Everyone Can Learn From How Marginalized Communities Use Social Media
Why I think social media can be good for your mental health if you curate your communities
An increase in the use of social media directly corresponds to a decrease in overall mental health and well-being, according to a number of studies conducted in the past 10 years. This seems to be particularly true for teens. One study from 2013 suggests Facebook may erode subjective well-being, or moment-to-moment happiness and overall life satisfaction. Another from 2017 studied looked at the relationship between social isolation and social media use and found that young adults who spent significant amounts of time on any of 11 well-known social media sites — including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat — had far higher feelings of social isolation than those who visited the sites fewer than nine times per week. A third found a rise in mental health issues that directly corresponded with a sudden spike of social media, but only in young adults and adolescents.
According to these studies, we’d all be healthier if we deleted those social media apps. We’ve seen those people on our timelines—the ones who have the perfect job and the incredible relationships and spend all their time traveling. We’ve all had those moments of wondering why our life doesn’t look like that, of considering what we are doing wrong and how we can change it so our profile looks more like theirs. Why not just remove the apps altogether and avoid that exacerbation of our mental health challenges and any corresponding decrease in our overall life satisfaction?
One argument against this comes from within a set of communities that rarely surface in these studies of the impact of social media on mental health. Queer communities, communities of people with disabilities, and dislocated communities are all groups of folks for whom social media can be a support system when there are no others, whether or not an online friend is also a “real life” friend. These communities use social media to share wins, ask for support, and help folks feel included in networks. There are several lessons we can all learn from them.
The studies say social media is often a net negative
The stereotype about millennials and Gen Z in particular is that we spend all our time on our phones. On social media, we share details of our lives that nobody really needs to know. We connect with everyone online, but very little is the type of connection that leaves us feeling full and fundamentally good.
Forbes pulled together a number of studies in a list of six ways social media adversely affects mental health: It’s addictive, it triggers more sadness, it enables and even encourages unhealthy comparisons, it leads to cycles of jealousy, it tricks us into thinking it will help, and it deceives us into thinking we’re being more social when we may, in fact, be less social.
This is certainly all true. But there are also certain communities that use specific features of social media sites to curate their online experiences in the same way one might curate a physical experience. These communities find ways to foster intimacy over the sterility of the internet and, in my experience, ensure net-positive experiences as much as any person is able to ensure positivity in general.
Far more Black social media users say these sites are useful in finding those with ideological similarities.
One study that directly disagrees with my above point comes from a 2018 Pew Research Center survey called “Activism in the Social Media Age.” This survey seems to indicate that more Americans believe social media distracts from important issues than those who believe it helps give a voice to underrepresented groups. But more specific breakdowns indicate these beliefs are somewhat split: More Democrats than Republicans, for example, engage with issues on social media. Far more Black social media users say these sites are useful in finding those with ideological similarities. Eight out of 10 Black folks say social media magnifies issues that go unnoticed elsewhere, while the same share of White folks believe social media distracts from truly important issues. So, while this is an important survey to keep in mind, I think it’s also vital to consider the racial and ideological lines it displays and the reality that White folks in particular, and Republicans to a certain extent as well, historically experience public spaces in a much different way than folks of color do.
Members of marginalized groups experience social media differently because we use it differently
The aforementioned studies gathered participants by age. Only one broke down the data by sex, race/ethnicity, and total family income. None noted sexuality, (dis)abilities, or details about the geographic spread of participants’ networks. None noted the participants’ online social status — for example, whether any were social media influencers, who interact with social media differently than the rest of us, if only because their audiences are so much larger than the average social media user.
I suspect these studies would look vastly different if these breakdowns were accounted for. I think queer, differently abled, and dislocated communities in particular have adapted to social media in a way that allows us to get the communal aspects from it while avoiding much of the negative comparative aspects.
In mid-2019, a former friend sent me a long, acidic email out of the blue. They called into question my character, actions, and personality. And they did it over email, triggering an old wound for me — I have gotten a few too many emails bearing extremely bad news over the course of my life (think: death, relationships ending, and so on).
I processed the contents of the email on my own time. Later, I realized I was anxious every time I checked my email. The spinning refresh icon was a source of intense distress.
The marginalized communities in which I participate interact with social media differently from many other folks.
So, I posted a story on Instagram via my account, which is private and whose followers I keep intensely limited, and asked folks who had the time and space to do so to send me an email. Any email would do, as long as it was positive.
The response was overwhelming. Countless folks responded, from my closest friends who I talk to on a daily basis all the way to near-strangers who I’ve only spoken to a few times but whose energies I like. Some people sent three-word emails: “I appreciate you.” “I love you.” Others sent photos of their animals. One shared exciting news from their personal life that they hadn’t yet posted on their own networks. One sent me a multiparagraph email that had me in tears (the good ones) at the end.
This was an enormous realization for me. The marginalized communities in which I participate interact with social media differently from many other folks.
Queer communities often use social media to share the proud moments they want all their queer folks to share and the difficult moments that require support
(Note: I’m sure this isn’t true for all queer communities, and it certainly isn’t exclusively true in queer communities. It’s simply my experience in the queer spaces I’ve encountered.)
Many of my queer friends announce their awards, acceptances into schools, engagements, trips, and other positive moments via social media. This lets them broadcast to all the queer folks they know that these kinds of accomplishments are within reach for all of us. Queer representation is often sorely lacking in media in general, so this is vital for those folks who still aren’t sure exactly what doors are open to them.
Many of my queer friends also announce their “failures” via social media. They’ll share writer rejections, moments of heartbreak with their families and loved ones, and many other challenges. They do this to give their queer communities a chance to show up and support if they are able — as I did with my email request — and to let them know they are not alone in facing their challenges.
Differently abled communities use social media to find themselves in the world
I see a variety of differently abled folks posting images of themselves with their (highly curated) online communities. Again, this speaks to the issue of representation: Although both visible and invisible (dis)abilities are getting more media attention as of late, there is a long way to go before differently abled people are well-represented. I rarely see folks outside of my specific social media communities discussing mental illness, challenges with being on the spectrum, or any of the many intricacies involved with having physical mobility limitations. Seeing someone open up online about a challenge I relate to, even if I don’t know them well, reminds me that I am not alone, even when nobody in my immediate vicinity understands that particular part of my life. It helps me understand details about those I may not spend much time with but with whom I have an immense amount in common. This type of relating helps me understand that I am a part of a larger community, even if that community isn’t the same group of folks I see on a regular basis in my daily life.
Dislocated communities use social media for education and exploration
I witness so many beautiful moments of folks calling in their peers and loved ones from across distances of thousands of miles. Whether it’s to let someone know their language is not inclusive or to congratulate someone on a hard-won victory, I see folks across my dislocated networks reaching out to touch base, access resources, and prop others up on a daily basis. These are frequently intentional remote communities, groups of folks organized around certain interests (web tech, women in tech, digital nomads, and so on) who join these communities to get specific support. They are often much clearer than my other communities about their own limitations in terms of the support or knowledge they can offer, and they are equally willing to open themselves to others’ knowledge and life experiences so they can learn and grow.
How can this type of social media use be generalized outside such specific communities?
None of this is to say the negative effects of social media aren’t real. But there are certainly lessons to take away from different ways specific communities show up on social media.
I’ve seen the same overconnectedness and excess sharing that create net-negative social media effects for some communities build positive, supportive spaces for other communities.
Use the built-in curation tools
Most social sites have them. Instagram, for example, allows public and private accounts and includes a “Close Friends” list for sharing specific stories. Twitter allows you to limit your Tweets to your current followers and approve or refuse new followers. Use these filters to help make sure you are sharing information with the folks you know will support you and protecting yourself from folks who may be using the relative anonymity of the internet to wreak havoc. Curate your online space as intentionally as you might curate a physical space: Allow only those you trust into your circles.
Be clear with yourself about why you’re on social media
Are you there to get likes? To find mentors? Looking for fashion inspiration? Whatever it is, remember what brought you to the space, and use it to keep yourself moving when you get stuck in comparison or envy. These kinds of emotions are somewhat inevitable. Even in “real life,” you might be walking down the street and see someone with a pair of shoes you want but can’t afford. The trick is remembering the context. This person might have saved up for months to get those shoes. They might be working a high-paying job they hate so they can buy expensive things. The same is true online: Get what you need from a space, and if you realize there is far more negative than positive, remove yourself from that space.
Be the positivity you want to see, and take chances
Had I not reached out via social media to the networks of folks I trusted, I never would have radically changed my damaged relationship with email. When I see folks asking for messages of support or affirmation, if I can think of even one positive thing to share—even if it’s simply that I appreciate the colors in the photos they choose to post, for example—I do so. It takes seconds of my time and can be the difference between a bad or good day for someone I know, no matter how tangentially.
The marginalized communities I am privy to build community in a powerful and intentional manner using social media. I’ve seen the same overconnectedness and excess sharing that create net-negative social media effects for some communities build positive, supportive spaces for other communities. I think the difference can often be found in the intentionality around which people build these communities.
The worst that can happen with following some of these suggestions is that nothing changes. The best might be that your entire relationship with social media is transformed. Why not give it a try?