What keeps a person feeling discouraged is the certainty that everyone else is jumping joyfully out of bed in the morning. I learned this from an astute professor in a graduate school course on the diagnosis and treatment of depression. Depression is a prolonged state of hopelessness and helplessness – not just a case of the blues that you can shake yourself out of — marked by an intense sense of separateness from others. Depressed people assume from their isolated stance that they alone are suffering and everyone else has it made.
I bring this up because I have been interviewed by several reporters lately about ‘Facebook Depression,’ a new term describing the sense of inadequacy that comes from too much time on the Internet and not enough live interaction. In particular, Facebook Depression is caused by a tendency we all fall prey to: assessing oneself according to enticing images presented by others online and coming up short. The classic example is the teenager who feels unpopular in the face of classmates boasting hundreds more Facebook “friends.” But Facebook Depression is an adult phenomenon as well. Think of the self-employed person who’s intimidated by the polished websites of seemingly more successful entrepreneurs. The single woman who feels excluded as she scrolls through social networking photos of weekend gatherings she wasn’t in on. Or, in my case, the first-time author who thinks fellow first-time authors must be selling more books because their social media campaigns are more sophisticated than hers.
Regardless of circumstances, what Facebook Depression sufferers have in common is an idealistic assumption that what’s online is what’s happening in real life without them. Because they routinely draw grandiose conclusions from the screen, where any kind of image can be orchestrated, they miss the real stories behind the smoke and mirrors. People can be whoever they want to be online and most of us go to town with creative liberty, accentuating the positive and minimizing the negative. The result is that anyone who appraises him- or herself without lifting the curtain of calculated online presentations will surely feel inadequate.
You can prevent Facebook Depression by simply making a regular habit of stepping away from the screen and getting the full story before drawing conclusions about other people. That means considering that friendship on Facebook doesn’t usually indicate genuine companionship. Anyone, even the most incompetent buffoon in the business, can pull off a compelling website. We certainly know from supermarket tabloids that pretty pictures don’t always translate into inner contentment. And that first-time author – well, she’s commiserated with enough authors by now to know that selling books isn’t easy for anyone who isn’t a household name.
Along with expanding your perspective beyond the screen, preventing Facebook Depression requires connecting with real people in real time on a regular basis. The Internet is a wonderful way to initiate and augment relationships, but it is no replacement for bona fide togetherness. And real togetherness comes from being with people in the flesh and sharing the experience of humanness. When you are actually with others, interacting and not just observing, you are reminded that all of us, no matter how together we look in cyberspace, are imperfect people with insecurities and fears just like you.
The next time you glorify something online – Look how much fun they had at that party while I was home alone watching TV Saturday night! That guy must be raking in money; his website is so much better than mine! She must be so confident with all those connections! He’s so much more tech savvy than me, his books must be selling like hot cakes! — immediately walk away from your computer and do something, anything to experience other people more fully. Ask a friend how she’s doing and really listen to the answer. Have coffee or lunch with a colleague. Walk or drive somewhere and deliver a message in person rather than via email. Read from a biography of an admirable person who has lived the ups and downs of success. Say hello to the nearest person and smile.
Don’t head back to your computer until you’re adequately grounded in the fact that the Internet, though undeniably valuable, transmits only partial truths about people. The more you evaluate yourself according to the fantastical standards online, the more alienated and empty you will feel. But if you base your assessments on the experiences you have out in the world, engaging yourself not just visually but with all of your senses, you will increasingly feel as multi-faceted – including the good, bad, and the ugly — as life is for all of us away from the screen.