HT Brunch Mental Health Cover Story: Are we sharing our lives, or are we living lives that can be shared, questions millennial mental health advocate Nikhil Taneja
As a millennial, I am part of the last generation who grew up in a world without the internet or social media. Social media’s formative years were mine too. I remember the thrill of connecting with strangers on Yahoo Chat and ICQ, and the highs of making connections among acquaintances on MSN Messenger and Orkut. When Facebook was founded, I was finding myself and yet losing myself among the many ‘walls’ that people put up, or rather, pulled down on the platform.
Before the internet, my world was lonely and full of limitations. I learnt at home and at school, in no uncertain terms, that the world always operates within parameters and restrictions and boxes and labels of caste, class, community, creed, gender, sexuality and religion. But social media showed that not only does the world work in many ways, but there are also many worlds beyond ours, and many communities you can belong to. Social media was full of possibilities, and helped me feel a little less alone.
It was easier for me to be a citizen of the infinite internet than a captive of the inadequate real world. Before I knew it, I was spending more time online counting new friends, than offline in the company of old ones. Twitter and Instagram then introduced me to the concept of followers and suddenly I didn’t even need friends anymore. I wanted people who’d share my sentiments and retweet my reflections, who’d cheer in the comments when I showed off my accomplishments and loved to like every time I posted my pictures.
Before I knew it, I felt like I was being social offline only so I could share it on social media online; I was trying to live an offline life that could live up to the one my followers wanted online. I started having anxiety about posts not getting enough likes, about not having enough achievements to post, about not having a life every single day that I could share pictures of, about not doing enough, not being enough, not having enough. My mental health was all over the place because the more I was liked, the more I wanted to be loved. The more I was retweeted, the more I wanted to be respected. And I realised soon, that the more followers I wanted, the more friends I needed.
It took me months of taking time off from the internet, of not just a digital detox but a life detox, to understand what social media was doing to me and has been doing to all of us. We are not sharing lives with people we love, but living lives that can be shared with people we don’t even know. We are saying things not because we have something to say, but because something needs to be said. We are adding to the noise, never to the conversation. We are constantly creating content, and yet we are anything but content.
We are the last generation who grew up in a world without the internet, but the first generation that’s growing old on it. As part of that generation, it is our responsibility to ourselves and to the generations that follow to find a balance between our online and offline worlds, so we also grow with the internet. Social media is our most precious commodity to build mental health positive communities, but it can also turn us into commodities and strip us away from community. Social media has undoubtedly changed our world for the better. All we need to ensure now is that it doesn’t change us for the worse.
Nikhil Taneja is the co-founder and CEO of a youth media company, Yuvaa and on the Goalkeepers Global Advisory Board with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
From HT Brunch, October 10, 2021
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