[Listen to an audio version of this blog HERE.]
The average U.S. adult spends 142 minutes a day on social media. For those of you who are numerically challenged, 142 minutes is 2 hours and 22 minutes, which is about how long it takes to fill a backyard pool with 1,600 gallons of water, or how long it would take to drive from my home in Laguna Beach to Santa-fucking-Barbara. My point is that we all spend far too much time on our phones. This is not especially profound or surprising.
Matthew Lieberman, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles and author of Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, found that social media fulfills the desire to be part of a group and to avoid feeling isolated and/or vulnerable. Social media also allows anyone at anytime to find validation for accomplishments, heartache, trauma, sadness, appearances, etc. The way we have learned to frame ourselves and our identities online is based entirely on how others respond to our posts.
You probably know someone who constantly posts and continually checks in for likes, comments, retweets, shares, etc. You likely know more than one. Over 3.2 billion people use social media daily, worldwide, which translates to about 42% of the global population. That's a lot of eyes, a lot of thumbs, and endless opportunities for addictive behavior and validation seeking. The need for validation, coupled with the increasing rates of social media usage, can create anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. It can also make us addicted to praise, acceptance, and acknowledgment, which, (you guessed it) increases our social media usage.
Seeking validation isn't inherently bad. It would be inhuman to not need validation sometimes, and validation plays an important role in our development, especially as children, and especially from our parents. However, looking for validation online is the most shallow way to receive it. What we're all really craving is community and human connection, and that's difficult to truly find online. The internet is tricky; it's disguised as community and connection, but seeking validation on the internet is like craving a steak and getting a soy burger. It's not real, but we think it is. And the most damning part of all is that the internet makes it so absurdly simple to be validated for anything, anytime we think we need it.
Shane Parrish writes, "Humans are adapted to be highly social, but the organizations through which we live our lives are not adapted to us. We are square (social) pegs being forced into round (nonsocial) holes. Institutions often focus on IQ and income and miss out on the social factors that drive us."
Because we've adapted to be highly social, it makes sense that social media is so enthralling. In a world that is as disconnected as ever, social media and the internet give us a chance to be always present, always "connected." Except I'm not sure it's the same thing, and some experts aren't either.
Psychologist Robert Weiss finds a distinction between “social loneliness” – a lack of contact with others – and “emotional loneliness”, which can persist regardless of how many “connections” you have, especially if they do not provide support, affirm identity, or create feelings of belonging. If you don't have many close, physical connections, virtual friendships will do little to alleviate loneliness, even if you receive considerable online validation. Evidence associates heavy social media use with increased loneliness in part because online spaces often exaggerate good things, underscore success or status, and generally serve as a highlight reel into the lives of others. Comparison ensues, as well as discontent, feeling invalidated or less than, and the cycle of searching for validation in all the wrong places ensues.
I'm about to highlight a study conducted in Australia, but I think it's safe to assume Americans fall prey to the same type of bullshit. We're all humans, right? Well, most of us. In the 2018 Australian Loneliness Report, more than one-quarter of survey participants reported feeling lonely three or more days a week. That's a LOT of lonely time. Studies have linked loneliness to early mortality, increased cardio-vascular disease, poor mental health and depression, suicide, and increased social and health care costs. Australians are becoming increasingly physically isolated, accompanied by a rise in technology-enabled communication. Research shows that social media is most effective in tackling loneliness when it is used to enhance existing relationships, or forge new meaningful connections. Easier said than done, right?
The need for validation runs deep, and it's not always negative. If you find yourself mindlessly scrolling, constantly posting, or living vicariously through your device, take a step back and institute a few tips I gleaned from Google and repackaged just for you.
1. Be mindful. Take notice of your behaviors and be honest with yourself. Are you going online or posting when you feel like you need attention? Noticing your patterns of behavior is the first step in changing them.
2. Take a social media break. Get off social media or simply limit the amount of time you spend on each platform. This will either eliminate or lessen your ability to compare yourself to others, which will slowly wean you off your need for online validation.
3. Do not ask for validation. Work on validating yourself for your abilities, talents, skills, and personhood so you don't need to find validation elsewhere. If you do receive validation, recognize the praise and acknowledge it, then stop.