It’s safe to say that in our 21st-century lives, we have a complicated relationship with our technology. The manifold benefits and widespread availability of smartphones could not have been anticipated even 15 years ago, but now we couldn’t imagine being without them. Whenever we want to speak to someone or know what they’re up to, it’s as simple as texting them or checking their social media platforms; in fact, information about practically anything we could want to know is immediately available at our fingertips.

As with any sudden and major development in human society, the effects of holding the whole world in our hands are bittersweet. All at once, everything is both simpler and more complex: communicating ideas and experiences occurs instantly, but at the cost of passing through filters and fitting within character limits. Social media gives us unique glimpses into other people’s lives, letting us see things that we otherwise wouldn’t, and we can find comfort in relating to what we find there.

It’s the same with travel; it’s easier to get places now, but we also have to see other people go places. Foreign lands are no longer just fantasies until we visit them: they’re made real by the facts and photos we can find on demand. That’s pretty amazing, but obviously, it doesn’t eliminate the need to travel. We always hear that the world is a smaller place in the Internet age, but I think travelers would be the first group of people to disagree with that. No matter how much we can read online about a place, and no matter how many beautiful images we can see of it, we still want to go there because we know the real thing will surpass these impressions and whatever expectations we base on them.

Why don’t we think about social media content the same way? Recent studies and surveys have shown that researchers and the public alike associate stress with social media, and in the context of what I’ve discussed above, it might make sense why. Users associate feelings of inadequacy with the kind of content they interact with, especially on Instagram, but even then, experiences are mixed. Others use Instagram and platforms like it to candidly discuss and mobilize support for issues important to them, including mental health. There is nothing to suggest that social media is all bad or all good — so where does that leave us?

Think for a moment about social media in terms of a journey. If you don’t know someone whose profile you follow on social media, you can enjoy their content all you like — it might even make you want to know them personally — but for the moment, you really only know about the aspects of their life that are immediately available to you. The impressions that social media gives us of one another are bite-sized and one-dimensional by design; after all, they have to fit on a screen. This is the exact same thing as what I discussed above with regards to travel: you haven’t been somewhere just because you’ve seen pictures, or read the Wikipedia page. People and places are infinitely more complex than the impressions we are afforded. In that case, why do we let them make us feel stress or inadequacy?

The problem arises when we confuse a fraction of the truth with the whole truth. No one image or sentence, however beautiful, funny, or profound, could ever be representative of someone’s entire life, and the system incentivizes sharing only the most eye-catching and compelling content. We all know it feels good to collect “likes,” but packaging our experiences into neat boxes of content might condition us to curate an online image of ourselves that doesn’t actually serve us anymore. Suddenly, it’s optimized for the approval of others, and our online behavior hinges on validation. Now, it might seem like I’m about to make the hackneyed and half-baked assertion that we should disengage with our technology to enjoy life more fully, “in the moment.” I’m not, because the truth is that in the modern age, that’s pretty unnatural.

As humans, we have always tried to document our lives for sentiment and sharing. All that’s changed is how easy it is to do that now. It’s not as though Instagram came around, and suddenly we were all walking around foreign countries with our cameras pointed at anything and everything that caught our eye. Comparing here with there has always been a major process through which we understand the world around us. Being able to package a place’s qualities into similarities and differences makes travel easier because we make ourselves and our preconceived notions pretty vulnerable when we step out into the world. Travel challenges us to think more about ourselves, our relationships, and our values. That can be tough, and exhausting — so eventually, we go home.

I would assert that the effect of social media is very similar. We constantly see content that gives us impressions of other ways of living, thinking, and being, and that might even tell us how we should do those things. Exposure to different perspectives is usually a healthy thing, but we can’t compare the similarities and differences between ourselves and everyone, all the time. That’s just the thing about social media — it is constant. If you turn the tap on, and let the content flow, it will never stop. That is both confusing and stressful. If we are to draw our own conclusions about our relationships with social media, we simply have to look more closely.

We at Passion Passport believe in the power of social media to tell meaningful stories, but to get the most out of it in this capacity requires focus and intention. Is it possible for us to use social media with intent, and therefore with less stress? I believe the answer is yes, if we step back and remember that we define our relationship with our technology. One platform that embodies this thinking is the meditation app Headspace, which tries to reverse the stressful effects of our phones on our lives and turn them into a tool for mental health. Founder Andy Puddicombe reminds us here that phones are just pieces of plastic, metal, and glass — they’re not good or bad. Phones and the services they provide us only have the power that we give them. Used mindlessly, they can stress us out; used mindfully, with purpose and intent, they can enrich our experience of the modern world.

It is entirely up to us to decide how we use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or any other platform, whether we’re sharing content or just browsing that of others. Headspace and other mindfulness programs espouse the idea of being present in the moment, because stress and anxiety come from thoughts that are rooted in the past and future. Scrolling endlessly through social media, it might seem impossible to stop thinking about things we have and haven’t done, in comparison to others. It’s really quite simple, and doesn’t require the total disengagement that lazy critics of social media will often espouse.

It only requires that you consider how you’re using it: is it a distraction, and something you use to disconnect from yourself? Or is it an asset, and something that you use to connect with others? While these technologies intend and achieve the latter, they also allow the former. That is okay, and it’s a reflection of life overall: there is no good without the bad, no bad without the good. Nurturing this attitude toward our online behavior might be difficult, but that’s only because it’s important.

The next time you see a post that resonates with you, challenge yourself to take it a few steps further. If it’s a friend’s, especially one you haven’t spoken to in a while, send them a private message to let them know that you liked it, and ask how they’re doing. If it’s from an influencer or a creative that you follow, look at who comments on their posts, or who they follow. You are guaranteed to find more inspiring content and turn your typical scrolling session into a positive experience. If none of this happens, that’s fine, too. If you catch yourself scrolling mindlessly for a long time, don’t beat yourself up over it, because there is always the chance of stumbling upon a post or story or caption that sparks something within us. Just put the phone down for a while, and move on to something else.

When it comes to posting your own content, don’t neglect the creative process. Given the immediacy of feedback on social media, it can be easy to forget its potential for self-expression. The first choice in that process is always whether or not you want to immortalize something you’ve thought or seen, whether in words or through an image, and even that choice is closely scrutinized — I’m sure we’ve all heard something patronizing about putting down our cameras and just taking in a scene. Thankfully, there are no rules for how to experience life, and there’s no one way to do it. But if you think about posting as a form of mindful self-expression, you might start to make these decisions more innately. If you aren’t concerned with what you’ve posted before or aren’t afraid of having nothing to post tomorrow, you’ve already escaped the trendy trap of “aesthetic.” That freedom will inform your creativity from the start, and you will therefore be able to step out of the frustrating cycle of validation, and into viewing social media as a way to reflect upon the world.

The most important point I have to make here is that, like all practices that require discipline, mindful social media use starts with you. I didn’t reference the research or literature above as a means to tell anyone how they ought to use the internet; it’s up to each individual to decide the terms of their relationship with technology. But mindfulness starts with being open to all of the forces in our lives — both positive and negative — without bias or judgment. Only when we take the time and expend the effort to look at things clearly can we begin to make any kinds of conclusions for ourselves going forward.

In other words: send that funny tweet, and take a picture of every little thing that catches your eye. If it doesn’t work for you, you’ll know it, and you can start devoting your time to things that matter to you more. But if it does, why not use it to connect with like-minded people? Share your successes and your struggles with honesty, and without bias. At the end of the day, social media is a tool we should be using to reflect on our personal experiences, not to inform it with an endless stream of noise that doesn’t resonate with us. The more we step out of ourselves and into the world, the more we will start to see challenges as opportunities for growth, and the more comfortable we will be with the need to retreat, rest, and find peace.

Interested in learning more about mindfulness? Check out our guide to traveling mindfully.

Header image by Toni Hukkanen