Dr Linda Papadopoulos has just released another book- Unfollow- so we caught up with her to talk about why millennials are having a tough time of things and what you can do to protect yourself.
What can readers expect from your new book Unfollow?
They can expect to understand why being a millennial is so challenging. In the last few months, we have been hearing about many millennials experiencing more anxiety than any other age group and that the levels of depression are quite high. We also hear about the need for perfectionism and that social media has an impact. I think what I have tried to do with the book is look at why that is and also what we can hopefully do about it to buffer ourselves.
You have targeted this book at women in their twenties- so why is this the most susceptible age for discontent?
The reason I directed it at that age group is because it was clinically something that I was seeing. Also from a sociological point of view, when we look at our western society- our twenties are such a seminal time. You've got to figure out what job you're going to do- where you're going to live, who you're going to marry- there are so many boxes that traditionally you begin to tick or look at. For some people this is resolved in their twenties- for most of us it goes on further. The reason we looked at it in this age bracket is because this is where the thinking starts.
Each chapter begins with a quote from a twenty something- so can you tell us about the process of seeking these out and why were they so important for the book?
It needed to feel real. I sat across all the time from amazing men and women and the quotes that you're reading are the things that I hear. As a psychologist, I got an insight into the pressures from the horse's mouth as it were rather than just the research. It's always very impactful on me. We can sit there behind our computers and we can say 'we gave out this questionnaire and this is how people feel'. When you have someone sitting across from you who feels that they are incapacitated by perfection. When they feel they can't hand in a project at work because they don't feel it's good enough or feel they are good enough- that is really powerful. What I was hoping to do by including the quotes was to get people to not just empathize- but to normalise what they are feeling. I think there is something really important about not feeling alone in what's going on. I think psychology is great at saying 'this is what's happening as a group'- but it's informed to have that individual voice to illustrate that.
Why is there a trend of articles telling you what you should be doing with your life rather than just giving you the information for you to make your own mind up?
I think the good ones do give you the information! I used to tell my students when I was teaching for counselling and medical psychology- people will come to you and they not only need to go where they are going but they need to know where they are first. It's like a map- if you need to get to Manchester and you don't know if you're in London or Glasgow- I don't know how to help you. That idea of knowing where you are is key. For me and this book, there is a lot research and science in it precisely for that reason. This is what happens during this age biochemically, this is what happens sociologically, this is what happens with the pressure at this time. Once you understand that, once you get where you are because of your environment, because of your socialisation, because of what's happened- the notion of where you want to be and go becomes a lot easier.
I have noticed a natural change in attitude since I turned 30, so what happens as women get older to make them happier with themselves and their choices?
I think you get a sense of entitlement. As women, we are generally socialised into pleasing. I think part of that is the school system- I have a daughter. Being a good girl at school is something that is really validated and valued. The problem is, once you come out of school- being a good girl isn't really the thing that gets you far in life. We know that there are tons of women in middle management but actually very few in upper management. A study was done across global businesses and there were loads of women in the lower and middle echelons but they are not going up. So they looked through all of their records and they found that whenever a promotion came up- for a man to apply he felt he only needed about 60% of the qualifications. For a woman to apply- she felt she needed 100%. I think that is a metaphor for life- being the good girl- not making a mistake, not making a fool out of yourself. I think there's a kind of resilience that comes with that experience because we are socialised differently to boys. Boys are told off more, boys play more sports, they are used to screwing up and losing more- there is not as much emphasis on the way that they look. This idea that you either please me or you don't the minute you walk into a room because your boobs are the right size or whatever it is. I think that comes with age. I remember getting to my thirties and saying you know what? You either like me or you don't. If I'm being really honest, I still do care what people think but it's much better than what it was in my twenties. I think in your twenties, you don't have that sense of entitlement in the same way.
Can being active on Facebook and being happy with oneself go hand in hand or will there always be a grass is greener complex associated with seeing other people's highlights?
We know that there is study after study that shows comparing makes you feel awful. There's various famous studies that ask how you feel, you fill in a questionnaire and look at a glossy magazine. Then you're asked- how do you feel about your skin now or your hair or your car? It's obvious that that is going to happen. What I do hope and I think- knowledge is power- if we speak about this then maybe people will see social media as press releases. If we begin to see it as a press release, it does become easier.
This is what I spoke about in my talks last year- this notion that you can choose to read these things like genuine descriptions of peoples' existence or you can choose to understand that no-one's existence is amplified constantly it also goes up and down. It's inevitable that it will be around but it's the way we internalise the bars that we compare with or the way that we understand them or accept them- that can change- we can challenge them.
One of the studies I allude to in the book that always stays with me is that we are much more likely to post when we are feeling high and happy and we are much more likely to surf when we are feeling bad. I got my hair done, I bought a new handbag, I went out to lunch- I'm posting.
I'm at home I've got zit cream on, I'm watching something crappy on TV, I'm going to surf and see what my friends are doing. It's no big surprise that this happens. I think as we become savvier around these things- we'll know that and maybe it will make things easier.
Does it boil down to who we are friends with? If we feel aggravated by what someone posts online should we just unfollow them?
My advice would be- if someone is getting on your nerves- the less contact the better, whether that is face-to-face contact or Facebook. The whole point of a relationship is that at some point it enhances your life- it's not to have numbers on a tape. They need to add value to your life. If the value that you see them having is adding to this number then maybe it's worth them annoying you because you like that big fat number. If on the other hand- the value that they are adding is the great things they're posting or you feel a connection then maybe think about pressing 'unfollow'.
Why is there is there a perceived race to get to certain milestones in life like engagements, marriage, mortgages, babies- to name a few?
We absorb scripts from the world around us. Think about how simplistic life is to some extent in terms of achievement when you are younger. You get an A or you become head of the netball team or school form captain- you have got all these really clear indicators of success. As you come out- those indicators are much more fluid and you look around to what is valued in society. In our society- materialism is valued- so making money- but also for woman- finding a mate is highly valued. One could argue that it is an evolutionary thing- women feel they have to have babies before a certain age so they need to find a viable mate. Beyond that, I think there is a feminist issue as well. For many young women, society makes you feel like social equity ends at what? 25? Then it's like- you're done now- forget it all! We're not on TV in the same way- we're not in the movies- we're certainly not represented in ways that we ought to be. This clock is ticking mentality is influenced by that.
Then you start to look around- maybe it doesn't bother you that you're not in a committed relationship but every time you log onto Facebook you see that everyone else is in your peer group. That is your norm- it doesn't matter that the average woman in some parts of London doesn't have their first child until the age of 37. It matters in your peer group that first babies were at 31 and you're not 31- that comparison sets in. Getting what you want- not what you think you should have- which goes back to everyone telling us what to do. That boils down to this existential angst- what will make me happy?
We are social beings so conformity to some extent does make us happy but so does individualism. Let's remember that- and that is one of the points I try to make quite strongly. What is your passion? What is it about you? When we look at it in terms of looks- in magazines everyone has the same caramel skin whether they are black, white or Asian. It's nuts! There is such little diversity. I think that this lack of diversity is to some extent in the lives that we see in social media- amazing food and amazing landscapes. It's the same stuff- 'here's my latte', 'here's my tropical holiday'. Maybe you don't like the beach or hate lattes but you feel compelled to all the same. I feel very passionately about this because I see people every day who believe they are not good enough. For what? For whom? Who's idea decides?
I heard once that when a couple walk into a room- women notice the female before the male- does this link in with your chapter on sustaining sisterhood and judging our own sex too harshly?
I think that part of that is the way that men and women are socialised differently in terms of competition. We have just had another Olympics and who are the names you know? They tend to be the big sports names and political names. We've got Hillary and we've got Theresa but until a year ago in the Western world, they were few and far between. Women are socialised into something covertly. There's a sense of when I walk into a room I need to see what my competition is. I do think that the more we can encourage our girls to compete overtly- the better. I am a huge fan of sports for young people. There is a lot of research into how young girls in sports tend to do better in male dominated industries later in life- they tend to have careers that are more successful and be more resilient. I believe that is because they don't put all their self-esteem eggs in that one basket. Walking in and checking each other out is a measure of value that society places on women. The impact of our looks is too amplified. In the same way in guys are valued by their money and success. The difference between boys and girls is boys are told 'aren't you strong' and girls are told 'aren't you cute'.
You have dedicated this book to your daughter and god daughters- so how important is it for mothers, aunties, older sisters and god mothers to pass on positive messages to the younger generation?
Oh my God- it's so important. One of the things that makes me a bit sad in this day and age is the age segregation that happens because of the online world. When your kids are at home- they're never really at home with you because they're always online and seeking advice from their friends online. They are always together- never really apart. I think you need a quirky aunt and a funny grandma or a cool older cousin to get you through life. I think you need different kinds of perspectives. Passing on that wisdom from generation to generation- even if it's a five-year gap or a ten-year gap- is hugely important for our girls- for our sisterhood.
What is next for you?
I am actually speaking at the Oxford Union in a couple of weeks on mental health and young people- college grads and millennials- just what we've been speaking about today- so I'm really excited to look at what's going on in terms of- are we letting a generation down? Are we providing the right kind of mental health care?
Unfollow is out now.