Even rabbis are insecure when on social media

Being deprived of real-life interaction during lockdown has made social media more toxic

May 04, 2021 10:48

The so-called “highlight reel” effect of social media has been around for a while. Basically, it works like this. The millions of micro bloggers now out there tend to only post carefully curated images and videos of themselves — the “highlights” of their lives. Who would want to boast about failures rather than successes? The “effect”, or problem, with this is that through regularly absorbing and watching these incredible individuals and their stories, people begin to feel more and more inadequate about their own lives.

This is particularly the case with teenagers and young adults. Evidence increasingly shows that the consistent viewing of flawless images, particularly on teen-favoured platforms such as Instagram, drives negative social contrasts with perceived failings in their own lives.

So far, so well-known. But the pandemic has vastly accelerated this process. It has created a toxic mix which directly threatens the mental health, confidence and stability of our teens — and adults — to a far greater extent than anything we have seen previously.

Reflecting on an experience at the start of the pandemic helped me understand how this has happened.

A confession: I have never used Instagram. But WhatsApp has become the essential social media tool of choice for anyone involved in communal work, rabbis included. During those early weeks in late March and early April last year, the various rabbinic WhatsApp groups exploded with ideas as to how to continue vital community services and programming. So much of this was immensely helpful. It created a genuine team spirit and a perception that we were all in this together. Yet I also recall feeling a sense of inadequacy. Rabbi X was already doing fifteen broadcasts to their community per week and Rabbi Y had all their pre-Pesach online events worked out a week after Purim. Their WhatsApp statuses displayed incredible flyers for all those upcoming events and their group messages proudly stated that they had spoken to every elderly member of their community personally within 48 hours.

So why did I find myself playing catch-up with what needed to be done the next day, whilst juggling a house full of kids? I found myself thinking that despite trying as hard as I could, I was obviously doing something wrong, as I couldn’t keep up with the super-rabbis.

As the weeks progressed, however, I gradually came to realise that all these other rabbis were actually the same as me. They were also struggling to juggle everything, except perhaps they felt a bit more comfortable posting things on social media than I did. And whatever they did post was obviously going to be the highlight reel. Who would want to reveal their failings to a hundred other rabbis? Even rabbis themselves feel a bit faint at the thought.

Yet I also realised that what had unquestionably exacerbated the situation was the lack of normal social interaction to counterbalance the highlight reel effect. To continue with the rabbinic example; in normal times, we meet friends and colleagues in many different settings throughout the regular working week, just as in any other occupation. These informal, personal conversations and interactions naturally serve as a counterweight to the highlight reel effect. You see online how Rabbi X is doing something amazing, but the next day you meet him at a simcha where you have a normal chat about the challenges and quirks of community life. You instantly realise that his dilemmas are the same as yours and feel a whole lot better.

The scourge of Covid and its isolating effect has deleted this counterbalance. Instead of a healthy equilibrium between online inspiration from friends and colleagues, together with a daily reality check from normal life, we have all been left with just the endless highlight reel. And that has been really damaging.

Recognising the truth of this, however, is obviously only just the start. In the immediate term, we should do all we can to support outstanding communal mental health organisations such as Jami, Noa Girls and JTeen. They are literally saving lives.

But in the longer term, this pandemic has taught us that we cannot live on social media alone. Instead, as we emerge from isolation, we should recognise as a community the importance of providing people with places for ordinary human social interaction and dialogue. As an ongoing, healthy, counterbalance to the negative effects of the social media highlight reel, this will be one of our most important, even sacred, tasks in the future.

May 04, 2021 10:48

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