BY ANNIKA CARTER – In fourth and fifth grade, my friends started getting cell phones (remember when the SideKick and Razr were the best?). Shortly thereafter, they started making MySpace accounts. Excited to join in on the social media craze, I created an account on my 13th birthday without my mother’s knowledge — she definitely would have disapproved. I tried the whole social media thing — posting statuses, taking selfies with friends, “checking in” at my favorite restaurant — but I never got hooked. As a closet introvert, I have never been one to worry about what others think of me or to broadcast my life to the world. I would much rather keep to myself and my small circle of close friends. Sure, I still have that Facebook account, and I even have an Instagram (created by my freshman year roommate here at UGA), but the number of posts I make on each are pitifully low. I haven’t posted on my Facebook in years (save for the occasional profile or cover photo change) and, for the longest time, my Instagram didn’t surpass nine photos. Now, three years later, my Insta sits at a whopping 33 photos. I did not fall victim to the social media craze, but most young people have not been so lucky.
For many, social media accounts provide a way to stay connected with the outside world while simultaneously remaining removed from it. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter all provide a platform on which someone can create a version of themselves that they are proud of — perhaps a version of themselves very different from their actual self. And behind that computer screen, they are safe, protected by the 152 likes on their new profile picture. This new socialization brings its own pressures — pressures to look good, better than that other girl and to be funny and interesting, so that you get more followers than that one guy. Over the years, as the number of watchers, followers, brands, advertisers and sponsors increased, these pressures only grew, creating the perfect cocktail for low self-esteem and self-worth.
The evidence of social media’s harmful side effects is not all circumstantial. In 2013, French researchers from the Institut Pluridisciplinaire Hubert Curien published an article describing the effects social media has on its users’ emotions. They found that individuals who spend more time on social media sites tend to have higher levels of depression. This makes sense. Think about it — when you scroll through Instagram, you look at pictures of your friends and celebrities, thinking, “I wish I had her makeup,” or, “Why can’t I be in the Caribbean right now like he is?” While on social media, even though you might not mean to, you are constantly comparing yourself to others. Many of us social media users fail to take into account that most of what we see is posed, staged and carefully orchestrated to give the illusion of perfection. Social media is not real life. Celebrity stylists spend hours upon hours making their clients look perfect for that one (of one thousand) photo that makes the cut to be posted online. Even our friends and families tend to only post photos themselves at their best. Even we do.
Many view their social media accounts as extensions of their personal identity. This means that every word and pixel is a piece of themselves. These users are particularly susceptible to the power of the “like.” But liking is a good thing, right? Well, not so much. Many use social media to get attention and, when they don’t get that attention, it can be hurtful. This attention is often equated as self approval or self worth. Michelle Linker, a daily Instagram user, told The Guardian, “I feel anxiety over how many likes I get after I post a picture. If I get two likes, I feel like, what’s wrong with me?” Some users even delete photos that do not get enough likes. The emotional pitfalls of social media have not been secret these past years. Essena O’Neil, an Australian teenager, quit Instagram after accumulating over 500,000 followers on the platform with her posed, model-like photos. After quitting, she said Instagram is, “contrived perfection made to get attention.” Before quitting the platform altogether, O’Neil exposed the lie behind her beautiful photos, changing the captions to things like: “NOT REAL LIFE – I didn’t pay for the dress, took countless photos trying to look hot for Instagram, the formal made me feel incredibly alone.”
Should everyone follow O’Neil’s lead and quit social media? No. Many men and women will continue to use social media and there is nothing wrong with that. Social media is fun — it is fun to share our lives with friends at home and overseas and exciting to scroll through our feed and see what our favorite celebrities or cats (I’m talking about you, Lil Bub) have been up to. We need remember to occasionally unplug and take a step back. Remember what makes you you, outside of that amazing picture floating around on the internet. We need to remember that we are more than a profile, more than a status. Remember what makes you great in the real world. Because seriously, you are great.