Obsessing over the lives of others

People have always had a fascination about the lives of rich and famous people and it is a staple of the media to feature celebrity interviews that encourage them to open up about the most mundane elements of their lives. And if the celebrity is not willing to divulge that information voluntarily, then there are the paparazzi and other groups that will resort to all manner of methods to get it. Gossip sells.

But that was before the internet. While the internet has not changed that basic interest in celebrity gossip, it has expanded on it in two ways. For one, now there are way more outlets for that information, which necessarily means less selectivity about what is shared. Now even items like what a person eats for breakfast or their morning routine can find readers.

The other expansion is that the circle of people whose details of their lives are are considered worth knowing about has greatly increased, well beyond those who have made a name for themselves in some field of endeavor such as the arts or politics or sports or business. Now it seems like anyone, particularly if they are young and attractive in the conventional sense, can become the focus of interest of a large number of strangers. Many of these people actively seek to cultivate a following and form partnerships with companies to advertise their products. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram are the main outlets for this kind of self-promotion.

On the surface, this seems harmless, at worst a waste of time between consenting adults, some of whom post mundane details of their lives while many more want to read about them. But Alex Hern writes that there can be a downside. Since most of the people doing the posting paint rosy pictures of their lives, this can lead to dissatisfaction among their followers with the state of their own lives, and in extreme cases can lead to online assaults against the seemingly perfect lives that they see.

In 2017, the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), an independent charity that seeks to improve people’s wellbeing, conducted a UK-wide survey of 14- to 24-year-olds, asking them about the big five social media platforms: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram. Users ranked how their use of the platforms affected everything from the quality of their sleep to their Fomo – the fear of missing out on what others are enjoying.

Instagram came last, scoring particularly badly for its effects on sleep, body image and Fomo. Only Snapchat came close in its overall negativity, saved by a more positive effect on real-world relationships, while YouTube scored positively on almost every metric – except its effect on sleep, for which it was the worst of all the platforms.

“On the face of it, Instagram can look very friendly,” says the RSPH’s Niamh McDade. “But that endless scrolling without much interaction doesn’t really lead to much of a positive impact on mental health and wellbeing. You also don’t really have control over what you’re seeing. And you quite often see images that claim to be showing you reality, yet aren’t. That’s especially damaging to young men and women.”

The risk of developing an unhealthy body image is often highlighted, but McDade emphasises that this is just one aspect. “Some people may be looking at feeds full of cars, and it’s giving them anxiety and depression as they can’t afford them.”

What interests me is why people are so interested in the lives of others that they spend so much time on them, especially when those other people have not done anything particularly noteworthy. I cannot answer this on any personal level because I do not use the social media platforms Facebook, Snapchat, or Instagram. I do have a Twitter account but rarely use it. I do watch YouTube videos but very sporadically, when I want something specific, but I do not subscribe to any feeds.

But clearly these outlets satisfy a need for many people that has the potential to veer from being a harmless way of killing some time to becoming an unhealthy obsession that can result in dissatisfaction with their own lives. The question is whether people are drawn to obsess over the lives of other people because they are dissatisfied with their own lives or they become dissatisfied with their own lives because of what they see as the much better lives of others.

So what can be done about this? It seems like cultivating sensible habits among young people would be a good starting point. But something positive has to replace the time that is spent of these activities, such as encouraging them to see that spending time with real friends doing real things in real space may be preferable to following the virtual lives of strangers, however ‘close’ one might feel to them.

People have always sought some forms of escapism from the routine of their own lives, and books and films used to be the way out. But while we could become immersed in those fictional worlds the lives we read about or saw were not tantalizingly close to our own and thus there was little chance of thinking that our lives should be like those. But social media seems to be feeding the myth that our lives could be just like the lives of the people we are following and the fact that it isn’t can lead to a sense of grievance against others or self-loathing.


  1. Dunc says

    The question is whether people are drawn to obsess over the lives of other people because they are dissatisfied with their own lives or they become dissatisfied with their own lives because of what they see as the much better lives of others.

    This seems like a chicken / egg question.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Looks to me like tabloid culture, now minute-by-minute instead of a weekly cycle.

    I’ve long suspected this also poisons ordinary people’s lives by forcing them to compare their ordinary friends & family with high-glam stars selected for photogenicity -- with, as usual, the heaviest penalties getting paid by women and girls.

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