07/19/2013 11:00 am ET Updated Sep 18, 2013

#LikeMyPost: The Addiction to Internet Popularity


Social media has hijacked our family vacations for the last few years. This reached a pinnacle of irritation for me on our family holiday last week. During the six days of sand and sun, the primary focus of our two daughters was an intense effort to build their "brand." You may be wondering what their particular brand is? To this I would answer, "them." What they eat, what they wear, where they travel, who they kiss, and how cute, sexy, silly, and sassy they look in their various outfits. Posting these pictures is quite an endeavor. It involves photo shoots, filters, and multiple conversations and deliberations on tag lines. Their "brand" is bolstered by how many "likes" they get, which also requires strategizing. There is a certain time of day to post in order to maximize the most "likes." Even after a decision is arrived at and the post is sent off into cyberspace, there are certain Instagram/Facebook "rules of etiquette" that must be abided. This involves "liking" the posts of your friends, irrespective of whether or not you actually do like the post. The ritual of posting and liking and searching the various sites is a daily preoccupation.

My daughters are not alone in this competition for Internet popularity. Because posting pictures and updating a status on social media is a fun, immediate and efficient way to share our lives, it is easy to get hooked. However the fixation on it monopolizes time and energy and careens one so far from the present moment. It seems like so many experiences become an opportunity to publicize ones life, rather than just live it. A meal is no longer seen as a time to connect and share food, but rather a photo-op of the fabulous dishes on the table, and potential for "likes" of the post. Inadvertently, the post becomes a way to share with all of those not at the table, exactly what they are missing.

The fixation on being "liked" encourages acts of shameless boasting, bragging and aggrandizing. I have noticed that people have no compunction about posting events that they would never actually bring up in face-to-face contact. Brandon got a new promotion. Kirstin won an award. Someone else is eating a giant lobster on a beautiful lake in Maine or being fanned and fed grapes while vacationing on a yacht. There is nothing wrong with wanting to share all the wonderful things going on in your life, but the quest for cyber-validation eviscerates all sense of decorum and sensitivity to others. Hearing about how someone has the perfect life, got into the best school, has the most amazing friends, partners, the grandest house, goes to the best parties... can be alienating, especially if you are having a down moment. Posting all of these peak and grandiose snapshots grossly misrepresents real life, with its many ups and downs.

For the last couple of years in my psychotherapy practice, I have been dealing with various forms of Internet self-esteem issues. Some clients discuss how to build their social persona and go "viral" while others want to disengage. Ironically I have worked to get people off of social media in order to protect them socially. Working with a client to delete their Facebook page is reminiscent of the myriad difficulties endured in helping an addict become sober. It is painful to be caught in the throes of social media envy and it is painful to withdraw. The sense of missing out can be upsetting, but the feeling that your life is not enough compared with that of everyone around you can be devastating.

My 28-year-old client spent a therapy session discussing how morose she felt about her winter vacation. She was enjoying a very relaxing and cozy time with her boyfriend until she looked on her phone to peruse Instagram. After looking at the fascinating lives of others, she felt deflated, unimportant and dull. The fabulous things "everyone" else was doing threw her into a funk.

My 16-year-old client spent many sessions bemoaning her lack of popularity on social media based on the paltry number of "likes" she received. Because the raw numbers of "likes" are posted, there is a built-in way to compare one's popularity with that of others. She actually had a very supportive group of friends but had spent so much time veering into the lives of her "popular" school mates, she neglected to take stock of her own life.

A few weeks ago, my 35-year-old client started her session by remarking that she felt tethered to Instagram. She wakes up first thing in the morning to look at it, continues throughout the day and eventually ends her night by examining it. She is a gorgeous woman with two beautiful young daughters who live in a magnificent mansion. She loves posting her beautiful shots (enriched with filters to make them more spectacular) and collecting the many "likes" that her fabulous pictures accrue. She shared with me that she had met many friends on Instagram, (people she had never actually met in physical form) who wanted to befriend her. She herself observed that anyone looking at her Instagram life would think she lived the most charmed and exclusive existence. The truth being that her husband is an alcoholic and she is utterly miserable.

I am not an anti-social-media zealot; as a matter of fact, I enjoy it. There are so many wonderful aspects to the ease in which social media allows us to communicate and share our lives. It is the obsession and preoccupation with popularity and thus the need to glorify ones life publicly that perturbs me. At the end of the day when all the likes are tallied, I don't believe anyone really feels better about themselves when their post of champagne poolside in East Hampton or a candy shop on Nantucket Island gets 1000 likes.