Whenever I make a long or an extremely angry, fierce or visceral post about political developments, controversial issues or my own life experiences, there is someone who wants to comment but decides not to. I have seen the anxiety-inducing “a friend is typing” note hovering around for five minutes many times, but that comment never pops up.
Had the comment been published by the friend, it could have enlightened me, given me a new perspective or simply given me an assurance that someone cares about the same issues as I. I hate this feeling of being so close to connecting with someone on ideas and opinions and losing them without ever knowing who they were.
What could be the possible reason for this? Are they afraid of being publicly shunned? Or do they evaluate the utility of the engagement? What exactly goes on in their mind that they inhibit an urge as precious as sharing ideas and opinions? Or, why would they be engaging in the activity for five minutes before aborting it?
It is very likely that this friend suffers from a version of social anxiety — only that this anxiety manifests itself through social media engagement behaviour. Extreme fear of being judged for one's social media activities prevents them from either sharing their opinion actively or engaging with their online friends.
A few years ago, Facebook did a research on engagement. Research director David Ginsberg found that “watching people's lives from the sidelines makes one feel worse”. On the contrary, people who tend to positively engage with Facebook content, use “love reacts” often and leave generous comments on their friend’s vacation, wedding or any other milestone picture do not suffer from depressed mood due to social media use.
Passive scrolling requires very little of our cognitive resources. After a hard day at work, we often scroll through our newsfeed to relax, escape or for sheer distraction.
However, our brain is conditioned to engage with every piece of content we consume, however tired we might be. Even though you may not be actively putting out what you really think about someone’s opinions, experiences or photos, unconsciously you are still making social comparisons. This explains the deflated self-esteem or negative effect that one experiences post-passive scrolling.
Social psychologist Leon Festinger proposed the theory of Social Comparison in 1954. According to the theory, there is a drive within individuals to gain accurate self-evaluations to maintain a healthy sense of self-esteem. In the absence of any objective measure, they do so by comparing their lives with their peers, people they started off with. Facebook has become the arena of silent social comparisons. Since, people usually “show off” moments of glory on social media, the impact on silent scrollers is even worse. Their self-esteem and mental well-being depend on how they compare with their peers on a given day.
The beast that social media is, it is hardly possible for us to completely stay away. If you are on it, let it add value and positivity to your life. More so now. With minimal physical interaction being the new normal due to the pandemic, it's time we developed a personal rule book to discover genuine connections without worrying too much about how we are perceived based on our online activities.
Here are some ways in which you can stop being a passive scroller:
Stop using social media to compare your life with others.
Don’t be afraid of being judged. Try to be your truest version on social media. That way, you connect with the right kind of people.
Engage with people respectfully; don’t negate people’s experiences but don’t hesitate in putting forth yours.
Unfollow pages that condition you to passively scroll and which do not add to your emotional and social well-being.
Leave a positive comment on a friend’s vacation photos.
Don’t use social media to merely complain, but also to foster positive discussions around issues that you care about.
Don’t use social media as an evaluation meter to gauge your place in the world but as an extension of your offline personality and reality.
(The writer is a mental health and behavioral sciences columnist, conducts art therapy workshops and provides personality development sessions for young adults.)