DIGITALIZING EMOTIONS I (by Dries & Brooks)
Robert is a 69-year old retiree. He recently opened his Facebook page to check on the latest pictures of his grandchildren. A message appeared that stunned him. “Facebook informed me that one of my friends had a birthday and I should contact him and wish him the best. The problem was that this guy was indeed a very special long-standing friend and business colleague, but he had died eight month ago! I saw that message and for a split second I thought, ‘Jim is alive?’ Once reality hit I was really irritated because this electronic monster had awakened some really unpleasant emotions I had managed to tuck away in my mind.”
Is there any doubt that the ubiquity of social media has changed a lot of things, including challenges to how we cope with daily life? Psychologically, is that good for us?
Recently, Dries provided mental health support for a community experiencing the sudden loss of a local student. During a small group session with several of the deceased student’s teammates, one young woman asked her for direct advice on how to handle an “awkward” decision.
As a fundraiser, the woman’s community created apparel for purchase, with all proceeds going to the victim’s immediate family. The shirt had a large picture of the student, and the young woman said she would be uncomfortable wearing the shirt. She would gladly donate to the cause but felt a more “subtle” item should be sold to help the cause.
She went on to say that she was also feeling discomfort because her classmates were posting to Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, etc., pictures of the deceased and messages of sorrow for their loss. Her next comment, though, was something we had not heard or considered before: “If you don’t post a picture of you with [the deceased]……like…… are you even really sad?”
This fascinating question raises many other questions about social media. Topics like bullying and sexual predators are already in the public discussion about social media. We wonder, however, if there is an even more pernicious threat posed by this platform, a threat that goes to the very fabric of our psychological essence.
Consider the following questions: Is posting on social media the new definition of sincerity? If we don’t post a picture and song of appreciation to our spouse on our anniversary, do we really love him or her? If we don’t have a litany of adjectives describing our child to caption the birthday photo, do we really care?
Are people judging us for our social-media posts to the point where we may be “guilted” into adding something just to be accepted? Are we now judged by how we promote our emotions to the point that keeping our feelings private is not an option? Are we being forced into displaying our emotions for all to see?
Dries told the young woman that there is no right or wrong way to express herself as long as she does so in a truthful, honest manner. If she finds it insincere to purchase the commemorative shirt or post a picture of her with the deceased, then she should choose some other action. If others comment on her lack of public sharing, that is more a statement of their needs than hers.
Dries also noted that we should not judge those who like public postings for being too showy. Yes, some people might be hanging their emotions out there in order to draw attention to themselves; others, however, might be reaching out for more help.
The problem remains that Robert and others get upset by the almost unavoidable presence of social media in their lives. How about you? You open the platform and come face-to-digital-face with people sharing their experiences. What are your reactions? Are you irritated at the intrusion? Do you feel calm? Do you scroll away immediately?
What might your reactions suggest? For example, if irritated, perhaps you should consider temporarily hiding that person’s page. If you scrolled, you might be denying or avoiding an emotional response. Give yourself the opportunity to try something more meaningful and personal so you don’t have to deny your feelings. The choice, as always, is yours.
From a psychological perspective, emotional expression as a form of coping with daily life is highly individual. Social media posting may help some folks move through their emotions. Perhaps they choose that forum as the outlet because they get “comments” and “likes” that validate how they feel. Others, however, like Robert, might want to keep their thoughts to themselves. Robert says, “If I want to visit the gravesite of my friend, is Facebook telling me that my grief is not sincere unless I invite the neighborhood along?”
But here’s the real problem as we see it. Is Facebook taking the first step on a very slippery slope that will eventually replace the suggestion to Robert, “Send a birthday message to your friend,” with a declaration that, “Facebook sent your friend a birthday message in your name”?
Should that fateful day ever arrive, social media will have hijacked our personal autonomy and psychological freedom. The only two things we can bring under personal control are our thoughts and our actions. Should social media think and act for us, will we passively allow ourselves to be stripped of our essence as humans? Will we lose the ability to change how we think and act?
Social media can be a real asset for us. We must, however, remember to keep it under our control and not let it control us. Stay vigilant, stay true to your feelings and express them in ways you choose, and, above all, stay human.