Why Does Social Media Make Us Sad?

Does social media bum you out sometimes?

We’ve all been there. 11PM on a Monday night, going through our Instagram or Facebook feed with mental chatter that goes something like this: “My friend (insert name here) really has her shit together. I don’t…”, “(insert name here) and (insert name here) have such an amazing relationship. Why can’t I find someone like that?”, “(insert name here) takes such cool photos. I could never be that creative…”, “Why don’t I have more followers?”, “This is so unproductive”, “Why am I even doing this?”, “Everyone just looks at their phone these days instead of actually living”, “The world is going to shit”…

Sound familiar? I doubt there’s anyone in this world who has used social media and hasn’t had similar thoughts run through their mind.

I’ve had to wrestle with a lot of these issues myself and often find close friends and loved ones dealing with the same problem. At one point or another, we all notice this slight but unnerving feeling that our relationship with social media is just not right, and what’s worse, we can’t seem to put our finger on exactly why. This can lead to real unhappiness. I’ve felt that unhappiness.

Out of necessity, being someone who makes a living from their Instagram, I’ve recently been thinking about that why a lot. Why am I and so many other people unhappy with our relationship with social media? Why aren’t we making an effort to change that? Why do we so quickly label it as “bad” when it can be something very positive and transforming?

I ask myself why, because I care about trying to have a healthy relationship with social media. Knowing that I’m most likely going spend a big chunk of my time in this realm, living a happier (or more at peace) life, depends on it. Going a bit further than that, if you’re like me and believe that an increasingly digital future for humanity is inevitable, we owe it to ourselves and future generations to try and figure out ways to live with social media in a mindful, healthy way. Maybe even one day be able to live in harmony and happiness with it? We might never achieve that, but we should try.

In an effort to get a little closer to answering the whys, I’ve spent countless hours talking to loved ones, friends, strangers, “internet people” and anyone else that will listen about our relationship with social media and why it sometimes makes us unhappy.

After many — sometimes heated — conversations, one particular theme seems to come up the most: the feeling of inadequacy. The sense that social media is a catalyst for comparing our lives, our talents, and our looks to everyone else’s and feeling like we’re not good enough. Feeling like we’re less than.

Since the first social platforms like Friendster, MySpace, Facebook, etc started becoming popular, we were sold on the idea that social media is about sharing our lives, meeting new people, staying in touch with family, falling in love and all of those other touchy feely concepts we associate with warm human interaction.

Although the way we use these platforms has changed dramatically since those early days, we still seem to be stuck in the idea that social media is about being “social”. That it is somehow a representation of real life.

If a part of us believes that the photos and videos we see on Instagram or Facebook are a true representation of people’s actual lives, then feeling sad and miserable when we compare our imperfect lives with everyone else’s seemingly “fun, happy and successful lives” makes nothing but sense. Everyone on Instagram, Facebook, or any other social media platform seems to be nailing life. I know I’m not. If I believe that what my friends post on Instagram is a representation of their real life, no wonder I sometimes feel like crap when I see everyone having a BLAST on a Friday night and I’m stuck at home, feeling tired, bloated and like an uptight loser because I never really have fun at parties. This problem only gets worse the more time we spend on these platforms — every single photo we “like” is an opportunity to analyze how our lives aren’t quite as good as the other lives we see on that tiny screen.

Luckily for us, this is not the truth.

What is the truth?

Gary Vaynerchuk put it best in a recent talk at Wieden + Kennedy (21:00) when he said: “There is no Social Media. It’s a slang term, that somebody came up with. It’s a term we use for the current state of the internet.”

The concept that social media is about sharing our lives, meeting new people, staying in touch and all of those other heartfelt ideas are a lie. It is in the best interest of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter to make us think that social media is about more than just humans being entertained by other human’s photos, videos and writing, but it’s not.

Social media is the new way we consume and create content and information. It’s the new internet. All of the photos and videos you see on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and platforms like it are entertainment. Nothing more.

Social media can make us sad only if we still think that it’s somehow showing us “real” people living “real” lives. As soon as we see it and use it for what it is, entertainment, it’s easier to be a little less affected by it.

Do you watch reality TV and feel inadequate because your life isn’t like the lives of the people on the show? No, because you know it’s not real. You know that when you watch reality TV, you’re watching a group of people playing made up characters, in a made up set, in a made up story, to entertain us. Social media is no different. Instead of watching it through our television, we watch it through our smart-phone. Instead of it being about a group of made up characters in Laguna Beach, some “real” housewives or the set of The Bachelor, it’s about your friends, your family or anyone else in the world.

In the same way that a group of writers makes up those reality TV characters and the stories they play out, each and every single one of us makes up an equally unrealistic version of ourselves and the lives that we choose to portray on social media. The Instagram version of you is not real. The Instagram version of me is not real. The Instagram version of your best friend, co-workers or that person you look up to — that entrepreneur, that blogger, that writer, that photographer or anyone else you follow on Instagram — aren’t real.

No one wakes up every day looking refreshed, reads the newspaper in bed next to their cute dog while they drink their morning coffee in perfect lighting. No one. All those photos, captions, funny videos, inspiring “insights” and even moments of “realness” on social media aren’t real. Life cannot be encapsulated into a set of photos, videos, texts, audio or tags. Why do we still pretend that it can? Why do we feel inadequate when we see someone living a so-called “dreamy” life on our social media? Why do we get jealous of other people’s followers, boyfriends, girlfriends, jobs, creativity, photography skills etc on social media? Because we still pretend that it’s somehow a representation of real life. We need to wake up. It’s not real life.

I believe making that clear distinction in our heads will help us enjoy social media for what it is, entertainment. So next time you open your Instagram, why not make an effort to look at it through that lens and see how it feels.

If you find it has a somewhat positive effect, try and think about that every time you open your Instagram or Facebook in the future. Over time, you’ll notice that you’ll tend to be bothered by it less and less.

And while we’re at it, we should also ask ourselves: what entertainment content am I creating through my social media? Do I even want to do that? Do I care? These are questions only you can answer for yourself, but it’s important that we do because whether we’re aware of it or not, all of us are already creating a version of ourselves that’s displayed on the internet. It’s healthier to make it a conscious decision about what we’re doing, not just doing it because everyone else is.

The best part about this is that if you’re able to disconnect your real self from your internet self (and don’t get me wrong, you might choose to make them very similar and that’s ok), you’ll have a better shot at being at peace in your social media use. It can even have a lot of great benefits and be a tool that facilitates independence and potentially, fulfillment. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been making a living off my Instagram because I get to see pins all day (I love pins, obviously) and research/write about stuff I’m interested in. But most importantly, I get to choose what I do with my time and energy. That is the most valuable thing you’ve got…

And if you do choose to try and have a healthier relationship with your social media, remember to treat it for what it is: Entertainment, not Real Life. Don’t compare yourself with the people you see on Instagram. It’s not real…and that’s a good thing!

This framework helps me cope with my social media life every day and I wanted to get on (digital) paper in case it can help others. I hope it helps you :)

PS— If making an income from your social media instead of having to find A Job is something that interests you, here’s an article that will give you some more details on how I was able to do it.

PPS — The Matrix is the shit