It’s a global phenomenon. Billions are broadcasting their lives on social media and this has led to the rise of YouTubers and social media influencers who, when their audiences are big enough, hold a huge amount of power and traction nationally and internationally.
Over recent weeks and months there have been a series of YouTube stars and social media influencers such as, Elle Mills, Matt Lees and Alisha Marie, to name but a few, have talked about how miserable, exhausted and burnt out they are. How is it that this supposedly idyllic life, where millions wait on tenterhooks for your next comment, video or photo, where you have millions of ‘friends’, where your earnings through sponsorship and clicks are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars if not more, and where you can buy whatever you want, is causing anxiety, depression and burnout? Why is it that the career that so many of our children today dream of is so toxic, so damaging?
To become successful on YouTube you have to post videos that get multiple likes and views. Once the omnipotent, yearned for algorithm notices your videos as being successful, it then promotes it and sends traffic your way and, boom... viewers, likes and clicks grow exponentially. Similarly, when you come offline even for 24 hours and the algorithm notices, stops directing traffic to you and your clicks and views fall dramatically. For a while, the growth of popularity feels exciting. Your friends grow from 100 to 10,000 or more, and the number of hearts below every post sky rocket. The buzz, the excitement and the rushes of adrenaline coarse through your veins and spur you on to create more content, to post more and to grow your following. Revenue and earnings follow and you have the life, the money and the career you dreamed of. It’s addictive. But like any addiction, the highs become harder to achieve and too soon the addiction is in control rather than you.
What is life as a social media star really like? You sit alone in your room or your house, with no structure to your day or your working life, creating content that you desperately hope the world will like. You are at the beck and call of the entire globe, so the demands and expectations to interact and work 24/7 are real. Unless you become successful enough to need one, there is no team to interact with, the pressure of self-employment and self-reliance are immense and all it takes for your job and your income to plummet is to have a day off, or create a post that is not popular in which others judge you as not being good enough. God forbid you should tune out for a couple of weeks to go on holiday - that would be a heinous crime and potentially disastrous in terms of followers and revenue falling. Indeed, the expectation is that you will post whilst on holiday and not meeting your audiences’ expectations is unacceptable. It is a remarkably demanding and isolating existence.
What is it like to have three million friends, for example? It must be amazing... millions of people interested in you, wanting to know you and waiting eagerly for your next upload. Friends is a deceptive term for followers because friends they are not. Followers all want something from you - they are taking all the time, they want your content, to voyeuristically watch and share your life. You give, they take. It’s not reciprocal. The posts make audiences feel that they know you but they know the facade, not the real person and you don’t know them. None of the millions of friends are there to to give support, share your lows, look after you when you’re ill, comfort you when the blows of life happen, or want to know who you really are as a person. They expect the relentless delivery of content and too quickly you become a slave to your expectant audience and you need them to like it.
So why do people do it? It is the most primal desire for human beings to connect with others. From birth babies cry to obtain connection, be it for food, a clean nappy, nurture, or just comfort. This continues through life but as we grow and develop we find new and different ways of connecting with others. Indeed, without any connection the human race would become extinct. YouTubers and social media influencers connect with audiences of millions. They potentially touch and influence the lives of millions of other human beings and the same human beings connect back in the form of likes or comments. But those likes and comments are based on a judgement. A judgement of the influencer either as a person or a creator. When this is positive judgement it can feel exciting, gratifying and validating, but audiences do not apply any filters to their responses because the person to whom they are responding is actually disconnected from them by dint of a screen. Viewers post harsh, critical and negative feedback without censorship or thought and it takes remarkable resilience or thick skin to ignore or brush off. And to be successful on social media, it’s the number of connections made that count rather than the quality of those connections.
Social media is all about external validation. Success and thus self-esteem is built on the size of your audience and your popularity. It can increase feelings of narcissism, of being in love with oneself which in turn leads to an inflated but fragile sense of self. Self-esteem built from the outside, based on external and superficial judgements by others is extremely vulnerable. It takes the smallest of criticisms or knock backs to shake it profoundly. True self-esteem comes from within. It is built over months and years of face to face interactions, the development of empathy, compassion, intimacy. The acquisition of the skills of really listening, understanding, giving and sharing. Of knowing and internalising your qualities and your flaws, of knowing you are good enough - not perfect - just good enough. These skills, these developmental tasks all involve taking risks. They require you to have a go and often make mistakes, upset a friend, misjudge a comment from which you learn for next time. To do this on social media, in front of millions and invite a torrent of negative feedback and derision is unconscionable. These tasks, this growth and development and personality and self esteem are at best inhibited or at worst prevented by needing a social media persona. And it is not just the social media stars who are affected. We have seen a massive rise in social anxiety in our teens and much of this is to do with the demands to be on and be liked on social media.
I’m not denying that there is a brilliant, positive side to social media; the breaking down of barriers and stigmas, the ability to find ‘your people’, like minded souls, and connect with them in a way that was impossible twenty years ago, the sharing of information, for good and bad. Theses are all good but living our lives for likes is both addictive and toxic and it undoubtedly leads to increased anxiety, depression, burnout and low self-esteem.