The emergence of social networks (all the way back in 1999 with platforms like LiveJournal and SixDegrees) has provided people all around the world with an opportunity to share information about themselves and get to know people from across the country, and eventually, the globe.
Networks such as Facebook (2004), and Instagram (2010) have evolved to allow its users to share as much information about themselves as they would like (or wouldn’t like). Photos, videos, locations, activities and even feelings can be shared, in addition to the more recent 2016 feature of being able to live stream what you’re doing through Facebook. And we, being the social and curious creatures that we are, have thrown ourselves at this plethora of information like there’s no tomorrow. We want to know how others are doing, ánd we want to show the rest of the world how wé are doing, and that’s where the situation gets interesting.
We don’t want to just show the world how we’re doing. We want to show the world how well we’re doing. Photos are edited, stories embellished and scenes are directed. And all of that is completely understandable. Societies (not just human ones) revolve around its members’ social status and we, as members of the human society, want to be found important, interesting and worth paying attention to.
Others are doing the exact same thing. They, too, want to be seen as the coolest, prettiest and most interesting they could possibly be. And this is precisely where social media can become a source of serious self-doubt. The content posted on social networks by other users is often carefully moderated and produced, and yet that is the only thing we see. Whereas we know exactly how mundane and glamour-less our own lives are in reality, the only snapshots we are presented with from others’ lives are exciting and vibrant. If their lives are so cool and interesting, then what are we doing wrong? Why are we not having all that fun?
But are those moments of (feigned?) bliss and perfection the only things that matter to us? Of course not! At the GEMH Lab we think that a key part of mental health is how we talk to others about our lives, our stories. Formulating and sharing authentic life stories (i.e., true to your interests and experiences) with others can be a major source of increased mental health. In fact, the lack of such authentic story-telling behaviours on social media might be the driving force behind some of the negative associations and experiences that are reported in relation to social media use.
However, the tide is turning! For instance, a new trend has recently developed in academic circles: sharing your CV of failures. Rather than portraying all your accomplishments and glossing over the bumps in the road that you’ve experienced, academics are now encouraged to share with others their real experiences, including all of the times they were rejected for a job, or didn’t get a grant.
Such public acknowledgements help (young) people all around the globe realise that – as my (Russian) mother loves to say – “красота в контрасте” (“krasota v kontraste“): beauty lies in the contrast. Sure, we experience many highs, but those highs only mean so much because we also know the lows. And we should share those lows more often.
At the GEMH Lab, we feel that this not only requires a shift in societal mindset (which is thankfully already happening), but also new digital environments that allow and encourage us to reflect on what is truly important to us, and share those stories with others in a safe (i.e., non-performative) and authentic way. I am very happy to say that we are currently on the way to designing such an environment, which is a project I hope to share more with you about in a later blog. Stay tuned!
An earlier version of this blog post can be found on the GEMH Lab website. Here, I have updated that post to match my current view.