Shiny, happy people

The 19th Century French novelist Romain Rolland once opined that “we are reckless in our use of the lovely word, friend.”  Nowhere is that more true than on Facebook and other social media platforms.

As an example, as of today, I have 1,202 “friends” on Facebook. Really? Do I have more than a thousand people who would loan me $20, help me with a home repair project or drive me to and from a doctor’s appointment?

Probably not. Because when you look deeper into my life you will see that I am actually blessed with close to 20 real friends. These people do not judge me, but will also share their honest opinions if asked.

In a few weeks, one of my real friends will get out of bed at 6 a.m. in order to pick me up at my home, drive me to Sanford for an ECT treatment and wait roughly two hours before he can drive me home with zero compensation. Now, that is a friend.

What about all those other “friends” on social media? Well, for starters, they are better described as contacts in a very large and fluid Rolodex.

Sure, social media can be fun, interesting and sometimes informative, but it’s important to remember that, for the most part, you are looking through a carefully controlled lens as you scroll through the posts on your social media page. Few of us would go to the grocery store wearing only our underwear. (Some things are best left to the imagination.)

When you see a friend’s post on social media, more often than not you are seeing only what they want you to see: their happy family, pictures of their vacation or beloved pets, etc.  What you rarely, if ever, see, is someone posting that they will need to file bankruptcy or facing divorce because of infidelity.

Instead, you are seeing only the beautiful posts, which can lead to feelings of envy and inferiority, especially among young people.

Teenage Wasteland

According to studies by the Pew Research Center and the Mayo Clinic, teenagers’ use of social media “allows teens to create online identities, communicate with others and build social networks. These networks can provide teens with valuable support, especially helping those who experience exclusion or have disabilities or chronic illnesses.”

“But social media use can also negatively affect teens, according to the 2018 study. Social media can distract them, disrupt their sleep, and expose them to bullying, rumor spreading, unrealistic views of other people’s lives and peer pressure.”

The risks might be related to how much social media teens use. A 2019 study of more than 6,500 12- to 15-year-olds in the U.S. found that those who spent more than three hours a day using social media might be at heightened risk for mental health problems. Another 2019 study of more than 12,000 13- to 16-year-olds in England found that using social media more than three times a day predicted poor mental health and well-being in teens.

Other studies also have observed links between high levels of social media use and depression or anxiety symptoms.

As a strategic communications consultant, I can tell you that maintaining your own online reputation is very important. Nothing is ever truly “erased” on the Web. Businesses and political campaigns need to be fully aware and consent to everything they post in the digital town square.

Remember: it is often better to just scroll on by posts that seem like “click-bait,” otherwise choose your words and images carefully. Because, whether you like it, people will judge you by the words you use.

Originally published on the Saco Bay News website.

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