Friday 24 January 2020

Don’t Let Social Media Rule Your Year Abroad.

Anna shares her tips for managing the pressures of social media whilst studying abroad
- Anna

41% of “Gen Zers” admitted in a survey that using social media made them feel anxious, depressed or sad. When we place bad social media habits in the context of a year abroad and all of the pressures that come along with it, the combination can lead to a unique form of unhappiness. Speaking to other students who have taken a year abroad, it’s a specific yet hard-to-define phenomenon, that students who haven’t been away just can’t get their head around. Why on earth would we be longing for our former mundane routine of walking to lectures in the rain or dancing in the sticky students’ union nightclub? Having heard of FOMO, I always thought I simply wasn’t affected by it until I saw my friends from back home posting Snapchat stories on nights out. 

FOMO, or “fear of missing out” is the unrealistic desire to be everywhere and experience everything. On my year abroad, it manifested itself as a subtle but persistent feeling of dissatisfaction, that other people were making the most of their time abroad whilst I spent too much time sitting in my dorms. I’d spend hours scrolling mindlessly and accumulating feelings of inadequacy, longing to be more adventurous and spontaneous, yet simultaneously rejecting offers to go on day trips and explore new places. Spending time on social media can create the illusion that you’re more “connected”, whilst actually adding to the feelings of perceived social isolation. 

There’s only one person worth comparing to.

Comparing your seemingly mundane every day to someone else’s life is never going to end well. Everyone knows the saying 'comparison kills', but it can be hard to recognise the link between a quick scroll and your growing discontent. It’s when we begin to derive our sense of worth according to comparisons on social media that a negative cycle can begin. There are two predominant forms of comparison: “upward” and “downward”, aka drawing a conclusion that we are either better or worse than our friends. Howeveowever, comparison can actually help us to help ourselves because it can reveal our greatest insecurities. Use this as a starting point to improve how you feel about yourself. Other healthy forms of comparison can be identifying people similar to you and admiring them- from this, you can set specific and achievable goals for yourself. Finally, the only person you should compare yourself to is… YOU! Are you doing yourself justice by being the best possible version of you?

Is social media getting in the way of your real life?

Social media reduces your ability to live in the moment. Our generation of study-abroad students is addicted to instant and easy-access entertainment on social media, which can disrupt our attention span and ability to enjoy real-world experiences. Your ability to remember and reflect upon the best parts of your year abroad can become distorted, and spending time trying to capture the perfect shot for Instagram can cause you to remember experiences disjointedly and neglect other forms of memory such as how the place sounded or smelled. Try and only take pictures once you’ve spent time taking in your surroundings. 

Make sure to limit your time spent communicating with friends back at home, and instead delve into societies and events. Organise video calls every so often, but ensure that you’re relying on people who are physically there for you.

Don’t be afraid to hit “unfollow”.

Be business-like, frank and a bit ruthless with your social media habits. I set a daily time limit for ten minutes on Instagram and five minutes on Facebook, and it was so satisfying to be able to make it later and later into the day before reaching my time limit. Your following list will be a mish-mash of best friends, acquaintances, celebrities, and travel accounts and this may be worth refining. People may mean well, but constant updates on other peoples’ polished and unrealistic travels can be unhelpful to your own state of mind. If you’re working long hours in a small town in chilly northern Europe, it might be hard to see that your coursemates are studying in the gorgeous Mediterranean, and spending as much time dining out as they do in lectures. Implement a bit of selective following if someone isn’t adding value to your experience. I became jealous of absolutely every part of my coursemates’ year abroad experiences: their travels, the weather, their internships, the clothes they were wearing, all the international friends they had made. 

Know what makes you tick.

Being self-aware and knowing what makes you unhappy can be difficult to achieve, but over time I learned to use jealousy as an indicator of how I could improve my own experience and this completely revolutionized my time abroad: I quit studying and found an internship, moved to a big city and started travelling at the weekends. The biggest lesson to be learned is that you should be active and empowered in crafting your own experiences. Support these positive changes in your life by following people who make you happier and who are relevant to the place in which you live. For example, I followed travel accounts, brunch reviews and street art pages which gave me inspiration for things to do at the weekend. 

Let your year abroad lead to positive and permanent change.

Returning home can be a great opportunity to change your relationship to social media going forward. Sometimes I still feel like I need to document things in stories to validate to myself and other people that I’m having a good time. Avoid this by proactively banishing your apps into one folder and use social media only to post something specific or to reply to messages. Taking on a social media role for a uni club or society can actually massively help to revolutionize your habits. For me, becoming a publicity officer and a student brand ambassador allowed me to compartmentalize social media, appreciating its value as a marketing tool but constantly being reminded of its superficial nature. 

Remember to ask for help and stay in touch! 

Your home university should be there for you throughout your year abroad and the reason you pay a percentage of fees that year is for continued access to services (including mental health support). The Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Travel Aware Campaign also has specific advice on mental wellbeing and travel abroad. So, don’t let your unhappiness get on top of you and don’t battle every problem on your own. 

For further information, advice and resources on looking after your wellbeing during a year abroad, click here.

I’m a final year student at Lancaster University and spent a year studying and working in Germany, both of which posed me different challenges and opportunities for personal growth. Outside of my studies, I spent my time running our study abroad society to ensure international students have the best possible experience at Lancaster.

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