Sitting having a coffee in the latest artisan roastery to grace my local high street, I watch as endless masterpieces in milky foam arrive at scrubbed wooden tables. Customers wait, smartphones in hand, anticipating their smashed avocado on sourdough. The immediate task - to take thoughtfully-composed, carefully-edited photographs, and upload them with the relevant hashtags to Instagram. Here, these temporary treasures are reborn into another existence. Arrangements of the latest trendy foodstuffs are documented, moments with friends are captured, and latte-art swans take flight on their number of 'likes'.
There's been a lot of criticism of the ways in which 18 - 34 year old 'millennials' use technology, and it's not easy to witness the phenomena of the coffee shop without asking powerful questions about what it means. Why does the need to document a digitally-enhanced and highly selective version of our lives arise in the first place? How do we, and others, respond to this way of understanding and communicating our experience? Is it healthy - a great way to record memories, appreciate the beautiful and connect with others? Or is it something that drives a feeling of alienation when our lives don't look worthy of a photo reel, that removes us from accepting and participating with our experience as it really is?
It's far easier to give more space to the anxieties that exist around social media than it is to celebrate the ways in which it can add to our lives. Many of us (myself included) know how effortless it is to get unwittingly 'hooked' on constantly checking and updating multiple profiles and platforms, how easily the balance can tip from being in control of using social media to feeling like it's controlling you. Unexpected forays into those modern wildernesses without phone signal or WiFi can provoke almost irrational levels of anxiety and frustration in the most amiable of people, not to mention those messages to your supposedly 'online' partner that have been read but not replied to.
More worrying than these experiences, there are legitimate and worrying concerns about how our online lives may be damaging our health and wellbeing. For instance, social media is consistently and positively associated with negative body image - an effect which appears to be mediated by appearance-based social comparison, through apps such as Facebook and Instagram. Even content which has a positive effect on our motivation to improve our physical health and fitness ('Fitspiration') has been shown at the same time to have a detrimental impact on body image. Worse still, a link is increasingly being drawn between social media and the increasing number of eating disorders - something which is especially saddening for me as someone who's struggled with body image problems and disordered eating since adolescence.
Arguably at the heart of concerns about social media lies the supposed erosive effect it has on our ability to be mindful in everyday life. This is about more than how the 'Look-Down generation' automatically reach for our phones every time we have a moment of seemingly intolerable boredom to fill. We can also frame concerns about unhelpful social comparisons, body image and eating problems in terms of the way they encourage us to not be fully accepting of ourselves and our own lives in the present moment.
However, as important as these criticisms are, they need to be placed in a bigger context - one which considers social media behaviours in terms of their driving causes as well as their effects, which acknowledges their potential to be helpful as well as to harm. Our taste for documenting our lives in hyper-real, filtered images is too-often attacked for removing us from the thing-in-itself which we are observing. But what if the process of looking for the beautiful actually encourages us to see differently - more appreciatively - and notice the quiet beauty of the mundane? My life is enriched by those Instagrammers who capture the character of my town and all the small details it holds, that would otherwise go unnoticed in my busy life. They encourage me to stop, look and be grateful. The pro-recovery and peer-support pages for eating disorders, the mental health campaign collaborations that begin as Twitter encounters... the benefits I reap from social media are plentiful.
To think that the challenging issues linked with our online lives originate with social media is just another example of failing to see things as they really are. Whilst perpetuating and sometimes aggravating our unhelpful behaviours, social media isn't separable from our wider anxieties, social pressures and struggles to be mindful, all of which existed long before the vehicles of Instagram and Facebook came along for their inhabitation. Helpful or unhelpful, mindful or mindless - many different ways of using social media are possible, just as there are many ways of relating to food, drugs, sex and other people. As with all of these things, it isn't what we do but how we do it that matters.
If we are seriously concerned about the impact of social media platforms on our health and wellbeing then we need to move beyond looking at them in isolation, and develop a wider contextual awareness of the way things really are - especially for young people - today. For this, maybe we can take a lesson from the best uses of social media, which point towards noticing and awareness, to consider not just the adenine and the beautiful, but the struggles and difficulties too. We need for example to look at the mental health problems driven by adverse childhood experiences and all of the increasing pressures that come as part of life as a young person. After all, mindfulness isn't the preserve of monasteries or meditation classes, or the pursuit of enjoyment and relaxation. It's something we can bring to the whole of our lives, the good and the bad - including Instagram.
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