My Instagram profile makes my life look a lot more exciting than it is. I don’t have a problem admitting this fact – I think it’s a general assumption among users that social media is more a highlight reel of a person’s life than an authentic documentary of it.  In fact, a recent study done by the smartphone company HTC found that two thirds of people post content on their social media profiles to seem more exciting. In the same study, more than half claimed that they posted images to cause jealousy among their followers. 

So we all embellish. But what’s the big deal? Surely we can’t be expected to share that C- we got on our recent paper or the less than flattering triple chin picture from last night, right? 

Unfortunately it’s not as harmless as it seems.  We lie on social media because we feel pressure to “maintain a cool online persona” and “to have a good time or sound upbeat in [our] updates.”  If more than half of the population is embellishing his or her life on social media, that means that those people think their raw, unembellished life isn’t worth posting about.  It means perpetuating a culture where four out of ten people feel envious of their friends’ posts. Social media has become a place for us to peruse the lives of others, usually with the assumption that the glossy, filtered product is “real.”  The trouble is though, this isn’t the case.  Social media is all too often a dangerous and inaccurate portrayal of beauty, relationships, success, and life. These alternate realities that we portray on our social media accounts are damaging to ourselves and the people who see them. We are using social media in such a way that gives us unreasonable and unattainable standards for ourselves and others. And unfortunately, these standards aren’t based in truth. They’re coming from editing and distortion.

All of this distortion has had some pretty tough consequences:

In 2014, a University of Pennsylvania student committed suicide.  Her Instagram feed was filled with pictures portraying a life carefully culled from images that “confirmed everyone’s expectations: of course she was enjoying her first year of college.” This wasn’t the case though. In reality, Madison Holleran was deeply depressed. You’d never expect it, looking at the pictures of the accomplished, intelligent, and beautiful girl depicted on her profile. Instagram is only the tip of the iceberg. It shows 1% of the story.

Facebook depression is a reality we now have to live with. A study in The Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that not only is Facebook depression real, but that it comes from “social comparison” in which we compare our average, everyday moments to those filtered, edited highlights on social media.

Essena O’Neill, a social media star announced a few weeks ago that she’d be quitting social media. She even edited many of her Instagram posts explaining the truth behind “getting the perfect shot.” O’Neill described a life of distorting reality, of promoting things she didn’t particularly like, and of a dangerous obsession with how others perceived her. Say what you want about O’Neill’s method and reasoning, but I think it’s undeniable that her actions pointed out important considerations users and consumers of social media should make: social media is all too often an illusion – “It’s not real life.” 

In light of all of this, do I think that we should all delete our accounts and apps? No. I think that the benefits of social media still outweigh the costs. I think the ease of connection we have with people, the quick access to news, and our new ability to share and learn at a moment’s notice are all incredible advancements courtesy of social media.  However, I think we need to be more conscientious with the way we use and consume social media. This means remembering that what we see isn’t the full story, that we shouldn’t compare or judge ourselves too harshly on social media, and that real life, with its unedited, uncut, and unglossy moments, is much much richer than what we show on any profile.

Cover image courtesy of Flickr user sylviaduckworth. Screenshot courtesy of Essena O’Neill’s Instagram feed


2 thoughts on “Social Media and the Iceberg Illusion

  1. That’s the problem with general social media.

    I hang around message boards that revolve around a specific niche. The purpose isn’t to impress anyone but to find people like you, who like the same stuff you do. It’s meritocratic, if anything. People who become popular on these sites often do so because they’re knowledgeable in that field.

    In general social media, you aim at nothing.

  2. Pingback: The Social Media Illusion – LeLeLaPoeteSpeaks

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