The journey towards authentic connection
I was awoken by my daughter in the middle of the night to let me know she had been ill. I comforted her and went back to bed but could not sleep. My head was suddenly full of chatter and cluttered to-do lists. Habitually, I grabbed my phone “only to check messages.” As I began scrolling through social media at 2am, then noticing the clock again at 5am, an uncomfortable truth swallowed me whole. My life had gradually turned inside out and upside down over recent years—and as much as I celebrate the positive changes, there has been a dark side.
Social media taps into and pacifies one of our most primal needs. As humans we have an innate desire to connect with others, to be a part of something. When we artificially interact with our friends and peers, our dopamine levels rise. We get a delicious hit of this chemical high whenever we are acknowledged, validated and “seen” via this virtual interactive experience. Not to mention the opportunity for drama with front row seats. It has been studied that when our brains have ‘downtime’ between tasks, they automatically switch into social mode. This means that as soon as we aren’t busy doing something, we think about people. No wonder the first thing we gravitate to is our social connections on our phone in those little moments, even though there may be a person sitting right next to us. (See UCLA professor Matthew Lieberman’s book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect)
Its a cheap thrill. Cheap entertainment that affords us an escape from the mundane of the real world any time we want it. Our needs (if only temporarily) are getting met. It fills our heads with more and more information, albeit mostly useless and unimportant. This useless fodder keeps our brain distracted. Sure, there are some thought provoking topics here and there, some exciting or life changing news from a friend or relative. But that is not the norm. We are attempting to escape the mundane of reality, but yet we find ourselves right back in the midst of it.
We can look into another person’s life without actually having to check in with them and hold a real conversation. No need to experience social anxiety—its completely averted and you get an added perk of photos, because you know, a photo is worth a thousand words. We don’t even have to ask how someone’s day is… we can just watch it right there in their “stories.”
Maybe its just me because I am an introvert with severe high functioning anxiety and social situations, especially groups, can be very uncomfortable—that its incredibly easier to get my social fix through a virtual connection.
But, this instant fix still lacks that authenticity—the aliveness, the vulnerability—of sharing a moment in time and space with another human. There’s an energetic connection that virtual interaction simply cannot replace.
While I was married to a very controlling person, I wasn’t allowed to cultivate many friendships and my entire family lives in another state. After the divorce, I was left with a greater hole in my life than just all the material possessions that were gone. I truly had no one to turn to. Falling quickly into a dark depression as I mourned the painful separation from my children, I turned to nature, but also social media. I wrote about my journey. I wrote and shared photos from my interactions with nature. I shared my travels, my stories and tribulations. I found the community I so deeply needed. It became easy to connect with people without the anxiety of talking to them in real life. I was able to share confidently without the fear of “bothering” someone. I leaned heavily on the idea that it was their choice to follow my account and they always had the choice to unfollow or unfriend if my sharing was too much. It then became a place to hide, yet get my needs met by socializing and sharing.
In my virtual stories I could tell someone (everyone) about my day when no one was there to ask me. I could share my ideas and rambling thoughts (and I do have those often) when there was no one but my old cat to listen. Through the use of social media, I got affirmation and validation… my posts sparked conversations and connections with interesting likeminded people in far off places I never would have connected with otherwise. But at the end of the day, I still was alone in my room or on the road in my car, by myself.
Acknowledging that something is deeply missing is the first step to making a change… by consciously making little attempts at real-life connection with others, no matter how much easier it is to passively connect through media. I’ll give it a try. Because even when I was in a disconnected marriage for so many years, I’ve been subconsciously craving that authentic connection for a very long time.
So is social media a good thing or a bad thing? I still don’t know, but I am more aware of its addictiveness and how easily it masks that need for authentic human connection. The thought of completely walking away from it and closing my accounts came up many times. But, I think the lesson is more about balance, as it is with most things… stepping out of my introverted comfort zone and making the effort, at least once in a while, to socialize with real people.
As I watch my children now, they are holding screens of their own. I wonder how they will navigate the need for community in a changing social environment and if authentic connection will eventually be a thing of the past.