The most honest sentence I have ever heard was relayed to me by a friend. Her sister was complaining that their seemingly blissful vacation in Australia was lacking something. “I haven’t gotten my Facebook jealous picture yet”, she lamented as they were laying on the beach.
At first I was appalled. Who could be so shallow? Then I realized, I could be. I had that exact same mindset. When I’d travel, I’d look for opportunities to take amazing photos to post to social media. Once I thought about it, I kind of envied this person’s self awareness.
I like to think that I have evolved from the “Facebook jealous” mindset. Maybe I have become less superficial now that I have a young child. However, I think there is more than just superficiality at play here. Social media has wormed its way into our sense of self and impacts everything from our happiness to trivial decisions about where to go for coffee.
It starts out when we are young, even if we grew up without social media. We come of age thinking older people have it all figured out. I remember envying older grades in high school because everyone in their class seemed to be one large group of friends, while mine had cliques and in-fighting. This observation was obviously false. I was just witnessing scenes of camaraderie at school, not actual friendships.
On TV and movies (at least in the 90s) it appeared that there is a way its all supposed to unfold for us. We’re supposed to have a high school sweetheart, who maybe it doesn’t always work out with once we get to college. Then after college, we’re supposed to have a job lined up at a dream company that we will inevitably have a long and prosperous career with.
As young adults, we determine early on that the “dream career” is a myth. But we still believe that there is this life we are supposed to be living. Maybe not a “perfect life”, but one in which we do fun, creative stuff with our partner, have awesome friends who do cool, trendy things, have a great relationship with our families, explore the far reaches of the planet, eat at the best restaurants, watch the newest shows, and listen to the hippest music. And in addition to all of this, we are completely stress free and have zero fears or problems bringing us down.
We have to know that this is impossible to achieve in our real lives. We understand that the stresses, the fights, the fears, the self-doubts, the awkward moments are all part of life. We accept them and adapt as best as we can.
These imperfections, however, don’t have to exist in the lives we project on social media. We have complete control of the narrative in this life. We can edit out the bad parts, highlight the good parts, and even crop out the blemishes.
The version of ourselves that we display on social media is always enjoying life, doing cool things, living a carefree life of self-actualized glory. We are cultured, active, informed, enlightened. We’ve been to Europe, South America, watch Oscar-nominated films or documentaries, eat exclusively at farmer’s markets and exercise all the time.
No matter how we might be feeling on the inside, the version of ourselves displayed on social media continues to be happy. This version of ourselves continues along some kind of trajectory that is consistent with the life we believe we should be living.
ESPN did a great job looking into the Instagram life of a Penn student athlete that took her own life. It’s a tragic tale of how the life we lead on social media can show a person that has it all figured out and loves life, while on the inside we are struggling to get through the day. Social media may not be the cause of depression in these cases, but it seems to be heavily correlated.
This type of behavior is often referred to as social peacocking. Who could blame us for wanting to put our best foot forward and show our friends all the cool stuff we do? And our friends don’t want to see the low moments we have, getting chewed out at work or getting in a fight with our spouse. They want to see their good looking friends doing cool stuff, right?
Plenty of studies have shown that use of social media tends to correlate strongly with being unhappier. Recently, a study has helped to establish a causal link. What they discovered was that when we see our friends engaging in these activities, it makes us feel worse about ourselves. The thing is, we don’t even believe that these people are really living such a happy life. Even though we know they are cropping, filtering and retouching their life, we still feel bad that we aren’t living that life. We end up comparing ourselves to our friends, which on its own takes us out of the particular moment we are currently living in and makes us less happy. Think about it – would you be more or less happy with the activity you are currently engaged in, if you are constantly checking to see what activities your social media friends are doing. The podcast Hidden Brain explains it very well here.
This means that we are actively engaged in an activity that has two downsides. The photos we post to social media are making our friends feel worse about themselves. Something we should seek to avoid. Also, by checking our friends’ posts, we are making ourselves feel worse. Another thing we should seek to avoid.
I think there is another thing at work here. We don’t like feeling bad about ourselves. We like feeling good about ourselves. But we don’t consider avoiding social media to be an option. So we plan a trip to Australia. Then when we get there, we will look to find that Facebook jealous picture so that we can affirm that we are – if only for just a moment – living the life that we want to portray to the world.
Foursquare check-ins used to drive my behavior. I’d skip over Starbucks to a cooler coffee shop, because that check-in would make me feel cooler. There is a positive externality here that I was experiencing more of my community and supporting a local business, but my motivation was problematic. I would look forward to hopping off a long flight and seeing my check-in rack up all kinds of points, rather than looking forward to seeing friends or experience a new culture.
It may seem insane that anyone would actually allow social media to dictate their behavior on social media. But when you consider how likes on Instagram can become such a large part of our sense of self worth, it actually makes sense. While this impact of social media has led me and others to become more superficial, it can become much more serious.
As I’ve posted before, I don’t think this problem has an easy solution. We can’t just tell kids to put away social media or delete an app. The roots of this problem are woven deep into our culture, and the psychological impact is profound. We are just beginning to understand it, but we are fortunate that psychologists are asking the right questions.