Maria Mastronardi, PhD LPC, is a licensed therapist and a professor of communication studies. Her research and teaching focus on social media use, relationship issues, trauma, and gender. Dr. Mastronardi offered some of her insights about how social media can both contribute to and alleviate mental distress for those who may be interested in seeking help. To learn more about Dr. Mastronardi, or to sign up for her psychotherapy services, contact Depth Counseling today.
Q – How does social media affect how we see ourselves and the world?
As more than seventy-five percent of Americans have at least one social media account, this technology has become a central hub of connectedness.
Social media has reshaped our way of connecting with one another and, by extension, connecting with ourselves.
How many followers do you have on your Insta?
What does my number of followers say about me as a person?
What would you think if you saw that I was followed by someone famous, like Michelle Obama, or someone infamous, like your ex-spouse?
These kinds of questions highlight some of the ways that social media is used as a lens for evaluating identity and personal value. As such, there is a dark side to how social media can function.
Specifically, social media can act as a catalyst for self-criticism, shame, and humiliation.
Social media offer an extremely rich environment for us to learn about the world and one another. At the same time, these platforms are unreliable sources of self-esteem. When people who struggle with self-esteem come to experience social media as a selfobject, this reliance can perpetuate a continual need for external validation, prompt feelings of inferiority, and generate a kind of perpetual FOMO (fear of missing out). So that’s one-way people struggle. We can also be shamed, humiliated, attacked, even mobbed by strangers over relatively benign statements. We learn to compare ourselves to others—appearance, social engagement, career success—in ways that were previously limited to one’s immediate community. A new anxiety has emerged around missing out and being less-than.
Also, dating apps have become a fundamental part of dating and mating experiences today—Match.com’s data suggest that one out of four marriages in the United States began through an online app. While these tools certainly broaden a person’s access to a wider set of potential partners, they also encourage a kind of performativity or game playing that can inhibit authentic interactions. Over the long term, the interactive “masks” they seem to promote can derail growth and self-acceptance.
What’s worse, social media has been used to cause a great deal of pain. Cyberbullying, harassment, exclusion. Digital images can be saved, and conversations can become screenshots. Cultural norms and expectations around sexting, in particular, have led to horror stories of revenge pornography. It’s no wonder that rates of suicide among US girls between 10-14 have escalated by one third since 2007, which coincides with social media’s popularity.
Despite the difficulties which have come from social media, there is hope. Just as we can learn to understand ourselves and others in healthier ways offline, we can also learn to engage with social media in ways that are purposeful and meaningful.
Q – What are some common myths about social media use?
I often hear about all of the ways that social media (and screen time, more generally) is detrimental to humanity. Although the research is mixed (here’s a great article if you’d like to learn more), many claim that social media use supposedly threatens sacred human experiences like “being with family” or “time in nature.”
My sense is that most people who are waging this panicked discourse are those of us who grew up without Internet access. We see young people growing up in a fundamentally different media environment than we did, and so we find it terrifying.
Many of us carry great deal of nostalgia for the old, “lost” way of being. Wrapped up that nostalgia is a fantasy of an ideal childhood and a sense of fear about the future. I like to remind people that throughout civilization, our subjectivity has always been dynamic – reshaped and realigned by dominant communication technologies. Imagine how writing culture changed human experience, for example, when we no longer had to rely on bards and storytellers for sharing historical understandings.
The truth is, it would be so much simpler if social media was purely unhealthy or detrimental. Instead, just as any other tool, social media can be used in many different ways. We must learn how to manage the contradictions—that social media is bad/good, that screens are ruining/building human connection, that technology will change/augment our world—and find ways of living our best lives.
Q – Depth Counseling strives to go “beneath” presenting symptoms to understand the person in greater depth. This means understanding the private, and sometimes unconscious, needs, wishes and emotions that shape their lived experience. How does this approach differ from other approaches?
Many of us believe that the symptoms we struggle with are the problem, and the approaches that have emerged from the cognitive behavioral paradigm tend to treat them as such.
From a psychoanalytic perspective, however, the symptom is the solution. It is not something to extinguish but to understand at a deep level because somehow, it has helped us cope with emotional distress and trauma. It has also helped us stay in familiar, if miserable, territory. Psychoanalysis helps us make friends with our demons in a way. And through this process, we grow—we develop new resources, we find new strengths, and our suffering resolves.
This applies to difficulties related to social media, technology, and relationships. Whatever suffering or struggle you might be experiencing, you can find freedom by learning where those feelings stem from, identifying your unmet need, and discovering new ways of responding to the world.
Q – What might you say to a prospective patient who is considering starting therapy with you?
My best advice is: feel free to shop around!
Forming a relationship with a new therapist can be a life-altering process. Before starting, I would meet with several therapists and see how it feels to be with them. We all work differently; we all have different personalities we bring into the room. See who is out there, notice the reactions you have to different therapists, and choose to work with somebody with whom you have a strong connection.
If you are interested in giving therapy a try, if you are motivated to do some of the deeper work, or if you want to move forward from your struggles—let’s connect.
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