The Existential Dread of Social Media


“Existential dread” sounds ominous. But If you’re a social media user, it’s a term you better become familiar with. Existential dread (or angst) is a feeling of despair, a sense that your life lacks meaning and purpose. Sooner or later, we all experience a sense of hopefulness. But we’re learning that there is a connection between existential anxiety and social media. In fact, if you’re an active user of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat or other social media sites, you may be on the fast track to an existential catastrophe.

Social media is driving us crazy. Literally

It’s hard to believe that social media sites like Facebook have only existed for a little more than 10 years. But although social media is a relatively recent newcomer to our lives, it has radically changed the way we behave and interact with the world around us.

For example, instead of savoring life’s little moments, we feel an urgent need to document our experiences, share them and receive instant validation from our growing lists of followers. And if the content we post isn’t validated with likes or shares, we feel anxious, frustrated or depressed. Maybe we even begin to question whether or not our experiences or perspectives are legitimate or worthwhile, especially when we compare them to the experiences our friends share on social media.

Entrepreneur Poppy Jamie makes a convincing case for the idea that we’re addicted to likes. In her TEDxHollywood talk, she cites a 2014 study showing that U.S. college students are on their smartphones almost nine hours a day. Not coincidentally, anxiety in young people is at an 80-year high.

It’s important to know that technology skeptics aren’t the only people who are questioning the impact of social media on our mental health. In a recent interview, Facebook’s first president, Sean Parker, admitted, “God only knows what (Facebook) is doing to our children’s brains.” He went on to say that Facebook is designed to keep users hooked on a “social validation feedback loop.”

Did you catch that? The people who built some of the world’s most popular social media sites designed them to get you addicted to other people’s approval — even people you don’t really know.

The bottom line: Social media can be useful. But it can also harm us in ways that we’re only beginning to understand.

Why does social media make us feel bad about ourselves?

Existentialism is a philosophical concept that describes the contemplation of life’s big questions. By asking questions like “Who am i?” we begin the search for meaning and purpose in life. Not surprisingly, this process produces a certain amount of anxiety and that’s okay. It’s valuable to consider where we came from, where we’re going and what we’re doing in the meantime.

Existential dread happens when our search for meaning comes up empty. We’re plagued by a sense that there is no meaning or purpose in life. We feel alone and isolated. We’re dissatisfied with our life. We’re chronically depressed. A major life event, like trauma or a serious illness or the death of a loved one, can trigger existential dread. But sometimes, everyday things can trigger it, too. That’s where social media enters the picture.

Social media allows us to create curated realities. We post content about the exciting pieces of our lives, but the mundane or less-than-flattering pieces of our lives never make it into our news feeds. So, the image we project to the rest of the world is skewed. Our social media presences reflect the lives we wish we had — not the lives we are actually living.

Over time, that alone can plunge you into an existential crisis. On social media, the rest of the world thinks you’re living like a rock star. But you know that your life isn’t nearly as interesting as it appears. You’re a fake. A fraud. A charlatan. Instead of finding answers to “Who am I?” you feel more confused and anxious about life than ever.

But it gets worse. All your friends are doing the same thing. They’re posting selfies that shine a spotlight on the fabulous things they’re doing with their lives. And when you compare those things to the relatively bleak existence you know you are actually living, the cumulative effects are depression, anxiety and an overarching sense of dread.

5 tips for avoiding the existential dread of social media

Fortunately, existential dread isn’t inevitable. You don’t have to throw away your smartphone or shut down all your social media accounts to avoid anxiety and depression. It’s possible to use technology in a way that helps you find more meaning and purpose in life. But to do it, you’ll need to rethink your relationship with social media.

  1. Limit the amount of time you spend on social media. Social media and real life are very different things. If you’re spending hours on social media each day, you’re living a large portion of your life on platforms that are (by the founders’ own admissions) designed to addict you to an alternative and distorted version of reality. Schedule a few times each day to check your social media account — and stay away from social media the rest of the time.
  2. Invest in real-life relationships. For millennia, people have discovered meaning and purpose through their relationships with others — not through curated relationships, but through real-life relationships grounded in face-to-face interactions and shared, real-world experiences. But meaningful relationships don’t just happen. Be intentional about creating opportunities for face-to-face interactions with friends and strangers every single day.
  3. Think about why you use social media. Some people use social media for work, but most of use social media (in theory) to stay in touch with friends, family members and acquaintances. If you’re using social media to make yourself look good or to make everyone else feel bad, you’re doing it wrong. Life isn’t a contest. It’s an opportunity to connect with other human beings and to make the world a better place.
  4. Stop using hash tags. Hashtags amplify the reach of your social media content. If you’re promoting an event, a cause or an article, hashtags make sense. But if you’re promoting the selfie you took at breakfast or some other glimpse into your highly curated life, the only purpose a hashtag serves is to garner likes and validation from a larger social audience. Post your selfie, but skip the hashtag and enjoy the satisfaction of simply sharing it with your friends.
  5. Periodically avoid social media completely. Three-quarters of Facebook users and half of Instagram users visit their social media accounts at least once every single day, according to Pew Research. From a mental health perspective, it’s helpful to periodically avoid social media completely. Pick a day each week to check out of social media – and use the time check in with your real life.

Social media produces existential dread because it allows us to live in an alternative, virtual universe. We interact with real people on social media, but we’re frequently not interacting with them in healthy ways and it distorts our perceptions about them and ourselves. But by understanding how to use social media in a healthier way, we can preserve our mental, emotional and spiritual health, and learn how to live more authentically.


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