Freshman year of college, I was pulled into the undertow of social media further than I ever had been before. Aside from the green circle appearing next to my name in the chat window for more hours than I care to know, my appearance on social media was largely undetectable. I was not one to write posts about my political views or upload photos of my weekend activities. Instead, I was a scroller. I spent the intervening minutes between classes and more extended periods of time at night pulling down on the Facebook application, waiting for the reassuring chirp that signaled I was about to experience a familiar, addictive, and fleeting sense of knowledge about my social world.
“How do I want to live my life?”
My habit of scrolling through miles of content on social media was guided by the question that guides most people’s decisions: “How do I want to live my life?” In pursuit of an answer to this question, social media offered something appealing: a repository of media on the lifestyles of practically every person I had ever known––an efficient way to see my options. Upon entering college and gaining virtually complete freedom as to how to live, this question was particularly pressing and social media especially potent. News feeds provided me something that no individual interaction, event, or activity could: a bird’s eye view of Harvard, a way to imagine and design my college life, to figure out how I wanted to integrate myself into the community.
The reason that we ask that question “How do I want to live my life?” in the first place is that either consciously or subconsciously we know that our time is finite. While browsing Facebook did serve a purpose in theory, I eventually realized that the habit was actually marching me away from the ultimate goal of actually living the life I wanted, in addition to affecting my mood and outlook on college. While mindlessly scrolling through Facebook one day at the beginning of this past summer, the worry that I was wasting enormous amounts of time started to make me feel sick. I sent an “I’ve had it” text to a friend and resolved to put an end to my accounts.
At the time, I could not put my finger on exactly why, but I knew that social media was more of a paralyzing than mobilizing force in my life. Since making the decision to deactivate my account, I’ve come to understand the mechanisms by which social media subtly affected me.
If I Just Keep Scrolling…
First of all, news feeds are endless by design. I was conditioned to believe that by scrolling deeper into the abyss of Facebook I would find some gem of content that would change my life. I never did. In a film about minimalism––the philosophy of “rejecting the norms of mainstream modern society and finding alternative solutions that help you to live a life that you love”––entrepreneur Jesse Jacobs said, “you’re not gonna get happier by consuming more.”
Although Jacobs was referring to material consumption, his argument applies to social media consumption as well. At best, if the content in news feeds is worthwhile, we can spend an unlimited amount of time deciding how we want to live before actually living. This is problematic because Jacobs implies that it is through living actively rather than passively that we may actually become happier. At worst, social media not only enables passivity but it also actively disables our ability to pursue the life that we want.
Immobilizing Standards of Perfection
When we find something that inspires us and helps us define how we want to live our lives, we often feel powerless rather than motivated. Harvard sophomore Jenna Wong said that Facebook was making her “miserable” because of the feelings of inadequacy that resulted from comparing herself to others in an interview with the HPR. One way of understanding this feeling of misery is that the sheer density of achievements to admire on Facebook––ranging from academics to body-image––is so great that it distorts our notion of reality. As Wong describes in an op-ed for the Crimson, she had mentally cobbled together snapshots of Facebook friends’ lives into a “Frankenstein’s monster of the perfect person.” Although she recognizes in hindsight that no such “perfect person” existed in real life, she nevertheless compared herself to this standard while she was active on social media.
It is difficult to actually pick one goal and work toward actualizing it when there are so many possible goals to work toward, and no individual accomplishment can satisfy the desire to be this Frankenstein’s monster of a perfect person. Consequently, when we discover our goals represented in other people’s lives on social media, we don’t feel inspired. Our self-esteem can suffer, and we can feel jealous and immobile. Harvard sophomore Jessenia Class, who wrote an article about the effects of social media on student loneliness on campus and has never had a Facebook, said, “I didn’t want to feed my insecurities. I would rather starve them” in an interview with the HPR.
Beyond causing us to aspire to superhuman standards of achievement, social media drives us to feel that we must be omnivorous consumers of all pop-culture content. Instead of deciding for ourselves what is important, Facebook decides for us: “The Uncanny Resurrection of Dungeons & Dragons,” glass-blown models of human skeletons, and the latest on Trump. Although I would click on some content out of genuine interest, other content I clicked on out of a sense of obligation. In this way, Facebook occupies time that could be used to develop individual interests with the the activity of becoming superficially versed in a variety of topics.
Disengagement with the Harvard Community
Within the Harvard environment in particular, one of the ways that social media affected me is that it caused more disenchantment with the school’s social culture than I believe would have occurred otherwise. In real life, when we disapprove of a person or a lifestyle, we excuse ourselves from the social situation or opt out of the lifestyle. Eventually, we find a niche of people we feel connected to and whose ways of life resonate with us. People or lifestyles that bother us cease to occupy our thoughts because we don’t interact with them.
Online, the opposite seems true. News feeds throw at us an indiscriminate mish-mash of content, and we respond by looking at everything, and perhaps especially the people and lifestyles that stir us. There is a strange appeal in looking through an “enemy’s” profile or the photos of a person who lives a lifestyle antithetical to your own. Even though I had no interest in joining exclusive social spaces, and chose to be a part of communities on campus that were inclusive by design, social media insistently reminded me of the exclusive aspects of the social culture of Harvard.
Although I realize that social media may have affected me more than it has affected others, sitting in Widener Library amidst a sea of computer screens, it seems that many are in the habit of scrolling through Facebook every half-hour or so while studying––my past self included. The fact that we can stare at pictures and statuses for a few minutes and then feel adequately prepared to return to our work suggests that despite its negative effects, browsing social media still can temporarily fulfill the social connection that we crave to continue on with independent work. That we can derive a sense of social connection from a screen is problematic because students can remain in isolation for longer periods of time, interacting with their screens instead of the people sitting next to them in the library.
While changing campus culture is a significant undertaking, I could easily do what I realized was best for me. Since deactivating my Facebook account, I have found myself more able to enjoy simple pleasures than before. I distinctly remember sitting on a couch this summer, reading, and thinking to myself, “I have no idea what is going on right now and this is great.” Getting rid of social media is not some kind of panacea for mental health, but I have found that a degree of ignorance about my social environment has allowed me to find my own interests, concentrate, and be more at peace with myself than I was before. It is difficult to dive into any one thing when you can also make an activity out of observing everything that is going on around you.
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