[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
The other night, I turned my phone off so I could sit down and write. It's not that I need to check my phone every 12 minutes, it's just that sometimes, it's hard to let my notifications and messages sit unattended. Like a lot of people, I've learned to moderate my phone usage in various ways. By having certain apps lock me out after 20 minutes, for example. Or by turning my phone off so I can concentrate. Or by silencing all my notifications, or changing my phone's display to grayscale. Social media provides stupid little dopamine rushes that make us feel smart and special and validated. The truth is though, that nobody cares that much, but the bottomless pit of the internet might convince you otherwise.
The average American spends 2 hours and 14 minutes on social media every day. Our average screen time is over seven hours a day. The more active someone is online, the more time they spend glued to their phone. It's one thing to be a passive consumer, and quite another to be diving headfirst into the fray. One thing that makes social media so addictive is interactivity. Feedback from other people is instantaneous. So is validation, and so is social condemnation. What really gets people hooked though, is the immediacy of social platforms. Dr. Preeti Kocchar, a counseling psychologist, states that immediate emotional validation can be addictive for people with low self-worth. And social media, like it or not, is an easy, accessible way to find a substantial amount of emotional validation. Seeking this type of validation is human, however, it's not necessarily good for us.
Those who become addicted to emotional validation will look for it everywhere, and may exhibit the following behaviors:
- Fishing for compliments by highlighting achievements. People do this on social media constantly, myself included. Nobody wants to highlight the bad, right?
- Being controversial to provoke a reaction. I can name a dozen social media influencers whose entire platform is built on and around controversy.
- Exaggerating and embellishing stories to gain praise and/or sympathy. This is even easier to do online than in real life, because your audience is amplified.
- Pretending to be unable to do something so someone will help you.
Seeking validation is normal and human. However, obvious ploys at validation are negative because
seeking approval from someone else communications social inferiority. Seeking validation means that you are expressing an emotional need that you want someone else to fulfill. Often, the person you want validation from is someone unequipped, unwilling, or uninterested in giving it to you. Furthermore, when you seek validation and don't receive it, you crave it even more which has the perverse effect of distancing you even further from the person(s) you're seeking it from. It's a form of emotional neediness that most find overwhelmingly unpleasant. So, if you seek validation directly, you often lose the respect of people you’re seeking validation from.
The overt need for validation works online, a little bit. But you can only seek reassurance and sympathy and validation so many times from an online audience before they lose interest in you as well. Humans are a social species, and we have a fundamental need to belong to our tribe or group. The most obvious group is the family unit, followed closely by friends/peers. Being accepted by our groups elevates our self-esteem, and being rejected produces anxiety and depression. If you don't feel accepted in your real life, you might search for validation online. Sometimes, online communities can really help people, and sometimes, they can make us feel even more alone.
The most interesting thing about validation is that we don't seek it equally from everyone. You probably want validation from people who are "above" you in any given social hierarchy because their validation carries more weight. You might therefore seek the validation of a parent, your boss, someone you admire, and so forth. If you receive validation from someone you perceive to be equal to or below you in the social hierarchy, their validation will carry less weight. You might not even care. These dynamics operate everywhere all the time, without any of us really thinking about it.
The biggest lie we tell ourselves is that we don't need the approval or validation of others. We don't need the validation of everybody, but we need the validation of some. The only real way to stop seeking validation and to not feel bad about where you are in life is to actively become a valuable member of your group or tribe. It takes work and time to become valuable, but work and time will create confidence and the built-in validation of knowing that you're doing good work and contributing to the world in a positive way. It's far easier to look to others for validation instead of getting to work. And it's easier still to search for validation online from strangers, but if you do that enough, it won't feel so good anymore. That's the thing that makes social media so addicting; fast, quick spurts of dopamine from the validation of near-strangers. No wonder we're all unhappily addicted to our phones.
Validation isn't inherently bad. It's a normal, productive, and useful aspect of living a normal, productive, and useful human life. But it can become overwhelmingly negative when we look for validation everywhere, or when we seek it from people who can't (or won't) provide it. Get busy becoming the best version of you, and the rest will fall into place.