"Every time I logged on to Facebook, I'd start to feel anxious and upset," says Heather Stratton, 37, a mom of five kids. "I'd see everyone be like, 'Here's my perfect house. Here's my perfect body. Here's my perfect family.' And I'd start to worry I wasn't doing enough, even though I knew my friends didn't mean it that way. And there's just so much of it out there, it's inescapable," Stratton adds.
It's that latter point that really has scientists concerned now. "The font of posts is never ending, and the lack of any comprehensive organization or direction to what you are seeing means it’s just a spew of information,” said James Foley, an academic at The New School, in an interview with The Daily Dot. What was supposed to be a fun and relaxing way to catch up with loved ones has now become a chore at best and completely overwhelming at worst.
Information overload isn't a new phenomenon — surfing the Internet has long been compared to drinking from a fire hose. But researchers point out that information from social media can be even more potent. Humans are primed to want to interact with other humans, and so our brains give more importance to relational information. But thanks to sites like Twitter and Facebook, there's now so much relational data that we can't process it all — a problem that is making us anxious, depressed and stressed out.
And it's not just the benign stuff that's the problem. In addition to all the images of impossibly cute families and perfect makeup, our news feeds are also sending us a stream of bad news, which can make people feel like the world is going to hell in a handbasket.
"I don't know — are there more mass shootings now than there used to be or do we just hear more about them because everyone's tweeting constantly about them?" asks Makenzie Martinez, 34, a mom of four, who says she stopped using social media altogether because she couldn't handle hearing all the depressing news, especially stories about children being harmed. "I'd read it and the horrible feelings would last all day. I couldn't shake it."
Martinez isn't the only one who has a hard time letting go. One study on Facebook-induced stress found that two-thirds of people "had difficulty sleeping due to anxiety and other negative emotions after they had used the sites.”
But it's not just seeing what other people post that can cause the rush of negative emotions. There's also extreme pressure as to what you share. "There's no way to look at it and not feel like you're missing out on something," says Lia Flynn, 24, a photographer who uses social media for her business and grew up as part of the Facebook generation. This feeling is so omnipresent it's even gotten its own acronym: FOMO, or fear of missing out. "So then you feel like you have to keep up and you're wondering, 'Am I funny enough? Are my pictures pretty enough?'" Flynn adds.
Constantly worrying about how you're presenting yourself to others and how others are responding (or not) to what you post can be agonizing. It's not uncommon for people to spend hours and dozens of snaps to get the perfect "candid" selfie or to rearrange an entire restaurant table while the delicious food gets cold just to get the perfect Instagram shot. While some cutely call it living a "curated life," it's rapidly losing the actual life part, researchers caution.
So, what's a girl to do? Going off the grid entirely is one option — one that Martinez says she doesn't regret at all. "I'm so much happier and I've found that the people who really want to keep in touch with me will still do so," she says.
But for the rest of us who use social media for work, maintaining far-flung relationships or just enjoy it sometimes, we have to find a peaceful middle ground. For Stratton, that means no more mindless scrolling through her feeds during down times. She still has a Facebook account, but she only uses it for a purpose, like looking up pictures of a friend's new baby or getting event invitations. Flynn says she probably still spends too much time on social media, but tries to be aware of her feelings and take a break when it's starting to get to her. She's also made her business its own page and accounts, so that she can focus on work without getting distracted by everything else.
Whatever you do, though, researchers agree that you need to have a plan to protect your emotional health because more and more people are getting quietly sucked into the vortex of social media anxiety.
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