In the age of the internet and smartphones, there is no denying that technology continuously shapes our everyday lives. Ours is an ever-connected society, and social media in particular has transformed human interactions well beyond the confines of our immediate circles. We can now communicate with friends, family, and likeminded communities regardless of physical location, and sharing even the most intimate aspects of our private lives has become the norm.
Whilst global connectivity is no doubt extremely positive, a closer look at social media highlights a more destructive reality for the individual. In a world where everything is seemingly on show, it is crucial to question just how real social media is and to consider its impact on our mental well-being.
Social Media: What’s The Appeal?
To truly understand the relationship between social media and self-image, we need to recognize what draws us to online networks in the first place. Keeping in touch with far-flung friends and relatives may be an obvious advantage to sites like Facebook, but our fascination with social media runs deeper than that: it taps into our desire to be heard. Indeed, the internet has given us all a voice, with affordable packages such as this one making it easier than ever before to create a website or blog using common WordPress themes. Practically anyone can become a published writer or photographer within the online sphere, and the abundance of user-generated media stands testament to our inherent need to share. Social media presents not only another platform through which to express ourselves, but by apparently focusing on the banalities of everyday life, it enables us to construct an identity over which we have total control.
Through status updates, location check-ins, and photo uploads, we appear to give our online friends all-access insight into our lives, but in reality, the majority of us are presenting an edited version. Whilst this is necessary for maintaining some degree of privacy, the danger arises when we become more fixated on portraying the perfect existence than actually living it. Posting only the most flattering selfies or fun-filled weekend snaps may seem completely harmless – and is indeed a natural reflex for many online socialites – but our obsession with airbrushing every aspect of our digital lives can actually have some rather alarming psychological implications.
The Actual Self Vs. The Online Self
The notion of keeping up appearances is not unique to social media; from job interviews to meeting new people for the first time, it’s only natural that we put our best selves forward. According to Edward Tory Higgins’ self-discrepancy theory (1987), we all identify with three different types of self: the actual self – the person we perceive ourselves to actually be; the ought self based on who we believe we should be; and the ideal self shaped by hopes, wishes, and aspirations – the person we want to be. Higgins believed that the larger the perceived discrepancy between, say, the actual and the ideal self, the more prone the individual is to negative emotions, such as low self-esteem, anxiety, and even self-contempt.
Of course, it is not only our own profiles that affect our mental wellbeing. Several studies have identified a correlation between Facebook usage in general and dissatisfaction with one’s own life, with envy cited as the most common emotion induced by the site. Bombarded with constant reminders of other people’s “perfect” lives, it can indeed be incredibly difficult to see through the illusion that everyone else is flying higher, having more fun, and going to better places. Our failure to fully realize our own goals is once again highlighted, and we feel inadequate – and miserable – by comparison.
External Validation or True Self-Worth?
According to Statista, 73% of the US population had a social media profile in 2015, a figure that grows significantly year on year. The question remains, then: if social media makes us feel so bad, why do we continue to subscribe and take part? Fear of missing out no doubt plays a major role, as online networks have become so integral to the way we interact with our peers. Another key factor is our inherent need to be regarded positively by others, as explained by psychologist Carl Rogers’ theory of personality. There is no denying that posting a picture online and receiving likes and comments is one of the most instant – and measurable – forms of external validation, and gives us quite the buzz. In that respect, social media has made it all too easy to choose the path of instant, short-term gratification, with the ideal or online self often taking precedence over the actual self. Whilst social media provides a quick-fix, the ever widening gap between the actual and ideal selves can leave us feeling empty and unfulfilled in the long term.
Loving Yourself In The Age of Social Media
The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction not a destination.
Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person (1961)
A significant part of Rogers’ theory is the concept of self-actualization through reaching one’s full potential, ultimately aligning the actual self with the ideal self. Although this is an ongoing journey rather than a fixed destination, the more congruent we perceive the two selves to be, the greater our sense of fulfilment. However, in a world where social media paints a glossy picture of perfect lives, there is a growing tendency to abandon the pursuit of self-actualization and to live vicariously instead through the online self.
Someone who knows only too well just how toxic this can be is teenage model Essena O’Neill. Having previously made a living through her social media posts, she dramatically quit Instagram last year, exposing a deeply flawed reality behind the perfect scenes. No longer able to cope with the discrepancy between her real life and the life she was portraying online, she has shunned social media in order to focus on “real-life projects.” In an emotional video that clearly captures just how miserable it made her feel to be “defined by numbers,” O’Neill strongly urges others to follow suit.
Achieving and maintaining a positive self-image in the social media age is not necessarily about quitting Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Rather, it is about readjusting your perception of the online world and finding a balance between digital and real life. Firstly, learning to see through the smoke and mirrors of other social media profiles will break the habit of comparing yourself unfavorably, so that time spent online is more about connecting with friends than highlighting your own shortcomings.
Secondly, it’s crucial to focus wholly on aligning your actual self with your ideal self, rather than simply projecting these aspirations onto your online profile. Be 100% present in every moment – do things that actually fulfil and satisfy you, regardless of whether it makes an impressive social media post. Nurturing face-to-face connections and placing more value on your real-life state puts a much-needed perspective on social media, ultimately boosting the way we perceive ourselves and paving the way to genuine, long-term happiness.
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