On Social Media and it's Impact on Identity, Our Relationships and Mental Health

I posted this on my personal Facebook page and appreciated the feedback and conversation it started, so thought I’d share on my blog too as the themes I am exploring are important and something many of us are facing.

Social media plays such a huge part in our individual worlds, if you’re on it most days (or all day). There are things that are amazing about that, and aspects so concerning to me, that are coming to light in research more and more of the time and being talked about. I wrote most of this over a year ago to clarify my feelings just for myself, but didn’t share it at the time because I was confused about it and felt paradoxical to post, but now it feels like I should.

This post is not to belittle the positive aspects of our online culture, but to bring awareness to its impact on our mental health, and really to think openly and talk about it.

I feel some fear to share what I have to say because of the work I do as a personal brand photographer; specifically helping people to represent themselves online, and not wanting to put down the validity of my own work or make it less credible. I have always held the values of love, truth and integrity above all, and have never been supportive of telling any story visually for a business or a person that is untrue. If anything, the work I have been doing for these past seven/eight years has given me so much insight to examine the phenomenon of social media as I have used it in such a big way, and look into how to get this right for ourselves and for the people we impact by being involved with it. As someone who is having conversations about ‘how to show up online’ most days, I feel like this is more important for me to talk about than hide from.

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So… Social media has created a kind of reference point for everyone using it, about what is ‘normal’ through what we see from each other, yet as we all know, this is based only on what people choose to share, and we don’t always remember that. We’re overloaded with information about the people we’re connected to online when we use Facebook or Instagram for example, and the wider world , a lot of the time without even realising it because it's so 'everyday', with information that tells us little bits about what’s happening in other peoples personal lives, relationships, businesses, travels etc. These are things that can help us feel connected and inspired, and things that can create feelings of being totally inadequate, far away from ourselves, our dreams and each other, when we forget that we're not seeing the whole picture or hearing the full story.

We see a curated world, based on how we’ve been interacting online since we started playing with social media, and since the internet was a thing. What you’re looking at is a uniquely refined feed of what algorithms understand that you, personally, will most engage with, enjoy, find of interest — and will keep you online (and I think I think it’s not unfair to say - addicted and buying). I feel that the world we each experience online has been being carved out slowly but surely, like a river, over the years we’ve been using it, and it has affected our interpretation of what the world is, and most likely our tastes and opinions and the way we use our brains, as the river gets deeper, it’s current stronger.

We are each seeing a body of content that is filtered specifically for us, based partly on our choices and interactions, and a partly automated never-ending stream of content. With the amount of time many people spend online, it’s become a huge part of our daily life, our reality. I can't help but ask myself the questions... is that okay? Can this be a positive thing? Can this be a bad thing? Is it just the way it is now? Everything seems totally fine with social media when we’re doing well and have things ‘in balance’. But so many of us just don’t, are struggling with this, and are afraid to say that. Some of us find balance only in going through periods of engagement and then abstinence to be okay. Why is that? And what is it that tips us from one way to the other and back again? I’m curious about how everyone is finding it all, and how we each are developing ways to live with its very real presence.

From my own experience and through conversations with friends and clients, I know that so much of the time we are comparing ourselves to what we see of the lives of others online, and so much of that is unconscious. As I mentioned, we can forget that we're only seeing parts of the lives that friends/creatives/entrepreneurs/influencers are choosing to make public. We accidentally idolise and unthinkingly figure that other people have got it sorted and we are failing behind when we’re not in a good place. We don’t see any of the other stuff going on in their day, the human issues they face, that we all share and don’t always know how to talk about. (I am aware of some amazing users and influencers who really do share the very difficult or weird times too, so I know this is not 100% of people, but it is the majority.) I want to draw more attention to it so we can be aware of how it’s affecting us personally and culturally, and aim to have a healthy relationship with it if we are to continue using. I’ve got some thoughts on that later.

Then it comes to our contribution. Social media is an amazing tool, AND we I feel need to be responsible about the way we interact; personally and in business. Once you add the ‘cultivating of an online personal brand’ and having a service based business that you may feel dependent on for your income, there’s another layer to it all that can be very challenging as you are forced to go within, clarify your identity and message on a public platform and decide how much to say. We as business owners obviously must be true and real at every touch point we have with our followers and clients online and IRL, as ever, but how does having an online presence that you use to represent yourself personally and professionally affect your deeper sense of identity on an ongoing basis?

I don’t mean to blow this out of proportion or scare anyone, but I really feel its important to look at this.

I have been using social media to grow my business for years, and hadn’t had any real trouble with this in my heart. It wasn’t until I was very low for some time, that I questioned what I have been doing, as I realised I felt unsafe to say how I was actually feeling during that time. I touched on it in some of my posts, but I felt way too vulnerable to really share about depression and what was going on… I had been through some pretty big life changes and was finding myself again, and that was my personal journey. It felt messy though, because I thought I needed to keep using social media to run my business but didn’t feel I could be fully honest without damaging what I had already built. It was like flipping between being different people depending on how I was feeling that day… I stayed true in what I did say and still did a great job in my work (my work with my clients and our photo shoots inspire me and add to my creative energy), but I felt unsafe to tell the truth online in my darker times. I felt guilty about that because I was projecting a version of myself that was not whole. I also questioned how much of our full experience is appropriate to be sharing when we have no obligation to say anything at all. If it is acceptable to post only when you’re happy, then what are we using social media for? Who are you writing to? What is it doing to us? And what online identity had I created if I couldn’t be completely honest within it?

I know we wouldn’t walk down the street talking to strangers, friends or clients about everything difficult going on inside for us, so we shouldn’t feel we have to do that online either, but I’m curious about where that line of privacy and self preservation is for each of us, if there is one.

Overall I believe we do have some responsibility to use our social for good, and to be open about the shadow side to the online world. I’m seeing so many business owners trying to find ways to express themselves with their full spectrum of human experience - that the shiny happy posts are not the whole story of every single day, that there are difficult times too, and they’re doing their best to keep it real AND position themselves in their expertise. I think that is really great to see and a relief for many, it starts a healing process.

Every single profile has opened a door to the once private world of each person using it, and no matter how well intentioned we are in our posts, I think it is healthy to question what we’ve been sharing, the stories we are telling, and what ripple effect that causes.

What representation have we crafted about ourselves and our lives over the years of having a personal brand? How connected do we truly feel to the version of ourselves that we share online? How does going on social media make you feel most of the time? How do you feel social media is affecting you?

For the people using it/sharing regularly, as I used to and probably will again, we are posting in the first place to contribute, to stay in touch with those we know, to share ideas... and then we find over time that we have formed an avatar of who we are, an impression of our lives and thoughts based on what we were comfortable sharing or proud to say in that moment. This is happening on a mass scale. I’m not necessarily saying that it’s bad or wrong, it is what it is… we are learning… but by using it at all, we are contributing to the positive and negative effect it’s having on us, our people, children and planet. (And there is so so much good that is happening as a result of fast spreading information which I love and am so grateful for.)

As it will continue to be a thing that most people use, I believe we each need to take personal responsibility for our own consumption of social media and our contribution to it. We need to find our own ways to have a relationship with it that is healthy, kind, inclusive, honest and well rounded. It’s not going away and it is growing. I feel taking this responsibility is especially important for us to do for more vulnerable people (particularly for children and young minds that I believe we have a responsibility to look out for as we build the world they are coming into). I’m sure this is a real phenomenon of our times for all people, not just 20-somethings and business owners.

For now what I would love us to remember as we move forward is that…

1. What we see on social media in general is a curated feed and is not the whole truth.
2. Even though we know at a deeper level that everyone has ups and downs, light and dark, good times and bad times, know that they don’t share all of these personal details of their life because it IS personal and not necessarily safe or appropriate for them to do so. Respect the privacy of others, know that theres a bigger picture behind everything you see. Don’t judge others by what you observe online - there is so much more to them. Be kind.
3. Let’s know that social is an amazing tool for connection and relationships, information and education, inspiration and ideas, yet can also be a tool of harm. Let’s bring awareness to how it is personally affecting us — try to consciously release thoughts of judgement on ourselves and others. For example, when we feel negative emotion come up while using social media, I find it helpful when I can to name what I’m feeling and consider the thoughts that led to it. e.g. ‘I’m not good enough, I should be doing better’ — if that came from actually comparing myself/art/life/home/career/relationship/friendships with something I just saw, I try to notice what it brought up, and take a moment to reconnect with my own truth and what lights me up.
These triggers can be used as a navigational system to help us reconnect with what WE truly desire, what inspires us, or what we genuinely do want more of in our own lives. Sometimes feeling the contrast of something we’ve seen reminds us of our own values… that’s when it can make a positive difference; when it inspires clarity, action or positively motivates us.
4. The only truth that we can hold on to is our own personal truth. By that I mean , as always, we have to trust our own intuition/gut about things, try to notice those moments where we’re comparing ourselves to what we see online, bring our focus to what we’re doing well in our lives and what we care about, what we have to appreciate and be so humbly grateful for… and to know that we are whole — no matter how segmented you may feel because of the impact of technology, no matter where you are at right now and how you’re finding all of this.

As social media and more advanced technology continues to find it’s way into our lives, I want us to consciously think about how we interact with each other through it, in a way that is healthy, if we are to use it at all.

We will navigate this together, and for now and as always I think, taking personal responsibility for our own usage, talking about how we're feeling about it, and bringing kind self-awareness is where we start.