How being vulnerable on social media is keeping us from real life intimacy
Sharing our feelings online could actually make us feel more alone.
“Sharing can be cathartic and make me feel extremely connected and seen to my online community,” the popular wellness blogger Lee Tilghman, also known as “Lee From America,” wrote in an Instagram caption in September. “But with such a new tool like social media, we don’t know the long term implications of oversharing on social media yet.”
After a months-long social media hiatus, Tilghman, who has over 330K followers, returned to the app to explain how the ways in which our current era of vulnerability porn had closed her off to the real world and how sharing so much of herself online had left her with no energy for her “real life.” It's a feeling many can relate to.
According to Jennifer Musselman, a former media executive turned organizational psychotherapist, "vulnerability porn" on social media is linked to vulnerability addiction, in which one engages in the state of being exposed emotionally or psychologically for the reward validation or attention from others. Platforms like Instagram and YouTube have made “vulnerability porn” more common. “It's now far more mass-produced, accessible, and has become a cultural norm,” Musselman adds.
Musselman believes that the trend has actually become so popular that people have learned how to capitalize on it. In other words, social media has allowed almost anyone to turn their emotional pain into opportunities for popularity and some even for profit. With every like, comment, and reshare, young people are turning their internal worlds into robust content opportunities, which, as Tilghman has expressed, can ultimately have a detrimental impact on their wellbeing.
Elyse Fox, founder of Sad Girls Club, an online community for those coping with mental illness, admits her biggest motivator for being vulnerable online is that she feels comforted, “knowing others resonate with my current mood and can share tips that are easy to track.”
While it feels good to have a supportive audience, the trend of being authentic and sharing your insecurities online could actually be hindering our abilities to be intimate in real life. “Vulnerability porn merely exposes us, our inner world, and potentially capitalize on it, not change it.” The facade of social connectedness through online platforms can cause us to experience further isolation when we’re in the midst of hard times but as Musselman says, “social support is critical in times of need with issues like depression, substance mis-use, suicidal ideation and more.”
“I’m motivated to be vulnerable online because I want to normalize the human experience,” says Youtuber Sammi Schiller, who uses her platform to talk about everything from tarot to social anxiety. Schiller was inspired to open up about her feelings of isolation and loneliness on her YouTube channel in 2017. The response was overwhelming with thousands of commenters saying they felt the same thing. And Schiller, who felt supported and validated, has continued to share similar content on her channel and Instagram.
“What used to solicit support in real life from friends and families, now often begets an emotionally-distant ‘pat on the back’ with a like or ‘hang in there friend’ comment instead of a much needed real-life phone call or hang-out for consolation or intervention,” Musselman explains, about the downsides of sharing feelings strictly online.
“I never share something online that I wouldn’t share with a friend, also,” admits Schiller. The influencer’s experience has helped her feel more comfortable being vulnerable in real life, making her connections richer and more transparent but she makes a point to share only reflections of her experiences on the Internet — not the actual moments in which she experiences anxiety or emotional breakdowns.
“While social media has had a positive impact by normalizing emotional, mental or psychological issues that many of us often face one time or another throughout our lifespan, its unintended collateral damage is far-reaching,” says Musselman. Sharing our inner world with the outer world has become so commonplace that everyone seems to be experiencing vulnerability fatigue.
Fox, who recently gave birth to her first child, says after years of pouring out her feelings online, she’s now at a point where she doesn’t want to share as much. “I’ve been retreating a bit...social media is like a community diary but sometimes I wish my thoughts (and the conversations about them) could stay online.” As part of her work, Fox speaks on panels about navigating her mental health and motherhood frequently.
So, while being vulnerable online does have positive implications, when we share hard stuff online, our experiences are temporarily appeased but not healed. “This can lead to shallow or more emotionally-distant relationships, social anxiety, panic attacks, substance abuse and more over time,” says Musselman.
As Tilghman shared in her post, “Social media is no substitute for human connection. Without face to face time, we become sick.” As the blogger believes, there’s something powerful about pausing and being more intentional about what one shares online. While I personally haven’t regretted anything vulnerable I’ve shared previously, my stance on opening up online is shifting and I think that’s happening for a lot of people right now.