How to Decode Your Social Media Use

Gabrielle Henderson/Unsplash

Source: Gabrielle Henderson/Unsplash

The current status of our relationship with social media is complicated. The popular debate about whether it is inherently good or bad is futile in the face of the reality that, like it or not, it’s here to stay. When thinking of social media, it’s important to acknowledge that context matters. In order to understand ourselves in the digital landscape, we have to look deeper into the nuanced factors that shape our experience of it.

Research shows that social media contains dynamic potential for both positive and negative emotional impact on the user, depending on how and why we are using it in a given moment (Bekalu et al., 2019). A key element of social media’s power is its ability to keep us using it on autopilot, where we don’t realize the time that has passed or even how the experience has made us feel. In order to help people make more mindful decisions on social media, we have broken down various paradigms of online behavior (three common examples are shared below). By observing the specific ways we engage online, we can learn to make our unconscious patterns conscious.

The Mindless Scroll

Imagine the feeling that comes over you late at night, just before falling asleep. Your mind is busy cataloging tomorrow’s to-do list and you feel a pang of anxiety. You reflexively reach for your phone and instantly feel the stress begin to melt away. The racing thoughts of your overactive mind fade to the background as you scroll through your feed. This is an example of the paradigm we refer to as “The Mindless Scroll.” It’s the equivalent of an adult pacifier for uncomfortable feelings we experience (boredom, burn-out, stress, loneliness). It is a comforting lull of visually pleasing content designed to soothe and distract us on demand.

While it may seem harmless enough, we can quickly become addicted to this coping mechanism. Whenever an unpleasant thought, memory, or emotion enters our minds or bodies, our fear center (called the amygdala) unconsciously directs us to use our phones (Cozolino, 2020). This distracts us from our stress and simulates a feeling of homeostasis. Unfortunately, the temporary relief it provides us is just a quick fix, and the problems we are trying to avoid will eventually catch up to us.

If you notice yourself in this paradigm: pause, take a 10-minute break from technology, and do something to give your mind a chance to return to a baseline level of arousal. Remember, the more stressed you are, the more likely you are to engage in this way. The Mindless Scroll is an effective distraction, but mindfulness is a much more sustainable resource. Mentally scan your body to connect with your emotions, rather than continuing to avoid them by scrolling.

The Validation Post

Now, imagine that you’ve just wrapped up the holidays. As you sift through your collection of photos, you land on a favorite: a candid shot on Christmas morning. It’s not a flattering picture of you—the house is a mess and your kids haven’t had a bath—but the joy on everyone’s faces is unmistakable. You smile to yourself about the sweet memory. Just before you post it online, you’re met with a conflicting thought: You fear a photo like this won’t deliver the likes and praise that you crave. It’s a ridiculous and irrational fear but it’s strong enough to make you second guess yourself. You decide to post something more polished, instead. We refer to this approval-seeking online behavior as a paradigm called “The Validation Post.”

This paradigm is an extension of our human desire to be accepted and loved. Social media provides us with an environment where we can acquire validation in the form of likes, comments, views, and shares. Approval acts as a currency that we use to measure our self-worth. Here’s the problem: when your followers “like” your perfectly curated photos, it subconsciously reinforces the idea that your true self (messy, imperfect, and often contradictory) isn’t enough. Rather than boosting our confidence, that coveted validation causes us to panic because we are so desperate to keep up with the charade.

If you catch yourself in this paradigm: share the photo. Notice and actively counter your inclination to accrue validation by showing up in your social media as the most authentic version of yourself. That means going against the impulse to change yourself to be accepted by others. In the end, authenticity is literally a requirement for true connection and belonging (Brown, 2021).

The Self-Expression Post

Imagine you come home after a long day at work. Your days are grueling, but you manage to avoid burnout by coming home and engaging in your creative passion: poetry. The exhaustion from the day is counteracted by the grounding energy you garner from putting pen to paper. You relish in the process, and when you’re done you love to share them on your Tik Tok account. This outlet provides space to explore a new part of yourself, express a passion outside of your daily work and life, and connect with other creatives. You’ve written poetry your whole life, but being a part of a larger virtual community has encouraged you to hone this skill and appreciate it as a part of your life that is not driven by anything other than creative expression. This is an example of a paradigm that we refer to as “The Self-Expression Post.”

Unlike the first two paradigms, this type of engagement tends to have more positive outcomes on our mental health. This is largely because we derive joy and fulfillment from engaging in the process, not from the product or praise of others. For most of us, the way we make a living is separate from the creative skills and interests we have. Social media provides an accessible platform for anyone to express themselves in ways they couldn’t or wouldn’t otherwise. This paradigm can provide a joyful and rewarding way to engage with your passions and discover new parts of yourself.

If you catch yourself in this paradigm: recognize the positive effect that it’s having on your life. Practice gratitude for the cyber-friendships that you’ve developed and express how much they mean to you. By acknowledging the good that this particular paradigm brings to your life, you orient towards positivity and will be more likely to engage in social media this way, as opposed to one of the other, less productive paradigms.