Mark Zuckerberg did not have me in mind when he invented Facebook. When he devised a platform for people to present their best selves, their most social and most attractive selves, he did not have depression in mind.
On Facebook, I am not allowed to be depressed. I am not allowed to be sad, or fat or alone, so I will upload a picture I took at a party last weekend. Maybe if I put a filter on it I won’t hate myself as much. Maybe I won’t feel so empty if it gets 100 likes. Maybe I’ll experience true happiness if a cute boy accepts my friend request. Maybe, just maybe, I won’t be scared if I can convince people that I’m ok.
The information age is known for pushing social boundaries in the name of innovation. But what about when the boundaries pushed are those of our mental stability? What about when they begin to break us down? In the world of Facebook, in which all of our private becomes public, where all of our ugly is filtered and all of our thoughts and feelings become statuses crafted for ‘likes,’ safe spaces are few and far between. In this realm, comfort and mental health are the price of popularity and accessibility.
Dealing with depression means waking up every day and hating myself. It means constantly sleeping through alarms for fear of having to go through the day and be myself. It means feeling angry and tired. It means somehow feeling both sensitive and senseless at the same time and feeling hurt and sad and embarrassed when things don’t go my way. Constantly feeling worthless. Constantly feeling hopeless. Forcing a smile and a friendly comment to stop me from sobbing right in front of you when I walk past you in the Retreat or in the Deece or at a party or in class. It makes leaving my room a challenge. It makes leaving my bed a challenge. And when the next available counseling meeting is a month away, I need something to hold me over, something to make me feel like a human being, even if only temporarily. Facebook will do, it has to.
But then, Facebook becomes a responsibility. It is a stressor. It is an errand. This is a mode of creating an identity. Crafting a Facebook persona surpasses other tasks like homework, studying, face-to-face social encounters, calling my parents, leaving my room, leaving my bed, shutting the computer and going to sleep. Suddenly, I am what I post. Devoting hours of each day to scrolling through photos of myself and of others, trying to find some sense of myself, of my surroundings, of something; scrolling until I am numb.
And when I’m already in a place of feeling low and powerless, how am I supposed to feel on Sunday morning, looking through pictures of all of the events that I wasn’t invited to? Facebook, especially on a college campus, promotes a culture of proving something to the people around you, demonstrating just how popular you really are. Seeing countless pictures of parties and groups of friends that seem happy and socially comfortable can make the environment distinctly worse—I feel less happy, less socially comfortable, less welcome in my surrounding social space. Less OK. Less sane. Less present.
The site was designed as a means for friends to connect, to share interests and photos and whatever personal information they wish to disclose. It was not, however, designed as a form of medication, not designed to fill voids with pretty pictures of my pretty friends. But that’s how I use it. And as a result, I’m forced to deal with the side effects. Feelings of jealousy, anger, resentment begin to take over. But, like alcohol or weed or junk food or any other tools of self-medication, clicking ‘X,’ logging off, shutting down the computer are all easier said than done.
When I reached a low point early on in the Fall Semester, I deleted my Facebook as a way to give myself a break, at least for a day or two. Over the course of the following 24 hours, I received a series of texts from good friends, moderate acquaintances, my family—all asking if I was OK, what was going on. Admittedly, I was going through a difficult time, a period of sadness and anxiety. But that a small act of desperation was able to elicit such a huge response from my surrounding community didn’t make me feel heard. If anything, it made me feel more silenced, less of myself and more of my depression.
So what am I supposed to do—find a way to endure the social hell of social media, find a way not to break under the pressures, or give up? Give in to depression, let it take over something that seems so normal and so easy for the people around me? Everyone I know seems to have one. Everyone I know seems OK with it. Should I really be forced out of the information age, out of the digital age, out of contemporary social culture?
To everyone else, or so it seems: It’s just a website. It’s just a website. It’s just a website. It’s a tool, useful for promoting and sharing events, posting successful works of art and songs and poems and funny jokes. Why can’t I have that? Should I not be allowed in this proverbial web? Why can’t I handle the heat of it? It’s just a website, after all. But every time I log on, every time I waste a day staring hungrily at my screen, all blue and white, inside I’m screaming: “You win! I lose!”
There is, however, some comfort in knowing I’m not totally alone in feeling this way. In an article published in the New Yorker in 2013 called ‘How Facebook Makes Us Unhappy,’ writer Maria Konnokova cites a study done by University of Michigan psychologist Ethan Kross, in which he sought out to prove that Facebook was causing emotional distress. Over the course of two weeks, he asked his subjects how they were feeling, and, as Konnokova outlines,“Kross found that the more people used Facebook in the time between the two texts, the less happy they felt—and the more their overall satisfaction declined from the beginning of the study until its end. The data, he argues, shows that Facebook was making them unhappy.”
While it’s nice to know I’m not the only one experiencing this (as comforting as it ever feels to know that you’re a part of a statistic), I still log on every day. Multiple times a day, for hours on end. And so do most people around me. As I’m sitting alone in my room, I can’t help but notice all of the little green circles signaling that all of my Friends are online too, coexisting in this pixelated purgatory. Why? Why keep logging on? In an article called ‘Why You Feel Terrible After Spending Too Much Time on Facebook,’ published in the Huffington Post in July 2014, Rebecca Hiscott proposes an answer: “Because people continue to make what’s called an “affective forecasting error,”… Participants assumed they would feel better after spending 20 minutes on Facebook, even though the opposite ended up being true. We do it all the time.”
I pose a lot of rhetorical questions throughout because I don’t have any answers. I cannot send Mark Zuckerberg a message, asking him how he intended me to reconcile my personal experience with mental health with his website. But I do know this much: I will post this article on Facebook. I will own my words and share them with my network, with all 1798 people who I am supposedly friends with. I will stand by my words, I will reclaim this website as a space in which I am safe and comfortable and open. This is my Facebook, and after all: it is just a website. It is just a website. It is just a website.