The Comparison Trap & how to get out of a toxic scrolling cycle

Plus a Q&A with freelance journalists Lily Canter and Emma Wilkinson

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This week I deleted all of the social media apps from my phone. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, the lot - even LinkedIn. After a quiet week of work, I’d done what I always do and sent myself into a spin by continuously scrolling; punishing myself for not being as ‘busy’ or ‘successful’ as many other freelancers and writers seemingly were.

Many other of the journalists and writers I follow on social media share the work they’ve had published on a regular basis. I, in no way, criticise them for this and I also do the same when I'm proud of something I've written and I think it's important to raise each other up and celebrate our wins. But when I’m having a bad week, allowing myself to be bombarded with the achievements of others can send me head first into the dreaded Comparison Trap. After a few visits to Twitter, I felt really drained and pretty weary of thinking about what everyone else was doing. I was also starting to question why I felt the need to return to these sites several times throughout the day when I knew it wasn't making me feel good.

And then, coincidentally, a friend messaged me to ask if I’d watched Social Dilemma on Netflix. If you haven’t watched it yet, I recommend you do so - especially if you often find that social media leaves you feeling bad about yourself and you aren’t sure why.

Written by Jeff Orlowski, Davis Coombe, and Vickie Curtis, the 2020 documentary explores the rise of social media and the damage it has caused to society. Wikipedia describes the film as ‘focussing on the exploitation of its users for financial gain through surveillance capitalism and data mining, and how its design is meant to nurture an addiction, its use in politics, its effect on mental health (including the mental health of adolescents and rising teen suicide rates), and its role in spreading conspiracy theories such as Pizzagate and aiding groups such as flat-earthers’. In short, it’s terrifying but essential viewing.

The doc features a number of professionals from the tech industry who were involved in making apps like Facebook and Instagram so addictive. ‘The Like button was designed to share positivity and love,’ says Justin Rosenstein, the original creator of the Facebook feature. He now describes this same feature as ‘bright dings of pseudo-pleasure that can be as hollow as they are seductive’.  In fact, Rosenstein openly warns of the addictive nature of social media sites and the Guardian reported that he has now tweaked his own laptop’s operating system to block Reddit and Snapchat, which he compares to heroin, and imposed limits on his use of Facebook. Most shockingly, every single of the tech experts interviewed said that they do not allow their children to use social media.

Scary fact: Research shows that the average person will touch, swipe or tap their phone 2,617 times a day.

Tristan Harris, an ex-Google employee and co-founder and president of the Centre for Humane Technology, also appears in the documentary. He was responsible for flagging the negative impact of social media to Google with a detailed presentation that he shared amongst the company. (After fellow employees admitted they also felt that they had created a bit of a monster, things suddenly went quiet when the big money guys at the top found out).

Harris explains how human beings are just not equipped to be judged so often, and by so many people on a daily basis, yet advertiser's benefit greatly from us being continually logged in, fixed to our screens and liking the images and posts of fellow users. He continues to raise awareness of the dangers of social media sites - especially on children and young people.

The overall message of advice from the tech experts? Get off social media completely or if that feels unnecessary, monitor your usage and get to grips with how these sites actually work. So, until further notice my apps will remain deleted from my phone and I’ll only be using them once a day by logging on via laptop. I’ve allowed social media to become too integrated into my daily life, and while I don’t deny its usefulness in connecting with new people professionally and personally, it shouldn’t be having such a profound effect on my mood or life. Or be interrupting real-life conversations with the people I actually love. Not Instagram ❤️


THE INTERVIEW: FREELANCE JOURNALISTS LILY CANTER AND EMMA WILKINSON

This week I spoke to freelance journalists and parents, Lily Canter and Emma Wilkinson. From writing, lecturing and creating their own podcast, Lily and Emma have mastered the art of diversifying their talents. I spoke to them both this week about their freelancing careers, how they balance it with children, and their own experiences of comparing themselves to others - and how, in some cases, it can be a force of good.

Cat: First off, tell me about your careers and families?

Emma: I’m a freelance journalist specialising in medicine and health and write mainly for specialist publications. I’ve been working for myself for 14 years now and I also do some teaching at Sheffield Hallam University. More recently Lily and I have developed Freelancing for Journalists which is a book, podcast, Facebook community and online course. I have three children, two boys aged 4 and 6 and a girl who is 9 so life is pretty chaotic.

Lily:  I’m a money, health and lifestyle journalist writing for the national press and specialist media. I’ve been freelance for 5 years after leaving a very well paid managerial job in academia which was making me very unhappy. I also lecture part-time at Sheffield Hallam University and Goldsmiths University. I am the mother of two boys, aged 5 and 8.

Cat: Can you explain how much of your time is split on different types of work?

Emma: I’ve only recently started to work full time officially as my youngest has started school but in reality I’ve been working full time hours for years through using evenings and weekends to catch up. It does vary but roughly 60% of my work is journalism and the other 40% is split between all our Freelancing for Journalists projects and university teaching.

Lily: My split is similar to Emma’s. About 30% on teaching, 10% on FFJ and 60% on journalism although these all fluctuate depending on what FFJ is focussing on. Next month we are running our freelancing course for journalism.co.uk so more time will be devoted to FFJ in November.

Cat: Comparing ourselves to other freelancers is something we all face at one point or another. Is this something you yourselves have experienced and how do you deal with it?

Emma: I have always been quite unique having such a niche specialism so there’s not always a lot of people to compare myself to but I did really struggle with this in lockdown. Trying to juggle working and having the kids at home was incredibly hard and I would look at other journalists who were broadcasting from home or doing big investigations, who I knew had young children, and just wondered how on earth they were doing it. Why did they look so together and productive when I felt pulled in a million different directions and like I was not doing anything well. The things is, from the outside I bet others were thinking that about me. In that time we launched a book, a training course and a podcast and I was writing plenty of news and features about coronavirus too. When you stop and think what you have actually achieved that day and that week, you quickly realise those thoughts are nonsense. Now the kids are back at school I really don’t know how I did it and that was with my other half doing way more than me on the childcare front because he happened to have less on.

Lily: I think this mostly happens when you try something new. I don’t tend to experience it around my freelance journalism work but it definitely happens with our podcast and training elements. I find myself trying to find out how many downloads other journalism or freelance podcasts have got and feel a sense of achievement if we have more, which is silly really. Also when we started doing a lot of training over the summer every man and his dog appeared to be doing it and you find yourself comparing sales. I find the best way to deal with it is to embrace other freelancers and view them as colleagues not competitors. Promote their events, invite them onto your podcast, reach out to them for collaboration. Basically, kill them with kindness –haha. But to be serious, it is far better to build a community of freelancers around you as this will open up more opportunities as well as providing mutual support.

I personally find Twitter to be the worst place for falling into a comparison hole as I follow a lot of freelancer journalists. How can we use social media in a positive way rather than somewhere that just makes us feel insecure and like everyone is doing more than us?

Emma: We need to spend more time celebrating each others’ achievements. Our ethos at Freelancing for Journalists is one of support and encouragement and what goes around comes around. If you help a freelance colleague out by sharing their work or providing advice, they are very likely to return the favour when you need it.

Lily: I think you shouldn’t be afraid to share your achievements no matter how big or small. On our FFJ Facebook group we run Triumph Tuesday which is all about celebrating and sharing the little wins each week. It might be an exclusive front page story but it could also be finally updating your website or making a new contact – it is all progress.

Do you ever feel that comparisons can be a positive force?

Emma: Absolutely, you can use comparisons to drive your ambitions and goals and it shows you what is achievable. But I also think we should all share the times when it has been hard or you’re struggling to juggle work and children and find the right balance because there will be so many out there who can relate. Some great examples of young children interrupting live broadcasts during lockdown normalised what we were all feeling!

Lily: A bit of healthy competition is good but you have to take everything you see online with a massive dollop of salt. It is just a snapshot of a moment in time and does not portray the other 23 hours of the day. For example the massive meltdown I had this morning after my boys failed to tidy up their Lego, yet again. I was screaming like a banshee – you don’t see that on Twitter.

Cat:
Where do you go to find inspiration for stories and pitches and how do you keep your mind clear while doing this?

Emma: It is easy to fall down the social media rabbit hole but personally, Twitter is an invaluable tool for my work because there are so many medics and scientists on there. It’s a constant source of ideas and I don’t have to look far at all. The trick is knowing you can’t do it all, you can’t pitch everything so you have to learn to be selective. If anyone has learnt the knack of keeping a clear head let me know because I constantly feel like a computer who has too many tabs open!

Lily: I get ideas from everywhere but recently they seem to suddenly pop into my head when I’m having a shower after a run! I see what people are talking about online, follow-up on news in the media, spot strong case studies on niche Facebook groups. Unlike Emma I don’t really use Twitter for story ideas but I do rely heavily on Facebook communities. I never really sit down and say to myself ‘I am going to hunt for story ideas now’, they just pop up organically whilst I’m doing other things.

Cat: How can we re-focus on our own career goals and leave the chatter of social media behind?

Emma: You need to be clear about what is important to you rather than what others are up to. Having a business partner or mentor you can bounce ideas off can be really helpful here and Lily and I will talk about career issues with each other even when it’s not about Freelancing for Journalists. When I'm really busy I make sure I stay away from social media so I can concentrate on what I’m doing, or set myself limited times when I can go on. Having lists and spreadsheets for ideas and commissions helps. You can’t keep it all in your head.

Lily: At the end of the day you have to do what makes you happy. That’s why I left a stressful job. I had status, power and a good salary and I thought that’s what I really wanted but after a couple of years it just ground me down. As a freelance you can feel like you are floating around a bit aimlessly at times so it is good to set yourself goals every six months or so, whether that is to hit an earnings target, work for new clients or start a new project, it could even be a goal to have more time off or take up a new leisure activity. Ignore the noise around you and work out what you find fulfilling, that’s why you are freelance after all!

You can listen to Lily and Emma’s podcast here and order their book Freelancing for Journalists. You can also sign up to their online course and catch one of their webinars if you're interested in a freelance journalism career.

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