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Social Media -- Your main course or dessert?

Social media is a good thing. It's like a nice dessert that's meant to be enjoyed at the end of a nourishing meal. But it's not meant to be the main course.

Unfortunately, our "digital" social media desserts are often replacing life's main course of "non-digital" human interaction. Solid research is now showing that the result is malnourished children and adults.

Author Alice G. Walton on a Forbes blog overviews six studies that show how social media is negatively effecting mental health.

Social media isn’t innately bad, but it is when it exceeds healthy limits.

The likelihood for such misuse or abuse is enormous and growing. We need to take it seriously. After all, we are talking about our mental health, both short-term and long-term.

We sometimes think of "social media" as whatever is happening on the screen of our mobile phone or computer. But that's far too fuzzy. So what really is social media and what isn't it?

Social Media is

— A casual digital way of presenting yourself to others.

Social media isn't a reliable source for exchanging information. Because it is digital, you really can't be totally sure of what you hear or see.

Images are taken, retaken and retouched to capture someone or something's best angle. Social media pros easily erase less-appealing attributes using techniques that grab and/or manipulate your emotions.

The intent is to craft a much more artistic, appealing version of a perceived truth rather than to simply present the truth itself. The onscreen version often reflects marketing of things or ideas for your consumption.

Don’t get me wrong. As a licensed professional counselor, I watch people create and sustain facades in person as well as online. We “clean up” our non-digital image just like some clean up digital images.

But there is no denying that online facades can be more controlled and calculated, making it hard to believe what you hear or see.

— A forum to share in unfiltered form your ideas, experiences, opinions and perspectives.

Social media expands awareness of people, ideas or cultures. We get to glimpse into the complex beauty and diversity in humanity and the world. It's hard to articulate just how much potential value this offers! Where else can a person share real-time events and dialogues with millions of others from various perspectives?

It's like randomly reaching in your pocket or purse, pulling out thoughts on some idea, person or event, and sharing it with thousands of people from all walks of life, experiences and ethnicities. Even crazier is that they can give you feedback on the stuff from your “pocket” or “purse.”

Moreover, they can block you and you can block them. Wouldn’t that be nice in real life? Yes and no. We tend to surround ourselves with those who look, think and dress like us. This helps us feel hope for acceptance and inclusion.

Social media can become like a bubbled environment, walling us off from interacting with other kinds of people and experiences we need to become complete people.

Social Media isn’t

— A replacement for human - “non-digital” - interaction.

In the therapy room, I may spend an entire hour dissecting and processing a single event that a couple took only minutes to create that week. For the partners to feel understood and connected, they must share one another's perceptions, emotions and experiences.

Even after the session, they should listen to and validate each other, noting facial cues. Social media can’t facilitate such listening, validating and understanding.

Also, a social media user typically addresses a mixed audience including those who once knew the user, those who know the user now, and those who don’t and won't ever know the user.

How can anyone achieve intimacy in such interaction? I can't, and you can't either. Social media isn't made for sharing intimately. It can not replace non-digital, human interaction. You and I need to consciously prioritize engaging in the kind of non-digital human relationships so important for personal growth, development and happiness.

— A sure way to measure the entirety of another person’s character or intentions.

You’ve heard the saying, “It’s much easier to establish your reputation than it is to change it.” You may have also heard the saying, “The only thing certain in life is change.” The problem is that social media often freezes your reputation, making it hard to positively change or grow.

When you come across negative images or comments about or from someone, be careful. We can assume it came from a genuine place in the moment it was posted, but there is always more to the story of that person’s life. We'd do well to remember that.

I’m a firm believer that everything makes sense in its context. Someone’s decisions at a given moment don’t always reflect all there is to see about him or her, nor do they predict where that person will be just moments later.

That isn’t to say that unhealthy patterns of posts should be dismissed in the name of "not passing judgment." There is wisdom, however, in staying curious about that person. There is always much more behind the scenes of someone than his or her few simple posts.

When on social media, try to hold space for compassion and kindness toward others amid possible rants or raves. My guess is that we would appreciate the same grace.

Hopefully these thoughts will help you maximize your potential to better enjoy healthy online behaviors. It may well lead to better mental health, well-being and satisfaction in real life. Remember, dessert is good as long as you enjoy a healthy main course too.

Russ is a licensed professional counselor and co-owner of Watershed Counseling Associates,

PLLC in Jackson, where he practices. Russ is a natural-born helper and deep feeler, which

makes counseling a perfect fit for him. He is also a deep thinker with a limited vocabulary,

which makes writing a sanctifying process. He and his wife are licensed foster parents and they also have three biological daughters.

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