Getting Real Online
With the press of a few buttons, we can send out to the world smiling pictures of ourselves on the beachÂ as the sun glints off white sand and crystal clear waters lap up into the shore.
Our Instagram and Facebook followers see the happiness on ourÂ faces, and we bask in the joy of “likes” and the “I’m so jealous”Â comments that come pouring in.
What our friends, family, forgotten high school classmates andÂ people we’ve likely met once or twice don’t see is the screamingÂ toddler who was cropped out of the only usable shot in a dozen.Â They don’t think about the filter that made the sun seem evenÂ brighter. And they don’t know about that significant other whoÂ isn’t there because of an argument over breakfast.
The world sees what we want them to see. And so often, that’sÂ only the positives.
On the other side of the screen, all those acquaintances are goingÂ through a range of emotions as your suntanned vacation photosÂ scroll onto the screen. Some are genuinely happy that you lookÂ to be having fun, but for others, the photos are reminders thatÂ they are not at the beach, they are not having fun and that theyÂ sometimes don’t feel good about themselves.
“There’s quite a lot of research that shows people do engage inÂ social comparison online,” says Catalina Toma, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Arts at the UniversityÂ of Wisconsin-Madison.“The more people spend time examiningÂ other people’s profiles and self-identity claims, the worse we feelÂ about ourselves.”
You read that right. Studies show that viewing the happy moments of our social media contacts can bring us down.
A paper published in 2014, “Seeing Everyone Else’s HighlightÂ Reels: How Facebook Usage is Linked to Depressive Symptoms,”Â from researchers at the University of Houston and Palo AltoÂ University, touched on the issue and cited the work of Leon Festinger, who came up with the concept of social comparison theory.Â Basically, we tend to measure ourselves against the successesÂ and failures of those around us.
But we don’t often post our failures to social media. So Facebook, Instagram and other platforms tend to act as a filter, magnifying our successes for others to see, and sometimes envy.
“Overall results revealed that spending a great deal of time onÂ Facebook (or viewing Facebook more frequently) is positively related to comparing one’s self to others, which in turn is associated with increased depressive symptoms,” the authors found.
The study also says that people who view statuses and photosÂ that put their subjects in a negative light can feel better aboutÂ themselves. But that happens less often.
“We do have a lot of control over our self-presentation. We doÂ have an incentive to look good because there is an audience,”Â Toma says. “People don’t seem to realize that everyone is doingÂ what they themselves are doing on social media – putting theirÂ best foot forward.”
It’s also possible that the fabulous life and times that friends postÂ aren’t just selected moments. They may very well be embellished,Â or even fake.
Pencourage, an online diary site that allows users to post theirÂ thoughts anonymously, did a survey and found that two-thirdsÂ of people admit to embellishing or outright lying on social mediaÂ posts.
About half of users 16-24 years old say they went to events orÂ places they weren’t interested in simply because they were afraidÂ that they would be left out on social media when people postedÂ photos from those places.
And one-fifth of users 18-24 years old said their social media lifeÂ bears no resemblance to their real lives.
Can’t Catch Up
Despite the realization that we all post the best versions of ourselves on social media, seeing other people do the same can stillÂ be depressing.
Annemarie Toldo, a 28-year-old child care provider in Rockford,Â had struggled with her weight for years. Seeing fit friends orÂ celebrities in her feed became demoralizing as she tried herself toÂ lose weight. She especially disliked seeing photos of people whoÂ had dramatic – and sudden – weight loss.
“You see ‘Look at these results after just one day or just oneÂ wrap,’” Toldo says. “They say, ‘This is what the perfect body isÂ like, all tan, perfect shape, clear skin.’” She found herself workingÂ hard in a gym and feeling like it was never going to pay off. “IÂ struggled with looking at pictures of my friends who were skinnier,Â and I’d see how much attention they were getting,” Toldo says. “I Â remember one time working out, I wanted to give up right away. IÂ thought, ‘I’m never going to look like these people.’”
Patti Kroll, a licensed clinical social worker with Family Counseling Services of Northern Illinois, says she sees people trying toÂ live up to the standards of celebrities and models.
“You can’t ever live up to that. You’re trying to compare yourselfÂ to people who have up to 12 hours a day to work out if theyÂ want,” Kroll says. “It definitely gives that fake idea that everyoneÂ else is doing well, and I’m the only one who struggles.”
But Kroll reminds clients that those same people who seem toÂ have it all are the same as the rest of us, with problems andÂ failures that we just don’t see. “I tell people this is a snippet ofÂ something that happens to someone one day. It might be thatÂ they don’t include the fight they had with their husband or theÂ fight they had with their kids,” Kroll says. “They might not feelÂ comfortable talking about those things.”
Social comparison can be especially troublesome for teens andÂ young adults. The Millennial generation has grown up with socialÂ media always having been there, and it has become a significantÂ part of creating an identity.
In other words, she compared herselfÂ to herself, which is the only real measuring stick she needed.
Younger social media users put a lot of emphasis on the feedback – or lack thereof – they receive from their posts. That canÂ be a trigger for serious anxiety, depression or worse.
“They maybe didn’t get enough likes, they could get rejected, orÂ they didn’t get enough comments,” says Casey Pilcher, a clinicalÂ social worker and therapist in Rockford. “They would base theirÂ self-worth on feedback from other people.”
Pilcher says parents need to know what their children are lookingÂ at on social media – not every post, but just an idea of the typesÂ of people they follow and the images that they’re exposed to.
Everyone’s a Critic
What about the people who do post those professional photosÂ that took hours to get just right? It turns out that they wind up inÂ this sort of spiral where they need to keep up a certain look orÂ appearance because their fans expect it, and they can get just asÂ frustrated.
Emily Hurd is one of those people who works hard to put her bestÂ foot forward on social media, and she realizes that the photosÂ she posts can sometimes give a warped view of who she is. TheÂ Rockford-based independent folk singer posts to a FacebookÂ page for her fans. Most of the photos are professionally done,Â though these days she’s newly married with a months-old babyÂ in tow while she works to open a new restaurant on the west sideÂ of the city.
Hurd is trying to meet the standards of her brand. But the demands of her regular life mean that sometimes she isn’t the woman in the artistic black-and-white photos standing on the beach.
“Everyone knows you from videos and photos, and you’ve putÂ your very best self out there,” Hurd says. “Then you show upÂ and people wonder why you don’t look exactly like you do in theÂ photos.”
Hurd says she feels the pressure to look that part all the timeÂ because that’s what people have come to expect from her, andÂ there is often little room for error. Once, at a show in Michigan,Â some fans let fly some comments that made Hurd self-conscious.
“This guy said, ‘Wow, somebody gained 10 lbs,’ and this secondÂ guy said, ‘Do you think you’ll try to lose it?’” Hurd says. “Here IÂ thought I was looking good, then I went into body dysmorphiaÂ and looked at myself differently.”
Hurd says that Facebook itself can be a problem. The platformÂ will remind those who have pages if they haven’t posted for aÂ while. Hurd says she might not have anything to say, or that sheÂ sees how much others musicians and singers are doing andÂ she can feel this strong urge to try to keep up, even when that’sÂ unrealistic.
“I see other singers who have written a new song and the best IÂ can say is that I’ve made breakfast,” Hurd says.
The Bright Side
None of this means that social media is all bad. There are thoseÂ who view photos of their fit friends and are inspired.
Toldo, who eventually lost 30 pounds, says she becomes motivated to keep up her healthy lifestyle when she sees others doingÂ the same.
She accomplished her goals physically through better diet andÂ exercise. But mentally, she did something the social workers andÂ other experts suggest – she stopped looking at the photos ofÂ the people she couldn’t be, and started looking at past photos ofÂ herself.
“After I started seeing results from working out and eating right, itÂ kind of jump-started me,” Toldo says.
In other words, she compared herself to herself, which is the onlyÂ real measuring stick she needed.
That’s the right idea, Kroll says. She tells clients that they can’tÂ expect to look like someone else. They can only be the best versions of themselves possible. And they have to understand thatÂ real change takes real time.
“When you go step on a scale, you don’t want to see 1 or 2Â pounds. You want to see 5 or 10 pounds,” Kroll says. “But youÂ have to realize that you are making positive progress.”
There is also evidence that social media can be good for relationships. Toma says people who post those sappy messages aboutÂ how wonderful their significant others are do more than annoyÂ their single friends.
“The more couples define themselves on being in a relationship,Â the more committed they stayed toward their significant other,Â and there was a greater chance they stayed together after sixÂ months,” Toma says about a study she conducted.
That may be because those couples need to put their moneyÂ where their mouths are.
“If you present yourself as highly committed to a partner, you areÂ more likely to perpetuate that,” Toma says.
For those who have a hard time finding joy in the posts ofÂ others, Pilcher reminds them that they, too, have positive thingsÂ in their lives. And if they can put effort into remembering that,Â they can block some of the envy that comes with seeing others’Â successes.
“Try to focus on things that are going to bring you up and beÂ more positive,” Pilcher says.