Existential Angst and Social Media
Public domain image of Jean Paul-Sartre
Using social media can be bad for your health. Existentialist wisdom can help remove the angst from digital life.
Remember life before social media? I do, even though I’m a millennial. It hasn’t always been a feature of life for those of us who have come of age in the 21st century, but social media has now enticed us down the rabbit hole. As a philosopher, I believe the existentialist school of thought offers a powerful viewpoint on all things social media—both the problems it raises and how to solve them.
Existentialist philosophy argues that fundamental features of the real world create a sense of deep anxiety. Fundamental features of social media, the virtual world, may well do the same.
If you’ve ever felt frustrated by an inability to live up to your own expectations or been afraid that your life is meaningless, then you have experienced existential angst. Existentialist analyses of human existence vary in their fine structure, but all agree that core features of human existence are alienation, anxiety, and fear of meaninglessness. Don’t worry—though existentialism is famously gloomy, it does offer some solutions too.
Existentialists argue that there is no greater purpose other than that which we carve out for ourselves. Existentialism, then, is defined by the search for authentic life. The core question is this: How can we, in an apparently meaningless world, manifest our most authentic selves?
Two core features of the human predicament are omnipresent in existentialist philosophy. The first is a sense of alienation/estrangement. This can be understood as a loss of contact with one’s social fabric, distance from the divine, or distance from oneself. The second feature of the human predicament is a failure to fulfill potential, both our individual potential and the potential of our species. As Jean-Paul Sartre puts it, we have an “unhappy consciousness” that reaches out to what we always lack. (Can you start to see the connection to social media?)
Social media can heighten these emotions by providing a platform upon which alienation and estrangement are commonplace. It is now possible, in a way unique to our historical moment, to easily construct a totally unique, artificial persona on the Internet via sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We are able to create new-and-improved virtual versions of ourselves. This can cause a new form of estrangement—we often cannot relate to the idealized virtual being we have created.
Apps like Facetune and Snapchat allow people, most frequently young women, to alter their appearance through filters and photo-editing software. Looking at these edited photos day in and day out can create an unrealistic expectation of what we expect to see in the mirror. The ability to edit ourselves, then, can create a gulf between who we are and who we feel we ought to be.
Another way social media can increase existential angst is its potential to cheapen social interaction by overcrowding us with meaningless chatter.
Social media provides the possibility for endless interaction. The temptation to seek out communion and escape solitude may be driving our social media usage, yet the type of connection provided through these platforms cannot always fulfill the desire that drove the user to log on in the first place. Though we have never been more connected, we risk a new type of loneliness.
Researchers Yvonne Kelly, Afshin Zilanawala, Cara Booker, and Amanda Sacker used population-based data from the UK Millennium Cohort Study on 10,904 14-year-olds to determine whether there is a link between social media usage and mental health problems in young people. Their 2018 analysis found that “greater social media use related to online harassment, poor sleep, low self-esteem, and poor body image; in turn these related to higher depressive symptom scores.”
Existentialists identify features of existence that fundamentally distort our ability to understand and manifest that which gives our lives ultimate meaning. I believe social media can, at times, do the same. As a millennial woman who can remember a world without social media but whose daily life is now shaped by it, I speak from personal experience. Existentialist feelings of alienation, anxiety, and fear of meaninglessness can be sharpened on social media platforms.
Whilst existentialist philosophy highlights problems social media can cause, it also offers some solutions.
From the chaotic online world where truth is treated as tangential, your appearance is malleable, and your social interactions transitory, we can learn much from the wisdom of the existentialists.
Here is the core lesson: If life takes on the meaning we give it, we must choose our meaning wisely.
The best way to navigate this uneven and sometimes treacherous terrain is to choose to live authentically. Search through the web of meanings that enwrap your life, find what motivates you to get up in the morning, and hold it close. That could be anything from taking that extra hour in the evening to lose yourself in a good book, making more time for loved ones, or giving yourself more opportunities to go out into nature.
Though it is easy to allow your time to slip away scrolling through your phone, this is rarely life-enhancing. Take the time for self-care—be mindful about where you spend your energy and how you rest. Make the most of each moment, and don’t allow yourself to get lost down the rabbit hole.
When it comes to social media, follow accounts that enhance your wellbeing, promote body positivity, and encourage you to seek and find meaning. Be yourself, bravely and unapologetically. In a world where authenticity is harder and harder to find, wear yours like a badge of honor.
As Søren Kierkegaard wisely said:
“What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.”
Keep reading: “Philosophy and the Good Life”