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Self-Absorption on Social Media is Making us Sick

In one of his more popular short stories, on “The Depressed Person,” David Foster Wallace wrote that they are “far too self-involved” to form nourishing and meaningful relationships. The story goes on to argue, and quite convincingly, that perhaps the worst part of depression is the ego becoming both obsessed with itself and turning on itself. Anyone who has ever experienced depression knows this to be true. You literally can’t escape yourself. It is a constant barrage of thoughts about how feel and how should feel and how others may think of me and how I’ll never be better and how much pain am in. It’s terrible.

A 2018 study out of the University of Arizona published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that self-referential language, or what the researchers called I-talk,” was associated with depression.  Whether depression causes self-referential thinking or self-referential thinking causes depression is unclear. But once an individual is depressed or heading in that direction, researchers have found that increased self-referential thinking never helps; tends to build on itself; and usually makes matters worse.

“We’ve all gone through negative life events when we’re feeling down or we’re feeling anxious, and when you think back to being in those places, when you’re just so focused on yourself, you may say things like ‘Why can’t I get better?'” says Allison Tackman, the lead researcher on the 2018 Arizona study mentioned above. “You’re so focused on yourself that not only in your head are you using these first-person singular pronouns but when you’re talking to other people or writing, it spills into your language—the self-focus that negative affectivity brings about.”

The other author on the Arizona study, Matthias Mehl, says, “Stress can make you be caught in the metaphorical ‘I’ of the storm.” Perhaps the most common space this appears is on social media.

There are two predominant ways we share content on social media: The first is what I’ll call idea-focused; or sharing articles, insights, stories, and images that can then be discussed, debated, or agreed upon by other people. The second is what I’ll call me-focused; or sharing content that is all about me. What ate or what feel or what think or this picture of me. These two ways of using social media apply to not just sharing content but also viewing it. You are either focusing on ideas or focusing on how your life compares to others—the irony being that 99 percent of the me-focused content on social media is performative to begin with. (I have no problem saying that Instagram and Facebook are the worst platforms for this. Their design explicitly encourages posting pictures and updates about oneself.)

It is fair to hypothesize that the me-focused approach to using social media is not so great for your emotional health. In my own observations, it seems the more someone is posting about themselves, the less happy they are in real-life. Not all the time, but certainly a significant majority of the time.

I also suspect this is why social media use may be particularly dangerous to kids. Most kids are not sharing ideas, theories, or diagrams. They are sharing stuff about themselves, and then evaluating their self-worth based on the “likes” or “comments” their stuff receives. Whoever thinks this is a good idea has a lot of work to do to convince me of their position. (This is why when Facebook announced they are planning to build a version of Instagram for children under 13 I wanted to vomit.)

To be clear, I do not think social media is inherently evil or bad (at least not yet). I use Twitter almost every day. I, do, however, think that using social media in a predominantly me-focused way is dangerous, whether you are age 68, 38, or 8. It encourages self-referential thinking spirals that are associated with negative emotional states.

Personally, when I catch myself using social media in a me-focused way it is a great cue to step back, take a deep breath, and ask myself why I feel the need to do this (it’s usually some sort of insecurity or longing). Then, I nudge myself away from social media and toward actual intimate human connection or doing meaningful work.

— Brad

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