Social Media and the Struggle for External Validation

In 'The Teachings of Buddha' (2004), Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai writes that 'people love their egoistic comfort, which is a love of fame and praise. But fame and praise are like incense that consumes itself and soon disappears' (2004:79). He continues; 'If people chase after honours and public acclaim and leave the way of truth, they are in serious danger and will soon have cause for regret' (2004:79).

In today's social-media obsessed age, many of us are hooked on the 'high' of receiving external validation. Social media apps are designed to keep us addicted to our notifications, and so cleverly condition us to become dependent on a constant stream of 'likes', 'followers', and dating app 'matches' in order to feel good about ourselves. Social media apps - along with reality TV and the capitalist celebrity culture as a whole - make literally billions of dollars by exploiting your desire to feel liked, loved and popular amongst your peers. It is ironic that, in this age of 'individuality', we are all actually so dependent on other people's validation, and seem to spend so much of our time trying to to impress, attract and 'please' random strangers who we have never actually met online!

Every single one of us has a very natural and healthy need for external validation. Humans, after all, are social animals, and a massive part of our lives is our relationships with others. It is therefore important that we know how other people 'feel' about us, and it is important that we are able to form genuine, meaningful and secure relationships with at least some of the people we encounter in this world! But what I don't think is quite so healthy is an excessive dependency on digital validation. Whilst online 'relationships' and 'connections' can be relatively fulfilling and life-enhancing, I think there is a real danger that we can become obsessive about our social media followings and online 'image' in a way that is detrimental to our wellbeing.

I think the solution to this 'digital dependency' is to remain anchored and grounded in our real-world relationships. That includes your relationship with your real self (in other words, you need to know who you really are, not just who you try to be online). It also includes your relationships with your family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and other real-life human beings that you interact with in the real world. It is essential that we feel secure and confident in these real-life human relationships, and it is essential that we get our 'external validation' from meaningful relationships with real people, rather than from anonymous strangers interacting with our social media accounts!

I think of social media like this: it can be a great source of income, entertainment (or should I say distraction!) and it's a great source of inspiration (when used in the right way!). It can also be a great source of positive connections with people we would have never otherwise met. But social media is not, in my opinion, a great source of validation. Because, not only is social media a complete distortion of reality, but it is also an extremely addictive and counter-productive source of self-worth. In other words, the more that you try and look for self-worth through social media, the less self-worth you'll actually end up with. Why? Because social media is designed in a way to ensure that nothing is ever enough and nobody ever feels 100% fulfilled. After all, why would you keep scrolling or keep checking back so regularly if you let social media feeling 100% satisfied and fulfilled about life?

Therefore, the next time you go to look online for self-worth or external validation, maybe take a minute to ask if there's another source of validation you could consult instead. Could you focus on cultivating meaningful relationships in your real life, or could you focus on cultivating genuine inner peace and contentment within your own self? Instead of scrolling, might you consider journalling, creating something, calling a loved one, reading, listening to some relaxing music, or going for a walk in the fresh air? Then, once you are comfortable and content in your own skin, why don't you return to social media - if you still wish to do so - and engage with it in a much more positive, healthy and mindful way?

I - rather ironically - saw a quote on my Instagram news feed the other day which said: 'Do things from love, not for love'. I don't think I've ever seen something so truthful on my news feed! We need to be in a place of contentment and inner peace prior to scrolling through social media, rather than searching for these essential 'anchors' online. We need to know our worth before we log into our social media apps, rather than looking for our worth whilst we are there. In order to healthily manage the stresses and challenges that come with the comparison culture of social media, we need to work on finding peace within our socials.

Remember that online validation is always temporary. You might experience a five-minute high, but very soon you'll be back to square one. If you are constantly chasing your next five-seconds of fame, you are never going to feel genuinely fulfilled. Therefore, look for your validation from your real-life relationships and from within your own soul, rather than via social media apps. Remember, these apps are designed to make their owners money, rather than make you feel good about yourself. As Jesus Christ himself once said, 'no one can serve two masters' (Matthew 6:24 NIV). Social media apps are not here to serve you...remember this and make sure you do not become a slave to them.

Ben Wardle (17 May 2021)





Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai. (2004). The Teachings of Buddha. New Delhi: Sterling Paperbacks.

The Holy Bible: New International Version. (2011). London: Hodder & Stoughton

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