Psychologist to Gen X: Get Off of Your Phone and Into Your Life
Kate Silver | March 3, 2020
A couple of years ago, in my early 40s, I was dealing with some health challenges and feeling lost. After countless online searches—as you do—I found a Facebook group filled with people in the same boat. I connected with one woman, in particular, who had a nearly identical experience to my own. Over email, she became a sounding board, a support system and a friend whom I still cherish, today. We live in different states, and I never would have found her without that online platform.
Social media doesn’t always lead to such positive experiences, of course. Take the case of Blue (her name has been changed). She unfriended her own brother on Facebook, because of his extreme political postings, many of which shared misinformation. “It hurt our relationship,” she says. “I felt like to try and have a better relationship in real life, it was best not to have an online one.” Now, they talk on the phone and text regularly to keep in touch. She says she tries to find middle ground when they speak, as a way of connecting despite their differences.
While many of us Gen Xers signed up for digital platforms in hopes of connecting with friends, family and former crushes, we’ve learned the hard way that these same sites also have the potential to distract and even isolate us. Psychologist Pauline Wallin, PhD, says she regularly talks with Gen X patients who are using social media in a way that isn’t exactly helping their mental health—and often, they don’t even realize it’s leaving them empty. “Scrolling through social media is easier than making time for a fun or meaningful conversation in the physical world, but it’s much less satisfying,” says Wallin, who is author of the book Taming Your Inner Brat: A Guide for Transforming Self-Defeating Behavior. “With social media, you may feel connected to others for the moment, but it often does not last, especially when your online interactions are with people you don’t know on a personal level.”
To have a positive experience with social media, users should be intentional about their time spent online, and not allow those interactions to replace real-life encounters. Wallin shared the following advice on how to approach social media in a way that could benefit your mental health.
1. Analyze how social media makes you feel.
Next time you’re on your device, Wallin suggests asking yourself these questions: Does it relax you, or is it just a distraction? Would you feel more fulfilled if you went for a walk or phoned a friend? Are you even aware of what you’re doing? “The warning sign is when you’re finding that you’re doing it as a default,” she says. “Kind of like people would light a cigarette and they have a smoke while they decide what they’re going to do next.” When you assess how social media consumption makes you feel, you can decide if your time might be better spent doing something else.
2. Use social media as a gateway to real-life interactions.
Liking, sharing and retweeting is a good way to participate in someone’s digital life. But to find meaning and purpose, go beyond the screen. Schedule coffee or lunch with a friend who posted exciting news. Sign up for an event that’s published on your local community center’s page. Attend a meetup. “Social media can be intellectually stimulating and it can help you feel connected to the world in some ways. But if you want a sense of purpose and true connection with people, that has to be done in the real world,” says Wallin.
3. Think before you post.
Your future employer/future partner/future grandchild could one day read your social media musings. To stop yourself from oversharing, Wallin suggests a cooling off period before posting. “Before you share, wait two hours,” she says.
While social media can help you keep tabs on friends and your community, Wallin emphasizes that it shouldn’t dominate your social life, no matter how busy you are. “Social media should not be the prime vehicle for feeling connection,” says Wallin. That’s something you need to make happen IRL (in real life).
Kate Silver is a Gen X writer living in Chicago. Her work regularly appears in Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and on her own website, www.thekatesilver.com.