Why Social Media Will Make You Feel Empty: Identity and Social Hierarchies In The Internet Age

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I loved social media. I loved that I was never bored, that any time I felt empty or alone, I could dawdle on my couch and feel connected to millions of people throughout the world. On Twitter, I could read an inexhaustible stream of opinions and articles about politics and sports. On Instagram, I could discover new worlds through others’ travel, see my friend’s new children or houses, and best of all, I could show off my fabulous young adult Brooklyn life filled with cocktail bars, restaurants, and parties. On Snapchat, I could send pictures with weird filters and get laughs from acquaintances. The likes I got were intoxicating. I could feel the serotonin boosts in my brain with each like, a stream of dopamine injection that maybe me feel popular, something I have never been in my life. 

But there was a downside to the social media dance. I didn’t notice it at first because it was subtle. Little moments made me feel angry or anxious or depressed. I remember a Twitter fight about Steph Curry’s greatness that made me irate. I remember namecalling and granular arguments about three-point percentages and how I could not let it go. It all seems silly now, but it made me mad. I also remember seeing an ex-girlfriend with a new boyfriend and feeling devastated and alone. I remember the day Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood tape was released and spending 10 hours straight on Twitter feeling outraged. I remember seeing a friend’s vacation to South America and feeling jealous and not enough. I remember feeling hollow and spending more and more time on social media for the next dopamine hit. 

In short, I was addicted. I was addicted to validation and likes. I was addicted to the Twitter anger and outrage. I was addicted to feeling self-righteous. I was addicted to curating my life to a faceless audience, boasting about my limitless days of parties and fun. That it was exaggerated didn’t matter. I felt seen. I felt interesting. I was somebody.

But as an addict will tell you, there is always a downside to addiction. Cocaine is great when you’re partying till 6 am, but loses its appeal when you are searching for a bump under the couch because you feel terrible from the withdrawals. Social media is not that different. When I got 50 likes on a post or comments about how interesting my life looked, I felt great. When no one liked or said anything about my post, I felt empty and unseen. 

Photo by Gabby K on Pexels.com

Why does social media make us feel that way? 

As you can imagine, there is a lot of interesting content on this very subject. The documentary The Social Dilemma is a lucid presentation of many of the arguments against social media. As a psychotherapist and a Buddhist, I have my interpretations of the insidious effects of social media. 

To start, let’s examine human nature. At our core, humans see the world through social hierarchies. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are always judging ourselves and others against ourselves. There are many ways in which we might compare ourselves such as attractiveness or physical strength. But through the evolution of culture, human beings have found many symbolic cues that signal our place in the social hierarchy. What college one went to, what job title one has, what car one drives, what neighborhood one lives in, what our skin color is… these all tell us where we fit into the social hierarchy of the modern capitalist world. Unfortunately, it appears that social hierarchies are here to stay as, “a wealth of evidence indicates social hierarchies are endemic, innate, and most likely, evolved to support survival within a group-living context.” 

Of course, social hierarchies have evolved for a reason: they’ve kept us alive. Humans have evolved like most primates in large social groups. Large social groups are needed for survival. Instead of having to do all the work one’s self, a division of labor happens that benefits the group as a whole. By dividing up work and sexual partners based on traits useful for survival such as intelligence and physical strength, hierarchies begin to play out. To put it bluntly: some people are just stronger and better looking. And they will get more benefits in a group as a result.  (As much as I love Marx and his theories, he somehow fails to account for how insidious social hierarchies tend to be in human relationships).  

In everyday life, one encounters social hierarchies at work, in one’s circle of friends, in school, and within a larger family dynamic. Before the media age, however, one’s encounters with many different social and economic classes were rarer. Sure, you might see the rich and attractive out in the real world, but mostly you knew the people you knew and ranked yourself against their lives. 

In the modern world, however, we are bombarded by unrealistic images of human life. Beautiful Hollywood stars with muscular bodies dating rail-thin models with perfectly symmetrical faces are the norm. It’s not surprising that eating disorders have been on the rise for both men and women. (Anecdotally I can tell you that almost every woman and more and more men I’ve seen in therapy has had some form of disordered eating). What was already a brewing cauldron, however, has become a disaster in the social media era, as almost all these apps exacerbate social hierarchies to unachievable heights. 

Instagram may be the worse offender, but Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and Snapchat all have their drawbacks too. Let’s use a hypothetical Instagram session as an example. Let’s say you logon and you see your cousin’s story about their new baby. You feel happy for them because you love them. But there is a twinge of envy too, mostly because you wonder when you’ll have children. You feel a fear of being left behind by your peers. You click on the next story, an influencer you follow. Today this influencer is at the gym, and they are working on their arms. Their arms look muscular and toned. You wonder how you can get arms like this, so you google arm exercises. You make a pact to exercise more because you want to look more attractive.  Next, you scroll through your photo feed and see a friend from high school in their new home. It’s 4-bedrooms, beautiful and gigantic. You are annoyed that you have your shitty two-bedroom apartment in New York City. You may even get defensive in your head. “That house isn’t that nice,” or “I bet their mommy and daddy gave them a big down payment.” Suddenly you find yourself bitter and empty. To feel better, you post a picture from your vacation to Tahiti last year with the caption, “Remembering my time last year on the beach with my soulmate!” You get 4 likes, and immediately start to feel better. 

You might see the problem here. Social media works to make you never feel good enough. Every moment on an app can be a judgment to see where you fall in the social hierarchy.  Now, I realize the above might seem like an exaggeration. But in my experience, it is not. Depression and anxiety are on the rise, and social media seems to be a large factor. The problem isn’t just the constant comparison and judgments, it is the lack of a positive or different perspective on what you are viewing, a wise voice that tells us and our children that social media is not real life. It’s manipulation, pure and simple, to keep your attention focused on it so it can sell you ads and make money

Yes, there are positive social media accounts that can provide a different lens to social media, and they are a welcome antidote to the toxicity of social media. But using the platform to change the platform is a losing battle. Unfortunately, human beings are wired to see the world through a negative lens. In psychology, it is called a negativity bias,

“The negative bias is our tendency not only to register negative stimuli more readily but also to dwell on these events. Also known as positive-negative asymmetry, this negativity bias means that we feel the sting of a rebuke more powerfully than we feel the joy of praise.”

What does this mean for social media? Even if you make an effort to view only positive social media accounts, one’s negativity bias creeps in as we will inevitably focus on the posts that make us feel inadequate. 

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

So What Do We Do?

The obvious answer is to quit. Quit it all cold turkey. Our brains need to recover and relate to the world differently.  Unfortunately, that isn’t feasible for most of us. Many of us feel connected only through these apps. So short of quitting all social media, I suggest setting real limits of time regarding our usage. Most smartphones have ways of limiting usage. And I suggest unfollowing the people who make you feel inadequate. All of us have people we hate-follow. People who we nominally know but are secretly in competition with. It’s just not worth it to indulge those feelings. To find some sanity, we need to water the right plants. 

And I don’t know who needs to hear this right now, but you are good enough. I don’t know who you are and what you’re about, but I can tell you the comparison and judgments you make about yourself are based on lies. What you need isn’t more social media and judgments, it is self-acceptance and self-compassion. What you need is to find a way to fill the void and emptiness of everyday existence. I would suggest you find hobbies that are spiritually nourishing and refreshing. Read more, dance more, meditate more, exercise more, find ways that connect you to other people which recharge your batteries. If you need help figuring this out, seek out help. Many therapists can help you reframe your life. Or if you can’t afford therapy, read books and articles on the subject. There is a lot of great literature on the subject. 

And remember the effects of social media are subtle but always lurking, and so you must be watchful about how it is affecting your perspective. Despite quitting Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat, even today, I still feel the stings of addiction. Just this week I took Reddit and Gmail off my phone because I found myself checking them during every second of boredom. There isn’t anything wrong with that per se, but I found myself falling into old habits, mindlessly checking my phone, always in need to fill up boredom, loneliness, or emptiness. 

For most of my life, maybe because I’m an American, maybe because of capitalism, I have felt the urge to be someone.  It was always a losing battle. I never was enough. And I never quite knew what my intentions were in a given situation. Was I doing something out of kindness or because I wanted to feel cool or smart? Everything was self-reflected. Human beings are narcissists by nature, meaning we see the world only through the lens of ourselves. And social media just heightens and feeds that narcissism. (Is it any wonder that our former president was a reality star who tweeted all day?) To feed the better angels of our nature, we need to act consciously and with intention. We need to not feed our narcissism and focus on other ways to find fulfillment.  

 Today, besides my professional profiles, I am a nobody on the internet. It is freeing. No one knows what I’m doing unless they ask. And I don’t know what anyone else is doing unless I ask. If I want to connect with someone I have to call or text them. In today’s world where everyone wants to be someone, the only solution I’ve found is to be a nobody. 

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