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  • Jenny Runkel

Social Media is a Mean Girl

You either knew the mean girl in middle school or you were her. Unfortunate, but true. Everyone, even her closest friends found themselves in her crosshairs. She was always looking for a way to cut others down so that she could feel better about herself. Maybe you were one of the rare individuals who knew your intrinsic worth was not determined by the actions or thoughts of others and you therefore didn’t fall victim to her projected insecurities. If so, congratulations. Seriously. Well done.

But if you weren’t, chances are, you’re thinking of that mean girl’s name right now. She’s easy to see through and even pity in hindsight, but at the time, her words and judgement were a cloak that you couldn’t shake. At least I couldn’t.

In fact, I still can’t.

Even at age 47, I have a mean girl in my life and she’s worse than the one from Bleyl Jr. High whose name I won’t mention here. She’s worse because she whispers cutting and hurtful things to me on a daily basis. She’s worse because she’s crafty and knows just where my weaknesses and pain points reside. She’s worse because she has learned to imitate my voice and sound just like me.

The kicker? I’m the one who invites her to pull up a chair and verbally pummel me each and every time I pick up my phone and open Instagram.

With each swipe, out of habit, boredom, or (let’s be honest here) the need for dopamine, I am hearing a thought. These thoughts are subtle and quick. Pinpricks, really. They register at a level that is almost imperceptible and yet they profoundly affect my mood. Here is a small sampling of this morning’s mean girl whispers as I spent just five minutes “on the gram”.

“I should get this.”

“I should do that.”

“Christmas is coming and I’m nowhere near ready.”

“They’re better at doing that than I am.”

“My x,y,z looks run down compared to that.”

“Their house is cleaner…prettier…cooler…cozier…than mine.”

“They have more friends than I do.”

“Their family seems to have more fun together than mine.”

“I’d love to dress like her, my body isn’t right. Besides, I don’t have enough money.”

“That’s a beautiful scene. I wish I could be there and not here.”

Each swipe up generated one of these thoughts. Frankly, there were even more that I am too embarrassed to post. Hearing them, albeit briefly, was one thing. Seeing them on the page is something altogether different. It’s quite sobering and more than a little sad. I sound like an insecure little girl. A mean girl. The accusation is painful. I would never be friends with someone who talked like this to me. Why on earth would I talk to myself like this?

And yet I do. Each time I’m on social media, I’m saying these kinds of messages to myself. I’m beating myself down, further and further, without even realizing it. This list probably says more about me than it does social media in general, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I’m not alone. There’s a reason why the studies are showing that Instagram is the worst platform for our mental health. It’s not a harmless way to kill a couple of minutes while waiting in a doctor’s office. It’s not an indulgent little gift I give myself in bed before making myself get up. It’s an addiction that is just like any other: an effort to feel better that actually leaves me feeling worse. And yet, ironically, I’ll probably use it in order to get this idea out into the world. It’s woven into our social fabric now. It’s how we live.

I make my living thinking and writing, actively seeking self-awareness with most things I do. If I’m struggling with this beast, what is it doing to our young women and men? What is it doing to all of us?

I’m not here ironically pronouncing on social media that I’m cutting it out of my life. It’s here to stay. But I do think I’m going to try being more aware of a few deeply hidden truths each time I scroll:

1. I’m there because I’m looking for something to make me feel better.

2. I’m probably not going to find what I really need in the vortex of other people’s best moments.

3. Whether I know it or not, I’m hearing subtle messages that others are pushing on me, disguised perniciously in my own voice.

I know for me, these realizations have already taken some of the sheen out of my Insta-sessions. They make me think twice before posting. And they’ve made me take stock of who I follow, paying closer attention to how their posts make me feel and what messages they are sending my way. I found a few gems that I’ll keep. Notables include almost all of my actual friends, family members, former students and @heathermcmahan, @brenebrown, @jvn, and @bobgoff. These people actually make me feel good about who I am. I think it’s because they feel good about who they are.

If it’s true that social media is an echo chamber, then it’s time to become very selective about whose voices are ringing loud and clear. My little mean girl needs to know that she’s ok, just as she is.

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