Culture of comparison: social media and mental health

Gareth Jones,

Chances are, you own a smartphone. Over 2.5 billion people do, in fact. The introduction of smartphones has been a miraculous leap forward for society, as now nearly 40 per cent of the world’s population has access to the internet in the palm of their hand. Never in human history has getting directions, viewing recipes, and being connected with the world been easier.  But one’s smartphone may be rewiring their brain in a way one might not expect.

See, when a person is about to experience pleasure, dopamine being released in the parts of the brain that process and experience pleasure. The brain learns from repeated exposure to an experience that said experience will be pleasurable. This applies to many facets of life, from riding a roller coaster, to eating a favourite food, to getting a hug. Long story short, dopamine is released in anticipation to a reward, something that feels good.

So what does this have to do with social media? Simple. Getting notifications feels good. Getting tagged in a meme, mentioned in a Facebook post, a new match on Tinder, or seeing a new post from a loved one, all these experiences feel good. But one can’t possibly anticipate all these events, so how does the brain know what to expect? Well, it can’t. What it can do is encourage you to subconsciously fixate on the possibility that you will receive a notification.

Now, this subconscious desire was not maliciously implemented by Apple and Samsung in order to get you hooked on your phone. It was actually an entirely unintentional side-effect, that companies are not having to do damage control for. We now understand that your phone works in a similar fashion to a slot machine. One pulls the lever, either receiving a prize, or nothing. The dopamine release in the brain happens not when one wins, but when one is anticipating a win. Likewise, the dopamine release when checking one’s phone is in anticipation of receiving a notification.

This experience of dopamine is habit-forming. Soon enough, one may find themselves clocking out of reality – checking their phone out of boredom, even though they don’t know if they have something to gain from it. The potential gain – a new Tinder match or a hot new meme – presents a reality that is preferable to the current. One’s brain is trained to expect good feelings, as a result of notifications, and once this is hard-wired in, it can be difficult to get out.

Have you ever experienced a sense of panic when you can’t feel your phone in your pocket? Around 40 per cent of people do. And how many times per day do you think you check your phone? For adults, the average is around 150. Our cell phones have become so pervasive across our everyday lives that it is affecting people’s mental health en masse.

Social Media Anxiety Disorder is a recently-classified disorder, with symptoms that would sound like science fiction 20 years ago. Compulsive checking of social media feeds, especially in social situations, an obsession with follower count, loss of interest in other activities, lying about time spent on social media, and withdrawal when not able to access social media are all symptoms of this disorder.

Social media is also a culture of comparison. The tendency is to only present the best of oneself on social media, be it one’s beautiful wife, new house, so on and so forth. Nobody will post their insecurities and failures. This has led to a growing insecurity among social media users, and it’s nothing new. Social media users, particularly those with Social Media Anxiety Disorder, are susceptible to low self-esteem, body image issues, depression, and extreme loneliness. Constant exposure to only the most beautiful, successful people can cause one to see the outside world through a pair of rose-tinted glasses, paying more attention to their insecurities and failures.

In our thoroughly interconnected modern society, it can be difficult to withdraw from social media. The worry that “I will miss something important” serves as a source of anxiety for many. However, it would seem that the best way to remedy Social Media Anxiety Disorder, and help those who feel they have become addicted to their devices is to simply take a step back and disconnect. Going even 24 hours without one’s smartphone allows reality to sink back in: missing a text, a tweet or a meme is almost definitely not going to be the end of the world. One won’t be affected by something they simply don’t know exists. Fear of missing something important occurs before this ‘something important’ and if we don’t ever see it, how can it affect us?

That being said, it is important to be able to disconnect. The real world is one where people, even the beautiful, fit, rich people, experience both success and failure. The real world is full of countless good, dopamine-triggering activities are available to those who pursue them.