“Beth” is 44 years old. She had seen pictures of her friend’s party on Facebook — a party she hadn’t been invited to. Beth told me through her tears that she speaks with this friend every day, and that the two hike together several times a week. Beth was scrolling through her news feed when she saw the posts about the party, which she knew nothing about – and she felt devastated.
Adult online exclusion is a real thing – though it’s often overlooked because adults don’t speak about it openly. Adults feel discomfort, even shame about admitting this vulnerability. Unlike younger generations, they didn’t grow up in the age of social media, so they’re behind in adapting to its norms. When they speak of being socially excluded in this way, they often say things like, “I know this is ridiculous,” or “this sounds so stupid.”
I recently conducted a survey of 212 adults between the ages of 21 and 77 in which I asked participants if they ever felt excluded online. Surprisingly, 153 of them (72 percent) said yes. Many explained how it made them feel, writing, “I felt forgotten,” “It made me sad,” and “I felt left out, jealous.” When asked if they had ever intentionally excluded anyone socially, 11 said yes. Fifty-six of the respondents reported that they had unintentionally excluded someone.
In my survey, I asked participants who had intentionally posted something to make someone feel excluded to explain why – and what had happened. Among the answers was a recurring theme: retaliation toward a friend or family member for similar behavior.
I asked the same questions of those respondents who had posted things that unintentionally excluded others. Most claimed they didn’t realize their actions would hurt others; many reported they are now more thoughtful about their posts. Some reported having decided not to post about social gatherings.
A recent study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine concluded that increased time spent on social media is linked to depression, low self-esteem, jealousy, social isolation and feelings of inferiority. All of these can be precursors to suicide: a 2017 report from the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Mental Health determined that “suicidal behaviors result from a complex interaction between social stressors and individual vulnerability.”
How can adults cope with this?
First, remember that the world presented by social media is largely an illusion. Photos are a snapshot in time that never show the complete picture. Picking and choosing, people post the things that portray their lives in the most favorable light.
Be resilient: We are all human, and a bothersome post may have been an oversight. Sometimes it’s best to approach the person who made you feel excluded and let them know you’d like to be included next time. It’s a bold thing to do and can feel like an emotional risk. But it’s worth trying, and you might be surprised at the results.
Take the initiative! Make your own plans. Invite the people who made you feel excluded. The more the merrier.
Remember to take breaks from social media. Delete your social media apps for a day, or for a week. You decide the time frame and stick to it.
Unfollow people who consistently post social events that exclude you. You’ll still be connected, you just won’t see their posts in your news feed. Facebook and Instagram both have this option.
Expressing gratitude is a key strategy for building resilience. Every day, write down a minimum of three things in your life for which you are grateful. This will help take your focus off negative thoughts and hurt feelings.
Finally, consider seeking professional help to better manage your feelings. When your thoughts and feelings overwhelm you, licensed therapists have the knowledge and compassion to help you cope in a healthy way.
Karen Hamilton is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Bel Marin Keys, Marin County, Novato, CA