THE BLOG

Why We Need to Admit Social Media Isn't Making Us Happy

16/06/2014 16:07 BST | Updated 15/08/2014 10:59 BST

I have a joke. It's not particularly funny, but it always gets a laugh. It rears its head at any awkward social occasion, any knives-scraping-on-plates dinner party lull. It goes a little something like this:

'Can you believe it, yesterday I saw two people order afternoon tea at Selfridges and they didn't Instagram it. I did NOT understand it'.

When I told it recently to a food blogger friend she replied: 'but if I didn't take a photo, did I really eat it? Well, quite.

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There's something innately tragic in our ability to identify with the joke; the idea that at times we're so desperate to share things, we forget to enjoy them. Take a moment this morning to look around the tube carriage; faces down, buried deep in our phones, we're a generation of crowns, not heads: the world around us innately less interesting than the blue and white one in our phone.

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My mother would say that we are tampering too much with the world's beauty; in my house, food is constantly going cold as I find the perfect angle and filter on my Instagram to spruce up my #raw #vegan #health dinner. She would say an experience isn't really as lovely as you remember, it's the effect of the sepia tones running through your app. It's true: Valencia makes everything look better.

The Context

Our lives have become canvases for self-projection. Apparently 60% of the UK population arrange their food on the plate at dinner time in order to take a photo. Yes, 60%. But 60% of the population also said that they are 'tired' of their constantly-switched-on lives. Go figure.

The need to share has been taking to a new, commercial level; brands are increasingly tapping into our obsession - Birds Eye last month ran a pop-up restaurant where one paid in Instagram, and you only have to look at Cancer Research UK's No Make-up Selfie Campaign (no-one nominated me, am I ugly?) to see how viral internet success depends in part on narcissism. My site, About Time Magazine, last week ran a post on why we should ban yoga selfies; the post went viral with 72 thousand hits and 10 thousand Facebook shares in 22 hours - its success was a shock, but not overly surprising. As much as we love taking selfies, we also love discussing them and even distinguishing ourselves apart from them. Of course, we're fooling no-one.

The Problem

I think all this social media is making us sad. For two reasons: firstly you cannot escape being connected to the world. Have you ever questioned the rise of the 'read' message on iPhones? Everything from iMessage to What's App has an ability to see whether or not your message has been read; it's a way of phone companies encouraging us to be constantly in contact, constantly within reach. This connectedness makes us stressed; work comes home, friends come to work, photos of our ex on a beach with his tanned new girlfriend follow us onto the tube. We're never free of our own worlds.

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And secondly: social media compromises our honesty. So much of our online interaction is about 'editing' our lives; the fashion version, as it were, which shows the glamorous sides of our existence without the dull, drab, boring bits. Apparently this is down to 'disinhibition' online - the lack of face-to-face contact allows us to create an online version of our ourselves without inhibition; it leads to exaggeration, denial and even bullying. You only have to look at the superlative hashtags to prove this theory - how many #bestdayever #bezzies and #bffs does the world have these days, eh?

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This combination of dishonesty and constant contact, I think, is causing an essential dissatisfaction in our own existences. Experts say that with social media, it's the free-flowing stream of mini annoyances rather than one hard-hitting Facebook post that makes us unhappy. The large scale of our online social group, with only 10% being people we actually call 'friends', forever exposing their lives to us online, causes a series of small, but still important, irritants. Photos of them in bikinis, their boyfriends, their cute babies, create an ever-increasing void in our own lives, one that we fill with yes, you guessed it: more photos. We've become our own worst enemy with one simple word: 'share'.

The Unhealthy Obsession

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In the world of healthy eating this makes me particularly worried. Around the world healthy types are rising from their rainbow bowls: smoothies and juices, matcha lattes and gluten-free cake, the world of Twitter and Instagram are held hostage with a stream of maca, spirulina and lovingly-adorned chia seed breakfast bowls. But does it make anyone any happier?

You certainly don't take Instagrams of the three Kitkats you had late at night when feeling sad or the leftover curry you scoffed at 3am with the hashtag 'eat clean' now do you. If we edit out all the truth, all the honesty, do we run the risk of making every young woman feel a little bit worse about themselves?

Reaching a certain following on Twitter, I found myself increasingly private messaged by young girls asking for tips on dieting and healthy eating; to be frank, I'm in no position to give advice on such things. My fear is that the photos deceive; placing those with the ability to pick the best filter, not the health experts, to control our eating habits. And we all know a diet of social media is never going to end well; it's a fine line between health and unhealthy obsession, and with anorexia on the rise amongst 14-17 year-olds, I can't help but wonder whether all these supplements, powders and dietary nuances are healthy, after all.

The Solution

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I would like to suggest something. It's not a cleanse or a detox as such, more a Social Media Review. I tried going the whole hog - I deleted Twitter and Instagram off my phone. For 24 hours, I was stressed, anxious and ate way too much almond butter... I'd be lying if I said I took to it.

But when the shiny apps returned to my phone, I decided that I would be more cautious on what, exactly, I was posting online. What was I trying to say in that tweet? Every time I stopped and thought before posting, I found half the the time I would delete the words before they left my phone. Gone were the photos of myself in the gym, endless photos of smoothies and most of the photos of my feet (hey, I like a shoe selfie OK): who needed to see them anyway? What remained was things I really wanted to share; nice photos of flowers, hidden gems in London, snaps of my my awesome editorial team - the things I was proud, happy, lucky to experience. I recently taught my boyfriend how to use Instagram, his response was: 'So I get how to do it, but I just don't get why'. And it made me think: perhaps sometimes we need to think of the why, as well as the what.

Perhaps, if we were all a little bit more careful about what we put online we could make the world a happier place. Our online selves are louder, more opinionated and flirtatious - be careful of creating a costume you cannot wear in daily life: make sure the real person is happy too. You don't have to stop taking photos of your dinner (heaven forbid), but maybe pause and think from time to time. In the words of a wise man: social media is a tool, don't let yourself become one.