The holiday season is basically synonymous with family time and free time which are, for most people, a mixed bag. We love our relatives, but maybe we also love not hearing the story of how our cousin met his wife (same intro Spanish class in college) for the third year in a row. And the down time can be boring as hell: The news cycle slows, restaurants cut their hours, and everyone is forced to see the new Star Wars movie or smoke weed in a park for fun, both of which get more degrading as time wears on. So what do we use to fill that pine cone–scented void? Social media. Anyone who has a hard time staying off their phone when they’re out with friends or hanging with a partner (so, like, all of us) knows it’s 10 times more difficult to resist the temptation when it doesn’t feel like there’s anything better to do.
Diving into social media feels like a viable alternative to boredom and stilted small talk as an adult who could conceivably be going online to do something important (like checking work emails) but is actually just looking for a distraction (like fighting with a Pete Buttigieg supporter on Twitter). And for people who have strained relationships with the family members they are spending the holidays with, a scroll through social media can seem like an escape route out of a painful, stressful situation—though seeing other people post about how great their holiday is could just be fuel for an even worse mood.
Because during the holidays, social media transforms from a place for looking at hot people to a wasteland flooded with saccharine content. The urge to document infects anyone who’s even marginally into Posting. Seasonally themed chaos, dare I say, reigns. And just because it happens every year doesn’t mean it gets any easier to resist the siren song: The content blows, but we’re too restless and lonely to stop consuming it. The only thing more fun than posting about the #dailygrind is posting about being removed from regular life. It’s the same urge that sends people into IG story “sicko mode” while on vacation: Look at me, doing a thing I don’t usually do!
Suburban parents dancing goofily along to Christmas music in front of their kitchen island. Baby pictures of a person you went on three dates with in 2016. “Friendly reminders” about how to educate *clap* your *clap* family *clap* members *clap* about being woke from someone who was racist in high school. A college acquaintance's hot cousin. Eyeshadow palettes, Yeti coolers, and the new Airpods, probably. This is what to expect from social media during the holidays. The predictability to this kind of content can be charming or irritating, depending on whoever posted it. The thought process goes that it’s cool when I myself post a video where I’m walking my parents’ new dog/eating fresh fruit/flipping off my high school. But if someone I don’t like does it, they’re actually so desperate for attention that I almost feel bad for them.
Holidays inflict a lot of pressure to have fun, and social media at its most toxic is all about performing fun online. Orchestrating that performance while actually feeling melancholy and lonely only makes it feel worse. Concepts like “gratitude” and “the year in review” push us toward reflection, but sometimes, reflection is hard! Sometimes it hurts! Sometimes it’s like, I don’t want to think about where I am compared to where I was last year, so I’m just going to drink a lot of white wine and post a picture from two months ago where I look hot (hypothetically speaking, of course).
Doing nothing but looking at the internet for what feels like hours on end makes it extremely easy to fall down a hole of negative comparisons and then do a little reflexive bragging to compensate. I see the new iPad Mini your stepmom got you and raise you a Google Home. Et cetera, et cetera. And these comparisons are bad enough when we’re just talking about material goods—it gets worse when the envy extends to another person’s social life, family situation, or socioeconomic status.
It should provide some measure of comfort that everyone else is kind of doing the same thing, but of course there’s always the nagging concern that they aren’t, that we are the only ones having a bad time and everyone else’s life is actually as exciting and amazing and filled with homemade baked goods as it looks online.
The most infuriating thing about how bad it feels to be on social media during the holidays is that the distress is completely self-inflicted. To paraphrase a (not great) Tyler the Creator quote: “Hahahahahahahaha… Just Walk Away From The Screen Like Close Your Eyes Haha.” I wish I could be as pure of soul as someone who can simply log off and spend time with loved ones, eat a lot of food, and enjoy not having to go to work. In a perfect world, we could all take a holiday-long break from our phones and write a New York Times column with a pen instead.
A lot of unplugging-related advice is glib as hell and ignores the fact that there’s something to be said about taking time away from a stressful situation. But it’s important, I guess, to stay wary of which scenario is more draining: the physically present family, or the virtually present wider Internet. This doesn’t have to be an either-or: It can be OK, or even healthy, to take a break from the stress of a holiday social dynamic and mess around on a phone for a while, despite what traditionalist moralizers would say about the evils of “devices.” If scrolling through social media over the holidays starts to drag, but so do the holidays, redownload 2048 (or Tinder!), catch up on articles, purge old photos, mess around on Goodreads or Letterboxd, and stay far away from Instagram. It’s also possible to literally just put the phone down, go outside, take a drive, read a book, ask your mom if she wants to hang out (she like, really does), or some other bullshit along those lines. I know which one I’ll probably do.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.