Technology, Culture, & Emotional Intelligence

Are You Secure Enough for Social Media?

Grounded and genuine beats pretty and popular — especially if our goal is positive mental health.

A shot I took during my previous “A shot a day” challenge. It actually got used by websites, blogs, and companies which was nice (and freaked my friends when seeing my face out of nowhere).
Photo by Antoine Beauvillain / Unsplash

Several years ago at the age of 19, an Instagram star named Essena O’Neil decided to shut down her social media life. This was a big deal because at the time, she had amassed 500k followers online and was raking in around $100,000 a year by promoting brands on her channels. Before leaving social media, she made a video sharing with her followers that trying so hard to present a version of herself that she thought people would accept made her miserable.

It’s a common story. People who receive fame on social platforms without first grounding themselves in their own identity often find that rather than leveraging the fame they receive, their brand becomes bigger than they are. Did you know the #1 job Generation Z says in surveys that they want to have is a social media influencer? Don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing inherently wrong with social media — or being ‘Insta-famous.’ It’s just that we have to be careful: notoriety online – absent a grounded identity in the “real world” – can lead to disaster.

Last week we discussed how the powerful social and emotional forces each of us are exposed to on social media can affect us. When we have the emotional grounding of a child, social media acts as a babysitter: presenting as a stand-in authority, watching over our actions, and telling us what to do next. “Childish” users who aren’t reflecting on who they are, are likely to just respond to whatever they find already online when they get there.

But there’s a better way. I’d argue what these young talented and miserable people are missing is something called “emotional security.”

How Emotionally Secure People Handle Social Media

When someone is insecure they feel vulnerable or inferior in some way. When someone is emotionally secure it means they are stable emotionally — even in the face of challenging or conflicting situations. We can only respond in a stable way if we are “grounded.” The term 'grounded' is perfectly suited here because it hints at our association with a separate and more powerful force. I love the way David Brooks says it in his book “The Road to Character:”

”People can only understand themselves, by looking at forces that transcend themselves.”

I like to use networking language to explain what I see happening with identities online. Take a look at the image below. In each of these three kinds of networks, the computers are all connected together differently.

An integrated network is one in which all points return to the same central source. In networking, this makes the network vulnerable, but when it comes to identity, this is healthy.

A decentralized network means that all ports eventually make their way back to the same hub, though there are some substations of connection on the periphery.

A disintegrated network is one in which there is no central connection. In terms of identity, this type of alignment has no clear definition. Things are fuzzy and disjointed. I’d say this looks a lot like the identity of (especially young) people on social media.

In his book “Born Digital,” John Palfrey speaks to this phenomenon:

”In focus groups and interviews, several young people revealed that they had multiple self-representations. Where they disagreed was on what these multiple self-representations meant for identity: some saw themselves as having one or more "identities" in the converged online and offline worlds, whereas others perceived themselves as having only one identity that was expressed in both contexts.”

So how does one become more “integrated?” I believe it starts with the formation of identity. I won’t get too detailed on definitions of identity here. Instead, I want to talk about the signs of an “integrated identity” on social media. According to research on healthy emotional responses to negative social stimuli, there are two primary actions that healthy people take online. As I detail these two positive responses, evaluate yourself and those you lead. How would you characterize your interactions online in light of these two ideas?

The first idea is called “Cognitive Reprisal.” According to several studies, cognitive reprisal “involves reframing an emotional stimulus to change its emotional impact.” Cognitive reprisal works because so many of us assign meaning to the words and actions of others based on our own goals and expectations. Emotionally healthy people are able to recognize that the actions and words of others are about that person, not about themselves. They then ground whatever emotion they have — remembering who they are.

The second idea is simply called “Acceptance.” This idea is far more simplistic than the first. Acceptance is defined as “engaging with and non-judgmentally accepting one’s negative experiences.” Sports psychologist Jessica Garza has a brilliantly simple three-step framework for building the skill of acceptance. Step one is “OK;” Step two is “so what;” and step three is “now what."

By saying "OK," you halt any additional judgment to the person or to the situation. You then allow yourself space to accept your physiological responses and your perception to what's happening. And once you've distanced yourself from your thoughts and your emotional state, then you can say, "so what" because this helps acknowledge what happened purely as an event. And as you transition into "now what" that means that you've gathered enough information to be able to respond to the event.

Researchers who study these ideas have acknowledged that “At first glance, these two strategies may seem opposite in nature, with reappraisal explicitly focused on changing one’s emotional states, and acceptance focused on not changing one’s emotional states.” What’s amazing is that despite the apparent paradox, these two strategies “both exert positive effects on psychological health.”

Four years after her abrupt departure, Essena came back to the world of social media. In watching interviews with her, it became clear to me that although she had recreated some of her old accounts, something had changed significantly: she now knew who she was. Since returning to the digital world, Essena has stopped posting contrived photos of fake beauty and is instead posting passionately about issues personal to her. While this strategy has not been as effective for gaining followers, I have to say, she seems a lot happier with the person she is online. Grounded and genuine beats pretty and popular — especially if our goal is positive mental health.

I believe Essena’s story can be our story too. We just have to remember that grounded responses to the abrasive world of social media can only come when we first have a good idea of who we are.


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Jamie Larson