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 recognise 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. 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. 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. 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 realise our own goals is once again highlighted, and we feel inadequate – and miserable – by comparison.
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 unfavourably, 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. 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.