Close your eyes and picture the year 2004. Blink-182 is playing on the radio in the car, the iconic show Friends is just wrapping up, MySpace (the OG social media platform) now has 1 million users, and Facebook was just created in a Harvard dorm room. To say that people had no clue what was to come in the world of social media or the impact it would soon have on their lives would have been a total understatement. By 2019, there were 3.5 billion social media users (making up 45% of the global population), 68% of whom were on Facebook.

The world changed drastically in 15 years. From the way we keep in touch, to the way we get our news, and how we formulate our thoughts and beliefs, virtually every area of our lives has been impacted by social media. Wanting to install a new light fixture but have no idea where to begin? Watch a YouTube video. Looking for a new recipe that fits your gluten-free, sugar-free, vegan lifestyle that will really wow your in-laws? Look it up on Pinterest. Social media has unleashed an entire world of information and connection that we never would have otherwise accessed. We were essentially handed a little device and told that we can have an instant answer to nearly any question we could ever imagine, at any time of day, from anywhere in the world – all we have to do is ask. Social media has changed the game in virtually no time at all.

How the heck does this thing work?

Before we get too far into our relationship with social media, let’s first go over how it works (we’ll use Instagram as an example). Back in the day, Instagram, along with a ton of platforms, showed all of the posts in chronological order. That meant unless someone was actively scrolling through Instagram at the exact time you posted or searched your profile specifically afterwards, there was a pretty solid chance that they wouldn’t see your post. Part of the solution to this was through the introduction of notifications. Those annoying alerts that pop up on your phone or computer are there to say “oh hey there friend, I know you’re busy doing something, but you should take a break and come see what your friend just ______ (tagged you in, posted about, liked, commented, etc).” However, these platforms generate revenue based on the number of ads the consumer (us) views (more time we spend scrolling = the more ads we see = the more money they make off of ad revenue), so they needed to find a way to keep our attention for as long as possible.

Zuckerberg, along with the Instagram developers, realized that this chronological feed had its limitations, and decided to design an algorithm that individually curated feeds to everyone’s personal interests. They took note of the posts we are most likely to interact with, when we slow down to read something, and when we typically log on, among a ton of other factors so they could show us posts that we would most likely be interested in. For example, with this new algorithm, two people could follow the same 100 people, however, when they both open the app, they could see a different post waiting for them. One of them could see a dog meme if that is what the app determines they stop on and engage with the most, whereas the other person may see their favourite clothing store that they happen to scroll through every day looking for fashion-inspo. This sort of behaviour tracking can introduce us to people, topics, interests, businesses, opportunities, information, and so much more that we may not otherwise know. It connects us with long-lost friends, introduces us to new ones, shines a light on otherwise ignored causes, and creates a lifestyle that would be otherwise unattainable. The benefits of social media are undeniable, but the consequences for the constant connection are still unclear.

Also read: 5 Things To Do After A Stressful Day

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Gosh, Talk About Information Overload

Families used to send out letters (or, as some people call them, brag letters) at Christmas to all of their friends and families. These letters would detail all of the wonderful things they had all accomplished throughout the year (“we’re so excited to say that little Timmy has officially started university and we couldn’t be prouder! Karen just bought a new house since her family outgrew their last one! Sales have never been higher, all is well!”), or, in some instances, how challenging of a year it has been (“things are so tough in our household – we have been riddled with illness and bad fortune”). Social media has turned this once-a-year update into a 24/7 looking glass into the lives of people around the world, and that can be a lot to take it.

Imagine how you would feel if you sat down to write a report when suddenly all of your friends appeared in front of you with exciting news they just had to update you on. Someone is there showing you a picture of their new house, someone is asking you where they should go for the best sushi restaurant in a town you’ve never been to, someone is ranting about their political beliefs, someone is complaining about having the worst day ever, while someone else is bragging about everything they have going on. You would probably look around the room and either tell them to come back when you aren’t busy, get distracted by their announcements and attempt to go through them all, or get completely overwhelmed and feel confused with where to begin. But regardless of your response to this work intrusion, it would most likely feel like a very overwhelming, confusing, and downright stressful situation (“I’m sorry, how did you get in here?”). 

Social media has unleashed this whole new world of connection that we have never experienced before. Our once-a-year brag letters are now a 24/7 special delivery from our friends, family members, acquaintances, and strangers we will never meet in our lives. When we are in the right frame of mind, this connection can be amazing. We don’t need to wait to find out how our best friend’s trip across the country went, or what people think about our new dress. However, when we are having a more difficult day, or when we are struggling a little more, social media may feel overwhelming, isolating, and lonely. 

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This constant supply of information and instant gratification can make it difficult to detach ourselves from the world of social media, and even more difficult to hold our attention span. With every scroll, tap, and swipe up, we are given a glimpse into the lives of the people on the other side, only, it does not always feel like that. In fact, it can be so easy to get caught up in the numbers, names, pictures, and more that we forget that there is an actual person behind the screen who is living a life that thrives and struggles. All of our lives may look different, but it is safe to say that nobody has it all together.

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And That’s Totally Impacting Self-Esteem

There have been a ton of studies that have addressed the impact of social media on our self-esteem: as a whole, it is not great. Let’s quickly discuss our beauty standards. We used to have to deal with the pressures from traditional media sources: we saw celebrities on TV who had teams of people doing their hair, makeup, and wardrobe, we saw magazines filled with photoshopped imagines, and we had incredibly unhealthy lifestyles being shoved down our throats. It forged a ton of unrealistic beauty standards and was overwhelming to say the least. However, social media has taken this and basically magnified it: now, instead of being reserved for models and celebrities, we are seeing these types of behaviours from our friends. We are constantly watching as our friends, family members, and random strangers on the street live their best lives, which may leave us feeling down about our current situation.

The pressure to have it all together (or, at least look like we do) can be downright overwhelming. We can take multiple pictures until we finally end up with one where our butt looks decent or our home looks as least messy as possible, and then use apps from the palm of our hands to transform the appearance of things even further. You just took the perfect selfie but don’t want people to know you have a pimple? There is an app for that. Wish your curtains were blue to go with your aesthetic a little better? There is an app for that. We are constantly trying to keep up with highlight-reel brag letters by showing off an edited glimpse into our own life, and that can be tough on our self-esteem.

Think about it this way: imagine how you would feel if you wore a mask that made you the most beautiful person in the world, and you spent your day hanging out with other beautiful people. Every day you were flooded with compliments, telling you how amazing and perfect you were, but deep down, you knew it was only part of the story. Chances are you would probably start to idolize this masked version of yourself, and feel not as great about who you were behind it. Social media can do a similar thing – it may cause us to become fixated on how we look to the outside world, which may make us feel not so great about who we actually are offline.

Being Kind is Cool (no really, it is!)

Remember how we said that 45% of the global population is using some sort of social media? That means that there are a whole lot of people out there who are trying to navigate social media, too. It is still pretty new, it is designed to be addicting, and it is not real, even though it may look like it. All three of those things are a lot to navigate individually, but when you add them together, it can be a lot to handle. But it is important that we remind ourselves of these things, and on the days that we are finding it to be extra overwhelming, to set limits or log off altogether. Above all else, be kind to yourself as your figure this all out, and be kind to others too. In the end, we are all in this together.