world comparisons that have the potential
to make me feel miserable. Online communities of various sorts have reduced isolation and introduced me to people who are living a version of my life. It's let me know I'm not the only one.
I've met mother of grown up children with my son's condition & it was really much harder for them. They were often very isolated & were having to deal with their children & the 'support' services (often large party of the stress) alone. Pretty much every useful bit of information I've been given (on statements, DLA, DFG's, complaint procedures, carers assessments, ds1's legal rights, various therapies & tests to ask for etc etc) has come from another parent online.
And when something terrible happens within our community social media can connect people who care making the potential for changes to the law a possibility. Take for example the #justiceforLB campaign.
Maybe I just don't have time to worry about what shoes I'm buying, and we can't fly off on holiday because of ds1 so any perfect lives lived out on FB are completely irrelevant to me so I skip over those to the people who are living my life. I do know that without the online world I would have been far more isolated, had a thousand times more difficulty in dealing with the authorities & I would have had no idea of what our 'normal' was supposed to be. My community is much more widely spread than those around me. But I usually have more in common with those who have a child like mine but live 300 miles away with a different income level, than those around me with NT kids.
Sorry that was long
I go on Facebook once a month when I renew my Freedom Freebee, I have one old school friend who manages to go to all the festivals, I went to Donnington once when I was 17, although I'd like to have the freedom and money, I'd probably use it in a different way. Of course she'd never have found me if it wasn't for Facebook. I can't say I'm sobbing into my though.
I'd like to applaud jimjams, I think what she has eloquently demonstrated here is the FB is like any other tool, it all depends on how you use it. If you hold an ax by the wrong end it's going to get messy.
In life their are some people who are primarily concerned with them selves and how others view them. They are quite predominant on FB because it is a tool they are naturally drawn towards.
That doesn't mean that the closed disability specific groups, or the home ed groups or any of the hundreds of other helpful connecting people groups are any thing less than a lifesaver.
Individuals have to make a choice not to compete, they have to take responsibility about who they allow on their feed/ in their lives and they have to realise that the persona that we wear out of the house, all make up and smart clothes can easily be hiding a tortured soul.
Nb for context I should say I do not wear make up and I use FB only to represent my small business posting neither photos of my kids or myself.
I find the constant pressure to post photos of my kids online overwhelming, so much so that I left Facebook and only share pictures in a closed group with family. However that doesn't stop some of them taking the pictures and re-posting them on their own social media sites. I have been amazed how far one picture can go when it leaves a "private" group.
I never had to contend with my parents photocopying family photos of us in the bath/painting naked/eating soil and posting them around our local vicinity or papering them down the street. That's what FB feels like me some times, and I don't want to have to explain to my kids in 20years why there are potentially embarrassing pictures of them eternally online without their consent or knowledge.
I deleted the fb app from my iphone a week ago, and have only been in for maybe half hour a day on the laptop. and have felt calmer somehow. but have also re installed it twice as couldn't resist checking it / uploading pics while I was out, then re deleted it
scary how addictive it is
Ditto, Gary. Keep deleting but can't help going back for more, God knows why! Very interesting and timely topic, well overdue for debate.
Gary, that's one reason why I only look at it when my Freedom Freebee renews, the other being finances.
I found fb just as you describe until I spent a couple of hours one evening "sorting out" my news feed. I unfollowed all the "friends" I rarely see as they were the ones I was subconsciously comparing myself with. I signed up to the local news an information sites to get updates on local events I might like to go to and actively looked for groups to follow that I had an interest in (hobbies, some work-related). Now I actually find fb a useful tool for my daily life. If anyone or anything starts annoying me I just unfollow them, simple!
A small amount of discipline was required but it turned out to be very effective for me.
Good point, Sleepless. I hide a good few but should be more radical about it, i think.
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