The ugly ‘fantasy’ of social media

Social media has increasingly become a major part of our modern lives, and as more Rwandans acquire smartphones, it is quite common to find people engrossed in their social media pages.

Logging into these platforms however, everyone seemingly appears to be doing well and living their best lives, showing off expensive cars, perfect relationships, while some are always traveling.

For some time now, Instagram has been used as a tool for validation that those with fewer likes are viewed as less attractive and interesting since it is a solely visuals-based app. 

Its recent experimental feature that hides the number of ‘likes’ on posts and also keeps private the count of people who have watched a video has triggered a debate on the race for popularity on social networks.

Nadia Mutesi, a communications officer, says that since people curate their own lives digitally, the line between people’s personal lives and their lives on the Internet is drawn, what they choose to share with those outside their personal lives.

“Very few people, however, choose to display their struggles on social media. As a result, if one is exposed to such a lifestyle online and their actual life does not match those expectations, we then put pressure on ourselves to live up to these unrealistic portrayals of a worthy life, hence feeling insecure and inadequate,” she says.

Amid accusations of fake posts that have affected confidence among young girls, the tide is beginning to turn, with a wave of social media stars leading a backlash against fake pictures.

Kadeeja Sel Khan, a beauty influencer in the U.K recently shared a photo of her acne-prone skin on Instagram with her 276,000 followers. A few days later she posted a picture of her actual skin and an edited version that went viral, urging women to love their bodies and not fall for fake beauty. 

Part of the post reads: “What we see online is not reality, what we idolize and lose sleep over isn’t the reality. 

My skin suffers from Cystic Acne & Scarring. It only takes a few seconds to edit an image from its real form to give off the Airbrushed look we want. Next time you go online and look at the “perfect picture” stop and realize you are enough. You are beautiful.” 

Last month Alice Liveing, a 26-year-old personal trainer who gained her huge following under the name Clean Eating Alice, also shocked the world by revealing that at the height of her online fame she was in the grip of an eating disorder and a dangerous addiction to exercise.

Social media and mental health

The new wave against ‘fake pictures’ couldn’t have come soon enough. Multiple studies have confirmed an association between online social networking and a variety of negative feelings and psychiatric disorders. 

There is a strong body of research linking social media use with depression, lower self-esteem, and social anxiety, feeling of a lack of connection, feelings of inferiority and deterioration in concentration, according to the Director of the Psychiatric Care Unit at the Rwanda Biomedical Center, Dr. Jean-Damascene Iyamuremye,

He adds that although all of the above are complex and are often exacerbated by or intertwined with the other indicators, social media’s negative impact occurs mostly as the result of the upward social comparisons we engage in while using it that if your life is devoid of the same felicity and adventure, it begins to change your attitude towards life.

“We tend to make note of the contrasts between a perfectly presented life and our own. Comparisons tend to lower self-esteem, which in turn increases the risk and severity of depressive symptoms, anxiety and a host of other unhealthy feelings and behaviors,” he says.

He adds that the true relationship between the use of social media and mental health is a relatively new and complex area of study given the constantly changing technological landscape. 

While some studies point to the positive aspects and outcomes of our interactions online, a growing base of research seems to reinforce the opposite view. 

Regardless, the impact social media has on individuals, organizations and communities are something that can’t and shouldn’t be ignored.

For Mutesi, since Instagram will not disappear any time soon, users ought to make the best use of it. 

“As human beings, our nature is that we need to have relationships with real people. But social media is now substituting that genuine relationship and feedback from real people. Now that social media is a digital representation of who we are and leaves an imprint, make good use of it by spreading positivity where everybody wins,” she says.

Iyamuremye advises addicts to stop social media from replacing their real lives, focusing your online interactions on people you also know offline.

“When used thoughtfully and deliberately, social media can be a useful addition to your social life, but only a flesh-and-blood person sitting across from you can fulfill the basic human need for connection and belonging.

Schedule regular multi-day breaks from social media. Several studies have shown that even a five-day or week-long break from Facebook can lead to lower stress and higher life satisfaction. 

It may be difficult at first, but seek help from family and friends by publicly declaring you are on a break. And delete the apps of your favorite social media services,” he advises.

Eric Muhwezi, a call center operator says that while it’s okay to embrace the online world, one mustn’t forget that genuine validation only exists when we are genuine and imperfect.

“Better believe that many people who ‘show off’ online have a normal life but they cannot hang dirty linen in public. Also, if your life is not as amazing as the people you follow, it will not get any better by just obsessing over it.  

Learn to be secure, proud, and most importantly, be happy with what you have, and what you do because perfect doesn’t exist,” he says.

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