“When you post a photo, the only real data you get is people’s likes and comments. It’s not necessarily a true indicator of how the world feels about your photo or post,” says Goodman. “Now you’ve put yourself out there — semi-permanently — and you have limited information about how it’s been received, so you have limited information about the judgments people are making about you.”
Anna Lembke, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, says that we construct our identity through how others see us. Much of that identity is now being formed online, and it’s hard to deal with.
“This virtual identity is a composite of all these online interactions that we have. It is a very vulnerable personality because it exists in cyberspace. In a strange way, we have no control over it,” says Lembke. “We are very open.”
Unable to figure out how their identity will rebound in the virtual world, people often experience a fight-or-flight response after they’ve been online for hours — and even after they’ve logged off.
“It’s a kind of adapted hypervigilance. As soon as you send something into the virtual world, you’re sitting on your toes waiting for a response,” Lembke says. “This alone – such an expectation – is a state of hyperarousal. How will people react to it? When will they respond? What will they say?”
It’s one thing if only you saw negative reactions, Lembke says, but they’re often available to everyone. She says it exacerbates feelings of shame and self-loathing that are already “endemic” in today’s world.
We are social creatures, and our brains have evolved to form communities, communicate with each other, and work together. We did not evolve to expose ourselves to the condemnation of the world every day. These things affect everyone differently, but it’s clear that many people regularly feel overwhelmed by this level of exposure.
If we’re not careful, our online lives can become a source of chronic stress that seeps into everything. Everyone needs solitude, but we often don’t provide it for ourselves, and we end up feeling like we’re constantly fighting invisible enemies.
However, there are things you can do for yourself. You can turn off notifications for social media apps, limit the time you spend on them, limit when you allow yourself to use them, and more. Goodman says it sometimes helps to keep your phone in another room so you’re not as easily tempted to pick it up.
Lembke says we need to change the way we think about social media and internet use as a society. She calls it a “collective” problem, not just an individual one.
“We need to develop a kind of cultural etiquette for what constitutes proper and healthy consumption, just as we do for other consumption-related issues,” says Lembke. “We have places for non-smokers. We don’t eat ice cream for breakfast. We have all kinds of laws about who can buy and drink alcohol, who can go into casinos. We need fences for these digital products, especially for minors.”