During my post doctoral fellowship, I worked with a number of college students from a large East Coast university, known for its infamous party scene and “dayges” - a term used to signify day long drinkathons. In my work with these students, I noticed the same themes kept emerging, “I hate being alone. I don’t know what to do with myself, I just get unbearably sad.” “How do you fill that time?” I’d ask, always getting a similar answer, “My phone...Instagram... Snap Chat...” What I came to learn was that people would spend their alone time thinking, “My life isn’t as (blank) as other people’s,” or, “I’m not as (blank) as other people.”
No wonder they dreaded these small windows of time! When they weren’t distracted by school work, fraternity parties, and rush events, they were inadvertently engaging in an activity that induced all sorts of feelings of inadequacy and low self worth. While social media was originally intended to be a tool for interpersonal connection(and still can be if used with intention), in our current times it often serves as a tool for social comparison, and by proxy, it becomes a vehicle for self-deprecating thoughts. Seeing other young women taking selfies at the popular fraternity can trigger a whole story about another person’s life: “She is so pretty, popular, smart, guys love her...she has everything, and I have nothing.” Yet the reality is likely very far from that curated photo she posted on Instagram 2 minutes ago. Whether or not the photo reflects reality, what is certain is that it has the potential to induce immense shame and self loathing.
So what are college students to do in their “solo time?” one might ask. I know it may be easier said than done, but turning off your phone or simply placing it on “do not disturb” mode eliminates the temptation to use others’ lives as a source of stimulation. Ask yourself the question, “What did I do with my free time before I had a phone?” You might be surprised at what you come up with. Perhaps you read a book, baked cookies, blasted music and danced around the house or shot hoops in the back yard.
These are all forms of play! As we grow up, and particularly around the era of social media, there is a pressure to perform in every sense of the word. Whether it’s the pressure to get straight A's, aiming to perfect one’s physical appearance, or getting that promotion at work, this pressure can get in the way of an essential human experience; that of play! When we are constantly looking for ways to enhance our performance, which goes hand-in-hand with comparing ourselves to others around us, we cannot also be okay just as we are. When you set aside the drive to perform for just a few minutes each day, you may be amazed to find the self acceptance that comes along with that. As I once heard on a podcast, there is great joy in missing out sometimes. JOMO.