As the year ends, I am seeing more lists on Facebook—from lists of regrets old people have and how to avoid those regrets to things that food banks need but don't ask for. I'm not going to make a list here. Instead, I want to talk about how social media like Facebook is problem for impressionable minds and how to be part of the solution.
A fundamental human tendency is to compare ourselves with others. It starts when we are born. First world parents are given statistics like the percentile their new infant occupies in weight and height and their baby's Apgar score. I realize these statistics are important to help monitor healthy growth and identify potential health trends that bear watching.
But soon, moms and dads are also comparing notes with other parents on their baby's first tooth, rolling over, sitting up, first step, first word, and so on. There are beautifully designed fill-in-the-blank books for parents to memorialize these milestones. The comparisons become internalized by the children themselves as they grow and are perpetuated by the report cards and parent-teacher conferences beginning in pre-school and extending through high school.
We can't help ourselves in making these comparisons of ourselves with other people. It's in our culture and our mass media. Television shows and commercials send subtle as well as overt messages to developing brains about who we should be, or be like, and what we have to own and do in order to achieve those statuses. Many youth grow up internalizing feelings and self-images of inadequacy, and many parents internalize guilt when their children don't have the opportunity or the desire to achieve these externally, commercially driven models of ideal childhood and youth.
Perspective and countering positive, affirming messages have great difficulty wending their way through the commercial messages geared towards selling products. Young people already feeling challenged to mature in a complex world are particularly vulnerable to external messages of social standards that have nothing to do with who they are or where they’re at. They don’t yet possess the judgment to know the difference between what’s real and possible and what’s fantasy and advertising.
In the last few weeks, as we have entered the holiday season that began with Halloween, then Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, and soon, Christmas, and New Year's, I am especially aware of these social messages that besiege us. I am aware of acts of terrible disappointment and despair that have resulted in violence against others—domestic, vehicular, and gun abuse—and violence against self, including attempted and successful suicide. The violence begins with the individual, but affects untold numbers of people far beyond the immediate families. The effects last for years and in some cases, become internalized and generational despair that has power to harm and destroy families and communities.
From my perspective, I see how social media like Facebook plays into shaping our thoughts about ourselves. In social media it's very easy to compare one's self and life to another person's life and feel disappointment and crushing despair that it won't or can't get better. I felt that way a number of times as a teenager, and I would weep because I could not see how my life could be as beautiful as what I encountered in the wider world that was light years away from my daily existence as a poor teenager from an immigrant family.
Facebook is seductive. I posted a status just a couple of days ago about planning some 2014 vacation time with good friends, because I was feeling happy and wanted to share my happiness. But, since that post, I have felt like maybe I was also being boastful, because my husband and I can afford such vacations. And I have worried about contributing to the despair of those young people who don't feel like such aspirations are possible for them. It's not just what we say, it's also how we say it.
It's important for us users of social media to be consciously responsible in what we say to the world, because we are, indeed, talking to the world—our part of the world, multiplied by the nature of the sharing that happens in social media. It's important to express ourselves in ways that point to the light and not to the darkness, that express gratitude and hope, and not anger and despair. I think it's especially incumbent on those of us who are leaders and elders by virtue of our positions, age, and experience to walk in the light continuously, as exemplars of our love and hope for our children and youth.
Acknowledge, encourage, affirm, and express gratitude. You will never go wrong doing those things on social media. What you think about someone else can matter to them, especially if you choose to share a positive thought that uplifts. You just might make someone's day and give someone something to hang onto in the midst of a tough time. You will be glad you did.