When I was in high school, we didn't have social media. I know, I know. I'm 34 and from one of the last generations to go through my formative years free of the ways social media wrecks self-esteem. But when I got to college, suddenly there was MySpace, then Facebook, and then overnight everyone had phones and computers and there were too many social platforms to keep up with.
I must admit, for an introvert like myself, it was kind of nice to be able to feel connected to the outside world without having to actually go out in it. But this new socialization brought it's own pressures, like the desire to look good online, and to come across as funny and interesting — struggles people have in real face-to-face interactions, but applied to a non-stop, global network of people.
When I worked with couples and individuals as a Domestic Violence Victim Advocate and Planned Parenthood Responsible Sexuality Educator, I saw some shocking ways social media wrecked self esteem and strained relationships.
Today the struggles are tenfold, as not only do you have to look good and be interesting, but you have to be good at things and appear successful and you have to also seem to have an interesting life. And there are more and more watchers, and more and more brands and advertisers, in the mix. All this, put together, can make a cocktail for reduced self-esteem and feelings of low self-worth, in even the most popular social media users. If you can relate to these ways social media affects our self-worth, it might be time to unplug a little every once in awhile.
1. The Ads
Advertising has a clear and proven impact on our self-esteem, according to a University of Chicago study published in the Journal of Consumer Research. While we may be making a conscious effort to avoid advertising in magazines and on TV, we might be taking for granted that the Internet is rife with advertising. Even some of the posts you see that you think are just the daily lives of some of your favorite Internet personalities are really very targeted advertising, designed to make you think or feel a certain way. Everything from Kylie Jenner's latest selfie in a perfect bathing suit to a blogger in her running shoes is likely sponsored in the hopes of getting you to buy something.
2. The Perfect Life
French researchers from Institut Pluridisciplinaire Hubert Curien, in an 2013 article published in PLoS ONE, found that the more time we spend on social media sites, like Facebook, comparing ourselves to others, the more depressed we get. We forget to take into account that a lot of what we are seeing, especially from brands and celebrities, is carefully orchestrated. It's not real life. Even our friends and family (and ourselves) tend to only post the best versions of ourselves and our lives. We see those smiling selfies with perfect makeup and we forget that there were probably 50 shots before that one that looked like Mr. Potato Head or something equally unflattering.
3. The Curating Of Our Online Stuff
Our social media profiles are an extension of our identity, according to Ray Williams in an Article for Psychology Today. That makes our posts, pictures, and activities like virtual possessions or pieces of ourselves. That alone makes us fodder for marketers who want to sell us products to make perfect photos, increase our popularity, have the nicest profile, and get the most views and likes. It's kind of like the old "keeping up with the Jones'" trope that has neighbors out-buying each other for appearances. It keeps us in a place where we equate self worth with stuff, even if the "stuff" in this case, is our social media profiles.
4. The Battle For Likes
Since we use social media, in part, to get attention, it can be hurtful when we don't get that attention. We can equate that attention with 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?" It's a popularity contest that's often rigged by advertisers and Internet marketers. When we post something that doesn't get a lot of likes, we can feel rejected, which causes our self-worth to take a hit.
5. The False Connections
Sherrie Campbell, a psychotherapist, told Alternet "social media can give us a false sense of belonging and connecting that is not built on real-life exchanges. This makes it increasingly easy to lose oneself to cyberspace connections and give them more weight than they deserve." We make connections, and even friendships, that aren't necessarily real, at least not in the sense that real-world friendships have. That's not to say that you can't have meaningful relationships with people you meet online. It just means you're also open to a lot of false connections that don't have an equal give and take.
6. The Folly Of The Tutorial
Social media is a hotbed for information on how to do things. Brands and individuals post tutorials on everything from how to get the perfect eyebrows to how to make a cake. Those tutorials, created by experts, carefully edited, and perfectly lit, make baking a three-tiered cake with delicate floral decorations seem as easy as kindergarten-level cut and paste. When you try to re-enact these tutorials, you're likely to fail, because you're a beginner, not an expert.
7. The Interruption Of Our Emotional Lives
The good, healthy things about life, like hanging out with friends and family, learning something new in school, watching your kids in a play, or seeing something beautiful in nature, are often interrupted by our social media lives. We are not fully engaged in the healthy activities of life because we want to document them to make us look interesting on social media. It's a voyeuristic approach to life that opens you up to all kinds of negative consequences, such as eating disorders, depression, and interruption of your sleep cycle, according to Jodie Gummow in an article for AlterNet.
I know it seems like crazy talk, but unplugging once in awhile is a great way to get back in touch with what you think makes you great, instead of what others think. Because seriously, you're great.