“Friends” & “Followers”: Balance in the Exposure 

Were we humans created to be exposed to so much? For centuries, we could only really stay in constant communication with approximately 50-150 people, depending on our roles in society. We had our household members, classmates, coworkers, the people in our places of worship, extended family members, and neighbors. If someone moved away, we bid them farewell, realizing that season of our life with them has ended. We might exchange addresses to write, but there was no real expectation of keeping up with the ins and outs of a person’s life who we no longer see on a regular basis. 

We were also limited in the amount of bad news we were exposed to. We were not constantly hearing of people’s tragedies, losses, and life changes. News traveled at a normal pace, and maybe got to you long after the event already occurred, and mostly void of thousands of people’s opinions. 

But in the last 100 years, technology has advanced so much faster than any of the other previous centuries combined. With the rise of social media these last 15 years, our expectations regarding connections have changed. We’re suddenly bombarded by the thoughts, opinions, triumphs, and tragedies of hundreds of thousands of people on a daily basis. 

One afternoon, I was scrolling through Twitter, and noticed the few people I followed retweeting the same things. I clicked on the person’s page and learned that shortly after tweeting a message, the person died in a car accident. I had no idea who this person was, and they were not a celebrity, but I found myself deeply affected and grieving for their family and community. After being so affected for this complete stranger way longer than I imagined, I wondered, was this how were were supposed to be? Being exposed to, and hearing tragedies of people on a regular basis from around the world. Even in Facebook exercise groups, posting deaths along with body transformations have become normal. In the last 2 years, I’ve heard more stories of death, job losses, and sicknesses, than I think I ever would have if it wasn’t for social media. I mean think about how different the last pandemic was without instant and constant information. It’s normal for people to want to share and connect, but were we created with the capacity to empathize with thousands of people on a regular basis?

But the connection isn’t all bad. I believe our ability to connect with strangers from around the world is what’s helping the younger generations be more open, tolerant, and accepting of people not like themselves. Back in the day, limited exposure created a fear of the unknown; a fear of those people over there, who had a completely different way of life from us. Now, kids are playing games with people from other countries, and getting to know each other via video. We’re hearing of the incredible work benefits from other developed countries, and realizing the US is behind in so many ways. For those who seek to know, there’s really no fear of the unknown when it comes to different people groups. 

But I think what we have instead is fear caused by the knowing so much about individuals, which could also contribute to higher rates of anxiety. The pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction, that we are on constant overload. Anyone who has seen Netflix’s The Social Dilemma documentary, or anyone who pays attention to trends in social spaces, has picked up on the fact that social media turned into a machine far more greater, intrusive, and detrimental, than it was ever meant to be. 

I’ve heard some people in older generations say this generation has grown soft. But soft may not be the right word. What if this generation is crying out for change because our human capacity was never created to withstand everything we’ve had to endure and grow up in these past two decades? What if our minds constantly feeling overwhelmed (or on the other end of the spectrum, shutting down and feeling numb), is a way for our body to tell us that our nervous system was not built for all this exposure? In the name of hoarding “friends” and “followers”, we’re no longer given the space to truly & completely let go of relationships when they naturally come to an end. There’s rarely a bidding farewell when we relocate, but instead it’s now a shallow keeping up with everyone’s lives that allows for a facade of connection, when the reality is that holding on to thousands of people on the internet may actually be denying us the ability to truly connect with the few we have in real life. Think about the times you’ve been triggered by something someone posted or shared, and how that impacted the real interactions in front of you for the rest of that day, or week. I know I’ve been impacted in this way, and it sometimes took me a while to figure out the root of what made me mad…. Oh ya, it was that post I saw 3 hours ago, not this person in front of me who’s trying to ask me a genuine question!

But what can we do? We can’t go back to being in our segregated bubbles completely isolated from the rest of the world, and much good has come from social media. But, some people have such a massive fear of missing out, that they never allow their nervous system to take a break from the screens and truly regulate itself. So, what if we’re intentional about breaks? Is our fear that we may like it so much that it could radically change the way we operate in this world? I read somewhere once where someone said they try to take 1 day a week, 1 week a month, and 1 month a year off of social media. It doesn’t have to be that specific, but what if we tried it and found freedom in it. There’ve been times when my 1 month breaks turned into 4 months, and I found myself way more present, observant, and at peace! 

But I hear your questions: 

  • “Then how will I promote my business?” Businesses were being promoted and run successfully long before social media, and if needed, give your account to someone else to promote for you. I know an artist whose business blew up after they got off social media because they offered quality work. If you invest in your work, people will still find you. Word of mouth is still the most effective marketing tool!
  • “What if someone needs to get a hold of me?” Announce you’re taking a break, and people should text you if they want to teach you. If they don’t have your number, they don’t need to be included in your break. 
  • “What if I miss out on an important opportunity?” You might. But at least you’ll be well rested and better prepared mentally for the next one to come your way. And another one will come! 

As a professor once advised me, [paraphrasing] you are going to have to fight for your rest and peace of mind because no one else will do it for you. There will always be opportunities, things, and people pulling at you (intentionally or unintentionally). Set the boundaries, listen to your nervous system, take care of your mind, and people will eventually learn to adapt and treat you the way you treat yourself. (Even if their feelings are hurt at first, or comments come that you’ve changed.) You taking care of yourself and mental health will give others permission to do the same for themselves. And just maybe, we’ll no longer feel the need to hold on to relationships (as “friends” and “followers”) long past their expiration date, and perhaps we’ll be able to find a healthier balance and rhythm in all this exposure. 

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