How I tamed the social costs of social media

By Andrea Heagren
Contributing writer

I have always been a people person.

So when Facebook came along to usher in an end to a simpler, friendlier time, it seemed like a fun way to interact with those around me. I could easily share a photo or express my opinion, see everything others were doing, and give my approval with a blue thumb’s up.

Then I got sucked into Instagram, where posting pictures of my perfect kids and following people I admired became almost second nature.

But over time, I noticed that while social media gave me the opportunity to connect with anyone who held the same opinions I did, it was even easier to ignore and avoid the ones I didn’t care for. It was a blissful state, but it came with a cost:

I found myself forgetting how to be around those who didn’t agree with me.

I was slowly creating an online bubble in how I saw the world, and how I decided the world should see me. When I encountered someone in the flesh who had different values than I did, my bubble popped and I was left on the defensive. I had forgotten how to react.

With family members, it was even harder. Because isn’t family supposed to agree with you—or at least support you—no matter what? Why did I have to feel on edge at holiday dinners and family get-togethers?

As time went on, I found myself arguing more—about vaccines, about which movies were bad influences on children. And of course, there was no way I couldn’t bring up politics around half the people I knew. 

Now that the country is headed toward an impeachment fight (which will undoubtedly be ugly no matter which side of the aisle your seats are on), I expect the online world to get nastier.

I thought: Does it really have to be this way?

I found myself withdrawing from the people with whom I disagreed, taking comfort in those who share my opinions and assure me that no, I’m not wrong, and yes, it’s the rest of the world that’s gone mad.

Time to make some changes

So one night, after a pointless yet heated argument with my sister about whether The Little Mermaid gave our daughters the wrong message, I finally decided that something had to change. So I wrote a short list of reminders of healthy ways to react to online conflict:

  • It’s easy to create my own echo chamber, but hard to come out of it. I still have to constantly remind myself that I can’t expect to find someone who thinks exactly like me at work, in my neighborhood, or even inside my own family. So now, when I come across an opposing opinion, I do my best to not be offended; I just smile and nod and move on. I’m not going to lie: it’s not always easy.

  • Everybody doesn’t want or need to hear my opinion. I remind myself that I don’t have to prove to them why they are wrong, and sometimes, it will do me good to just listen without providing an unsolicited counterpoint. 

  • When an argument does erupt, I focus not on winning the argument, but on finding equal ground. Very few people’s opinions have ever been changed when being argued with (in fact, most people tend to dig their heels in even when confronted with incontrovertible facts), but arguments have damaged too many relationships in my life. The cost of being right isn’t always worth it.

  • If advice is not requested, don’t give it. I get enough as it is—how to raise my kids, where we should live, what type of work I should or shouldn’t do—but half of it goes against my own non-negotiable values for my family. I didn’t ask for anyone’s input. But conversely, if I don’t want their advice, they probably don’t want mine, either. So I keep it to myself.

  • Even if someone does come to me with a problem, they probably don’t want to hear about how I know exactly what they need to do. Because social media conditions us to talk about ourselves, the natural response is to respond with my own perspective and advice. But if a friend just wants to be heard, my role is just to listen. 

  • Ask involving and specific questions. It’s easy to just comment about the status or photos that someone may have posted yesterday and tell them how cute their kids looked. But I found asking someone about a specific aspect of their life (“How did your mother’s surgery go?” “How’s the new job working out?”) often opened up conversations. Real conversations. Thoughtful conversations. Conversations over a phone call or a much overdue lunch date (remember those? They’re nice).

  • And finally, I taught myself to use social media as a tool, not as a way of life. Social media will always be a fun way to see what is going on and follow those I admire. But I remind myself it is not my life; my life is in the day-to-day relationships I have.

Following all these steps is not always easy. And will they repair all my damaged relationships? Only time will tell. There is still tension every once in a while (and with the coming storm in Washington, not to mention an election next year, you know it won’t be simmering down any time soon), but things are definitely getting better. 

Because the more I work on them, the easier I find it to smile and say hi to the neighbors with the wrong campaign sign in their yard, and respect family members who, though sometimes hard to understand, are still family, and always will be.

As I followed these steps I laid out for myself, I found that I started to like people again, even when I couldn’t stomach their opinions. 

I could face those who posted the wrong political memes (so, so wrong) with a smile. I didn’t have to take their political stance as a personal insult or let it affect my blood pressure. I could enjoy their company again.

And online, I could enjoy Facebook and Instagram again. I’m still posting pictures of my still perfect kids. I’m again passing out likes, laughing faces, and heart icons. And when I encounter a strong opinion that runs counter to my own, I let it pass, I respect the person who shared it, and interact with them anyway.

I’m letting social media be social again.

Andrea Heagren is a freelance writer from South Jordan, Utah. Follow her on Facebook @andreaheagrean and Instagram @andreaheagren_writer to see more of her articles on personal growth and development.

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