Health Mental health General wellbeing Social media: is being online hurting us? By Hadley Stewart | @wordsbyhadley Our time spent on social media is almost more important than our real lives, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook allow us to be transported into a virtual universe, where friendships flourish and opinions have no filters. For the queer community, these platforms provide us with the ability to connect with other LGBTQ+ people, perhaps giving us a sense of belonging. But it’s not always rosy online. Social media can also impact on our wellbeing negatively, resulting in jealousy, insecurities and trolling. What is clear, however, is that social media is here to stay. So just how do our favourite networking platforms impact on our lives? ONLINE vs. IRL (in real life) Alexander Morgan considers himself to be a loyal Twitter user. Despite having accounts elsewhere, he’s logging into the Twittersphere throughout the day. “I use it as a communication tool, not just with friends, but with wider communities linked with my work or personal interests.” says Alexander. The art of conversation may well be dying, but Alexander doesn’t see tweeting somebody as a replacement for a natter. “When you start talking to someone online I don’t see it as much different from meeting a new person physically. You can lie but people tend to find out in the end anyway so it’s best to be genuine.” Similarly to Alexander, Darren Mew also agrees that authenticity is best online. “In a time where being queer is still not seen as equal and people are being discriminated against, attacked and murdered for their sexual and gender identities, it’s important to have an authentic voice and I think social media is a great platform for that.” Darren identifies as queer and non-binary, and uses these platforms as online safe spaces to be himself: “I think social media is a great place for LGBTQ+ people to find their community, have a voice and be able to express themselves more openly then they are able to in real life.” According to Stonewall’s School Report, 65% of those surveyed said they interacted with other LGBTQ+ people on social media, with 64% using private messaging too. Some of those surveyed said they felt social media made it ‘easier’ to meet other LGBTQ+ whilst another young person said they used social media as a tool to help them ‘embrace’ their sexuality. Darren’s online friendships have also spilled into offline encounters. “I have made and met lots of my friends from social media, but moreover been able to keep connected and grow friendships that may have happened IRL through social media.” Both Darren and Alexander live in London, where IRL meetings with social media followers are far from uncommon, so what about those who are living outside of the London bubble? Scott McGlynn from Wales is constantly logged into his social media apps. “Connecting with people, charities and organisations in the LGBTQ+ community is one huge input for my social media, I always love hearing new inspiration stories,” he tells me. Online friendships have also flourished for Scott, from meeting people in his home town of Cardiff, to connecting with people on the other side of the world. “It’s truly incredible how it works! There are a lot of LGBTQ+ talented people out there, that I get to see. IS TOO MUCH SOCIAL MEDIA TOXIC? There is a hidden side to social media that we don’t always want to talk about. We’re often berated to get our heads out of our phones, yet this is sometimes easier said than done. Social media has almost taken over the way we communicate and interact with our friends and the outside world, meaning that we don’t always have a healthy relationship with it. “Social media can cause loneliness and make you feel like your life is nothing compared with others,” agrees Darren. “I’ve grown past that kind of thinking now. I know that everyone has their own battles and lives with good and bad moments, and I try not to compare mine with others online personalities.” For Alexander, the secret to social media usage is all about moderation. “It can be bad, but so can too much cake,” he jokes. “You need to make sure you access it within moderation and not live your entire life through it.” It’s also clear that a minority of people are taking advantage of their ability to post anything on social media. “Sometimes people are using social media as a shield to purposefully be mean or bully,” warns Alexander. “You do need to be prepared that not everyone is going to think the way you do.” Although there has been a shift towards providing social media users with the ability to report abusive and offensive content, these systems remain far from perfect. Stonewall says 97% of young people see homophobic and biphobic online content, with the site NoHomophobes.com showing trends in derogatory phrases remaining commonplace on social media. Despite social media potentially contributing to poor mental health and well-being amongst the LGBTQ+ community, it’s clear that these sites can also be used for good. “For me, I like to think I’m quite open about my mental health online and I know a few other people who are too,” says Darren, who also uses his social media platforms as an opportunity to raise important conversations about mental health. “It’s nice to see people talking about mental health and erasing the stigma around it.” THE REALITY OF ‘GAY TWITTER’ Sharing online platforms with people who have similar interests is of course positive, but Darren reminds us that this can quickly turn into a space of reverberating, unchallenged opinions. “I think the most prevalent within the LGBTQIA+ community are echo chambers. I know for me, I follow people whose opinions I want to see. Most of my followers are queer people, which can warp your view on what the larger picture is. I think it’s important to listen to people with other opinions to help you grow and develop your own.” The virtual LGBTQ+ community can have its benefits too. For instance, Scott’s work is heavily involved within our community and he often uses social media as a tool for his professional life. “Social media is the way I get most of my work,” he says. A podcaster, Scott also reaches out to guests over social media, and like many others, shares his work with his followers. Alexander echoes Scott’s thoughts on staying connected with others online: “It’s helping me stay in touch with people I care about and what they’re up to.” Unlike Scott, he doesn’t place as much emphasis on social media for his working life, viewing it as more of an escape from the daily grind: “I have a very busy work life and it can be very isolating at times.” Social media continues to form an unavoidable part of our daily lives, with a growing number of us using it as one of our primary tools for communicating with friends and family. For LGBTQ+ people, it’s clear that social media allows us to remain connected to other members of the community and helps us to be ourselves online. Despite its benefits, it’s clear that these platforms have a potentially damaging impact on our mental health and well-being. So should we all be embarking on a ‘social media purge’? Maybe moderation is the secret to staying healthy online.