Ah, social media. You’ve got followers, friends, and even strangers liking what you did today. With every new notification, you get a little shot of dopamine (that's the feel-good chemical that fires off in pleasure-seeking situations, as in jumping off a plane or, well, doing drugs). So, you want to keep pressing refresh to get another dose. And then, you realize that what’s happening in your real life isn’t nearly as exciting. “Social media—Twitter, Instagram, Facebook—can create a false sense of connection with people,” says Sheri Meyers, PsyD, a therapist in Los Angeles (and author of Chatting or Cheating) “And, it’s immediate and 24/7, so there isn’t as much of a need to reach out to those that are close to us.”
Eventually, real life pays the price — because when it’s not as satisfying as the cyber version, it can lead to feeling down about what you have going on (or don't have going on). “The life we possess virtually can seem more exciting or interesting than what’s happening in real life and real time," Meyers says. "Online, you’re constantly on the receiving end of a sense of approval, which feels really good. What isn't healthy is when you turn more and more to your cyber friends for approval, satisfaction, and that dopamine hit. Then, you stop trying to connect and relate with the people closest to you."
Remember when we mentioned the dopamine-narcotics connection? Turns out that you can actually get hooked on social media, too. “Internet addiction is real,” says Meyers. “The same brain chemicals that get activated from drugs or any pleasure-seeking behavior apply here, too.” When those happy chemicals plummet, you have to keep going back to the "drug" — i.e., picking up your iPhone to check the latest tweet — to get the boost again. And, it's not doing any favors for your relationship, either: “Once you are spending time away from your partner and in social media, and you start getting your needs met there, then you are no longer seeking out that attention from your loved one," she warns. "In the end, you will only feel lonelier.”
Social media aims to bring us closer, but too much of a good thing can be problematic. Rationally, we all know that comparing ourselves to others isn't healthy, but with an endless stream of humblebrags and not-so-humble brags, it's difficult not to do so. But, says Meyers, that's a distorted view of reality, because people tend to broadcast the good stuff, not the bad. “When you begin to compare yourself with others, which is a natural human tendency, that creates a weak foundation to stand upon,” she says. “And when you think, ‘Look who liked my photo!' or ‘Look how many friends or followers I have!’ you’re on shallow ground.” Eventually, you'll possibly feel less-than, or you may develop a falsely boosted ego — neither of which are ideal.
Of course, social media isn't all bad; constantly reaching for your iPhone does have its upsides. “In a way, it can be positive, since social media gives us a distraction from pain in our life,” says Meyers. “It could be a way to get our mind off of it, but you still need to cope with it.” And, if used to help others, a tweet can be a good thing indeed: “What’s most positive about social media is that you can spread an empowering message to the masses in an instant,” says Gabrielle Bernstein, author of May Cause Miracles. “Social media can give you the power to support the people in your community, and you can use social media to rally communities around positive campaigns, fundraisers and inspirational messages. When it’s used with service-minded intentions, nothing but positive results will come from it.”
So, then: How can you make Twitter (and Facebook, and Instagram) be a positive part of your life? Start by being mindful of the company you keep. “If you have a friend who spews negative messages, it may be time to unfollow,” says Bernstein. “I believe in social media cleansing. I go through my feed, and if there are any messages that don’t make me feel good, I unfollow immediately.” Exes who leave cryptic comments, the undermining "friend" who always needs to one-up your success...you know what to do.
Beyond that, it's important to set boundaries and rules. “Just like you are allowed a certain amount of chocolate, you can’t eat as much as you want,” says Meyers. “You need to feed your life as much as your social life.” So, maybe you put the iPad down while eating dinner, or take a weekend off from social media apps. It's all part of shifting your focus. Instead of thinking ‘I’m so great! I have 20 new followers,’ be thankful for legitimate moments of happiness, not what's found on your news feed. Get out into the real world, create a true memory without needing to broadcast it — and before you know it, you'll be #lovingyourlife.