Gay men can be early-adopters of technology. Maybe we just have more money for gadgets because, in general, we’re not sweating having to save for the kids’ college fund. We tend to accumulate electronic toys — and on those toys, social media apps: Facebook. Twitter. LinkedIn. Instagram. Grindr. Scruff. Jackd. Tindr. Many of them. Social media really works, especially for minorities in the larger society. It immediately can hook you up with people who share even your narrow-niche interests: “You’ve got to try this great Ethiopian restaurant!” “Yeah, well, here’s what I think about THAT!” “Take a look at the new Cuban artist showing at my gallery!” “Anybody hitting happy hour at BodyBoy Bar? #TGIF”. You get the idea, to the tune of thousands of messages, posts, and tweets a day.
But social media can also seem like a party where everyone is having just a little more fun than you are: FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Everyone seems to be constantly consulting one device or another — iPad, iPhone, Galaxy, Genie, Zenith, DeathStar, whatever — with greater intent and pleasure than you can muster. Relax. You can master – and I do mean master – the bugaboos of social media. Some of these can be:
- Overwhelm – Social media is your tool, not your ruler. You can (yes, you can!) control when, and how, and even if you use this tool. Every one of your devices has an off switch that can feel surprisingly liberating. You can be the only one in the club, on the beach, in your car, or at the dinner table who is looking at the gorgeous scenery, what’s going on around you, or what’s on the plate right in front of you instead of a screen. Only when you step away can you make a conscious decision about how social media can serve you. Don’t let the tail wag the dog; show that demanding little device who’s boss. Be an electronics Top.
- Jealousy among partners – In my therapy sessions with couples, or individuals who are in relationships, nothing provokes fights faster than conflicts related to the use of social media. I wrote another piece about the very real dangers of sneaking peeks at your significant other’s phone here, because it’s one of the worst habits/behaviors you can do in a relationship because it undermines the bedrock of trust. Anything you can snoop about, you can speak about. If you have issues about trusting how your partner is using social media, and feel concerned that it is somehow undermining or deceiving you, like who he is texting/emailing and why, just ask him. Ask him, “I’m not going to invade your privacy by sneaking peeks at your phone, because I trust you to talk about things honestly. But if I saw your phone, would I see anything that we really need to talk about?” Openly discuss, and negotiate, what the role of social media is going to be in your relationship. You can set up ground rules that are pretty strict, or pretty open. In my own relationship, we have very little rules about social media, and that works for us. We actually find socializing or even flirting on social media highly amusing, and even occasionally share pics with each other. Sometimes, couples who make a ground rule that flirting, or even “sexting” on social media is OK and can help to prevent actual outside sex in a monogamous relationship. In a non-monogamous relationship, the ground rules for using social media need to be carefully discussed, so that communications with others don’t undermine or interrupt the quality time with your partner. Remember, in general, in non-monogamous relationships, playing with others can have its merits, but the commitment in spirit and in practical reality has to be putting your primary partner first. Social media can really “intrude” on relationships, and again, you each have to show that pesky little electronic device who’s boss.
- Jealousy among friends – In social media, jealousy can also be of the non-domestic-relationship type, where you can get jealous of someone who posts photos of a fabulous vacation while you’re stuck at your office desk slaving away to meet Fourth Quarter profits goals. Or maybe it’s someone visiting loved ones, when yours are either far away, or passed away. Or someone having fun with a pet that you don’t have. Or someone flaunting abs that you don’t have. The opportunities for jealousy go on and on in social media. What helps with this is that instead of allowing the relentless images to depress you, allow them to inspire and motivate you to get what you want. If you see a photo of someone taking hike on a beautiful day, maybe you need to schedule doing that for yourself this weekend, and next week it will be your turn to post pics about it. If you see someone who’s proud of their physique after working very hard on their workouts, maybe you need to visit a new class or reinvigorate your own gym routine. Usually, the things you see other people doing in social media photos are things that are not necessarily closed to you. If it’s a fancy vacation and you can’t afford that, maybe you can think about what would be fun for you to plan, but just on a smaller budget. Or maybe you meet with a financial planner with the specific goal of saving for a vacation just like the one you saw the photos of. Photos on social media are not meant to make you feel bad; they are supposed to be about expressing and sharing joys, which tacitly gives you permission (not that you need it, btw) to find ways to enjoy yourself, too (and then post about it!).
- Stress – As a social worker and long-time activist for many causes, coming from, in essence, an entire family of activists for one thing or another, I find it admirable to have a social conscience and to advocate for the causes you care about (animals, the environment, politics, gay rights, social justice, etc.) and to promote civic awareness and social responsibility. But social media can also make our blood boil on a regular basis by bringing stories of national and international injustice, crime, and horror right to our hot little hands. Back when we relied on newspapers, we saw those stories, too, but somehow we could pick up and put down a newspaper more easily. We weren’t as bombarded with bad news in realtime from all over the world. This is really something to think about. It’s not that we want to put our heads in the sand, but there’s only so much we can do. Constant exposure to provocative stories can be a stress in itself. While it’s the job of journalism to inform and even provoke us, they’re just “selling” something — usually clicks, and as we know about the online world, clicks, ultimately, lead to money in someone’s pocket — it’s like a billboard, magazine ad, or television ratings for commercials. Attention means money. Remember that social media is always about business, somehow — for an app, for a brick-and-mortar store, for e-commerce, and, I admit, even for me. Because guys who get to know me through reading this blog for free sometimes get to know me in a formal professional relationship when they need counseling or coaching. Hopefully, things like this blog reduce your stress, not increase it, but you have to be self-aware by asking yourself occasionally, “What about social media is stressing me out? And, what do I do about it?” Sometimes, it’s about clicking over to something else, like cute kitty videos, and sometimes it’s about taking a break and living in the 3-D world for a little while. I’m not a technophobe; I don’t believe social media is a herald of the apocalypse (they said the same thing when television was new). But, as a Libra, I do have an appreciation for balance in things.
The best tip I always give clients about relating to people in social media is to use it as a “bridge”. Social media helps you to become introduced to people whom you don’t know, or to re-connect with people whom you do know, but the real heart of any relationship is the time you spend face-to-face. For example, if they’re local, I like to chat up someone online and then steer the conversation to how and when we can get together in person soon, especially for a lunch or dinner outing. It’s the same if you’re online to pursue dating; you can exchange some initial information, or hell, even X-pics, but move the online conversation relatively quickly to meeting in person, such as for a coffee date or even just a hookup. In the proportion of things, time spent online could be better-quality time spent in person, with the same person. If they’re far away, well then, enjoy social media the way we might have enjoyed letters (what a lost art that is) back in the old days. I cherish the online friendships that I have with people all over the world, particularly with gay men in countries (such as Iran) where gay men are oppressed and have fewer opportunities for positive, peer socialization. It also helps me be a better World Citizen by learning the truth about life in other countries that CNN just somehow gets “wrong” all the time. Social media can be an opportunity for really learning how the world works. It’s ironic how some super-private information can be shared on such a public medium, but that’s the nature of coping with modern technology, which none of us has fully adjusted to using quite yet. Technology moves faster than our ability, as a society, to really absorb it (which, by the way, is a key theme of my in-progress novel, The Boy from Yesterday).
The second-best tip I give about coping with the ubiquitous social media is to spend at least twice as many minutes in a day looking into another human’s eyes as you do looking at a PC or a phone screen. How many of us achieve that, every day?
Decades from now, we will look back on this relative dawn of social media and laugh at our foibles, the way we laugh about Lady Grantham fumbling with the first telephones on “Downton Abbey” or fearing that electricity in the house would cause “all those vapors”. We will only know in hindsight how naive we’re all being about the damn little devices. But for now, the sun is still the sun, the sky is still the sky, and being with people we like or love is still the most important way to spend our time. Some things never change.
Ken Howard, LCSW is a gay, poz, licensed psychotherapist who has specialized in working with gay male individuals and couples for over 27 years. He provides counseling, psychotherapy, or coaching sessions in person in his office in Los Angeles (near Beverly Center), via phone, or via Skype, nationally and world-wide. For specific help on how to improve your relationship to social media for yourself and in your relationships, call 310-339-5778 for more information, or to make an appointment, or email Ken@GayTherapyLA.com.