The shadow side of social media

In our digital age where permanent connectivity and fast communication are the norm, social media is a vehicle for making, keeping and forging relationships. However research has also shown that social media, rather than making us feel connected, contributes to feelings of loneliness.


The benefits of online communication are many. It can provide a sanctuary and community for those feeling marginalised or be a platform for making otherwise invisible or disenfranchised causes become ‘viral’ and validated. It can be a much-needed place to keep contact when we are physically away from those we love.

Supportive online platforms can be places where we admit our difficulties to strangers who are going through the same thing. Increasingly it is the primary way we formulate relationships and how we formulate ourselves. But equally, it can be problematic. Online platforms can become a channel for disgruntled projection, objectification and trolling. Misguided or misinformed groups can quickly become online mobs, and the way we formulate ourselves digitally can be very different from the reality of how we are, think, feel, and behave.

It is easy to objectify and become objectified when we only see and believe a digital ‘false self’ persona.

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Way back in the ‘50s a psychoanalyst called Donald Winnicott coined the notion of the ‘true self’ and ‘false self’. He described the false self by what we learn to present to the world in order to feel secure and protect our true selves from vulnerability and rejection.

These days it is generally more accepted that we have many ‘self-states’, rather than a singular true or false self, and sometimes these self-states can be in conflict. For instance a image that we project to others may be in conflict with an underlying feeling state.

In our digital age, projecting an image or digital self is the norm, not the exception; how often have you scrolled through Facebook and seen a friend upload a picture of a microwave meal-for-one and update ‘I am feeling inadequate?’ Or seen an Instagram pic of kids screaming, parents fighting, and a chaotic house/ situation/ emotion?

This is understandable; it is hard enough to feel vulnerable with another person, let alone an online community of people who are watching your every update. But when we only present sanitised, digital versions of ourselves to the world, we can feel alienated and dissatisfied, because our ‘real’ selves are not seen. Loneliness is ultimately a disconnection from our true selves being seen, contacted and validated. When the truth of how we really are is hidden, we feel lonely.

This cuts both ways too; endlessly scrolling through friends and acquaintances picture-perfect digital lives, as we are apt to do in online escapism, tends to breed that old enemy of security: comparison. The glamour of the digitalised, filtered ‘other’ can easily, and understandably, provoke feelings resentment and jealousy, inadequacy and, most importantly, alienation and loneliness.

The shadow side of social media is that our empathy and compassion can sometimes become hijacked by the heated reactivity it breeds. It is easy to objectify and become objectified when we only see and believe a digital ‘false self’ persona. We can forget there is a real person behind a persona; a subject behind an object.

Loneliness stems from a lack of true connection with ourselves and others not just in moments of joy but in moments of pain and confusion and mess. The problem arises when we assume the digital versions of ourselves and others as fact. The reality is that we not objects, we are subjects. And subjects are by nature paradoxical, ambivalent, inhabiting a grey area, rather than a black and white one. Sometimes things are good, sometimes bad, sometimes true and sometimes false. Sometimes both at once, or in-between. When we can understand this, both in ourselves and with others, we really are more connected.