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Like it or not, you are not your social media

As a new study says children need better emotional support when using social media, Claire Musters says there can be damaging effects on adults too

Is our desire for ‘Likes’ causing us harm? 

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Tumblr, Pinterest, YouTube and other social media websites and apps have minimum age limits (often 13) in order to protect children. But a new report from England’s children’s commissioner says that three-quarters of 10–12 year olds already have accounts. The commissioner, Anne Longfield, this week called for schools not only to provide e-safety education, but work more closely with children as they move from primary to secondary school in order to prepare them for the emotional impact engaging more heavily with social media will have on them.

Our children are growing up in the culture of the selfie. This reinforces the notion that we are judged by what we look like. In that vital, yet delicate, period of learning more about who they are as people the digital world can often pile on extra, unhelpful pressure.

The commissioner’s report found that children were far too dependent on ‘likes’, looking to social media for much of their validation as people. Here are some of the children's comments:

  • "If I got 150 likes, I'd be like, 'that's pretty cool, it means they like you'" - Aaron, 11
  • "I just edit my photos to make sure I look nice" - Annie, 11
  • "I saw a pretty girl and everything she has I want, my aim is to be like her" - Bridie, 11

The report may have looked solely at the impact on children, but in my own work I've found that the emotional impact of social media can be felt just as keenly by us adults.

Social media’s ‘sting’

In my book Taking Off the Mask I explore how our culture influences how we portray ourselves to the world. I look specifically at social media’s ‘sting’.

I love connecting with friends from all over the world on Facebook. There are huge positives and opportunities that have opened up due to technological advances. But…People’s status updates usually go one of two ways: a post about how wonderful life is (often focusing on an achievement they or a family member has done) or a really negative post about how difficult life is. Why is this?

We are looking to others to interact with us, to either ‘Like’ what we’ve posted or give us empathy and support in the form of sympathetic comments. We all do it, don’t we? Post something up and then keep checking back to see what response we’ve had.

Adults, just as much as children, can forget that social media is a skewed view. It shows us a snapshot of other people’s lives rather than a full, rounded view. People share their successes because somehow we’ve learned that our achievements need to be measured by how other people respond to them. But what about what God says about them – and us? Do we check in with him as regularly?

We also learn to compare ourselves to others on social media – do they look like they're more successful than us? As a writer involved in online writing social media groups I can be thrilled by news of another writer’s success – but also floored by how it makes me struggle yet again with a sense of unworthiness.

I know I am not alone – a study of 600 adults showed that Facebook has produced a basis for comparison and envy on a scale never before seen. I’m not sure any of us were quite ready for the emotional fallout the digital world can cause.

So what’s the answer?

I found it fascinating to read Esther Emery’s book What Falls From the Sky. After a crisis in her marriage, and a life-changing decision to move (leaving her career behind) she decided that she needed to take a complete break from using social media.

She spent a year disconnected – and in that year found she reconnected with God and learned what really mattered to her: "As long as I was on the internet, my value and worth was up for discussion. And the more fragile I got, because of the crisis in my marriage and the loss of my career, the more I cared. When I dropped off the internet I was running away from all of that. And also, somewhere deep inside, I was running towards hope…I learned how to be who I am when nobody is watching."

While I don’t believe that we all need to take such drastic action as Esther did, I do feel we need to be more aware of the emotional impact chasing after ‘Likes’, and spending energy on being noticed on social media has on us.

Some of my online friends took a break from social media over Christmas – that can be a good way of reprioritising (and reminding ourselves that it can be addictive). It’s also important to regularly take time to re-evaluate where we get our sense of validation.

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