If I was tasked to describe the basic concept of social media to my great-grandmother, I would tell her it’s a social world online: one where you can keep connected with friends and family living far apart. A circle where you can express yourself to others: sharing photos, ideas and updates with multiple people at the single click of a button.
So why is it that, when surveyed, 60% of social media users reported that they had a lower self-esteem?
Why is it that 50% of users reported that social media negatively impacted their relationships with others?
In short, why is it that the impact of social media on our lives, is in fact, the polar opposite of its conceptually intended purpose?
As Shakespeare once exclaimed: “All the world’s a stage!”, to which I don’t believe there’s a bigger stage in this world than the platform of social media.
A stage of masked actors, rehearsed performances and well-written scripts. No audience is shown the 99 other failed practice runs before the final masterpiece, nor are they aware of the backstage breakdowns or, in fact, the real person behind the costume and makeup.
Every actor online wants a standing ovation, and no acting technique will receive such an ovation more so than the GOALS technique.
Relationship goals. Squad goals. Body goals. Hair goals. Life goals. All of them count!
Goals are a display of something perfect, something ideal. Generally they take form in a photograph, providing its audience with a radiant beauty so godlike, it ultimately enforces everyone else to aspire to the very same thing. It’s now their goal too.
Achieving this status isn’t as challenging as you may think. You could be bored, sitting in rush-hour traffic with your partner when suddenly the idea comes to light. Holding your camera overhead, you join hands with theirs over the top of the steering wheel; edit the picture so that your nails look their best, healthiest colour and then select the type of filter that suggests the sun rays are shining through the side. Upload it, caption it: ‘Sunset road trips with Bae’ – and there you’ve got it. Your relationship is perfect. Your relationship is GOALS.
Maybe you want to hit the beach body goal? Wait until you’re on holiday to do this – then spend the better half of the day locating the most picturesque beach, whip off your clothes to the flattering bikini you bought solely for this purpose, suck in your stomach and rock a pose that simultaneously squeezes your breasts together so they look bigger than normal. So far you’ve got a nice photograph, but you haven’t quite got a ‘goals’ photograph. Now you need to undergo some serious editing: lighting, contrast, filter, blemish-remover etc. There you go, there’s your GOALS picture.
Does it matter that you had an argument 2 minutes earlier in the car with your partner? No, not to social media. Does it matter that later in the day you broke down in tears over how insecure you feel about your body in a bikini? No, not to social media.
Does it matter that all of these ‘Goals’ pictures are merely a perfectly constructed falsity? No, not to social media.
Naturally, as human beings, we want to present ourselves in a positive light. It acts as a form of self-validation when others see better in us than we see ourselves. The online world gave us a perfect opportunity to achieve just that: to enlarge our successes and omit our failures, to tailor and craft our character online with how we see fit.
Of course this was only going to go one way – we’ve ultimately created a dangerously vicious circle. Instead of admiring our romanticised image, we’re now competing with everyone else’s romanticised image. The demand for ideals, goals and perfection is getting stronger and more difficult to reach as each day goes by.
When a fellow Instagram user gets up in the morning and she’s developed a couple of spots on her chin, you don’t see that. When you get up and notice you’ve developed a couple of spots on your chin, you do see that.
When a distant Facebook friend announces that they’ve just landed their dream job, goodness knows you read about it. You’ll start to wonder as to how everyone else appears to have strolled into an interview office and claimed their career instantaneously, whereas you’re on your 11th rejection. Because what you didn’t read about was how that person was shown the door 2 years running.
All of a sudden, the gap between you and online constructed personas has intensified and expanded. What was once a mere relatable difference is now an incomparable battle. You wake up every morning and confront the flawed yet humane reality of yourself; you then absorb the flawless yet robotic constructed perfection that is them.
Is it therefore any surprise that as social media usage increases, so does the number of patients undergoing cosmetic surgery?
What’s worse? Our own perceptions of ourselves often lie within the tormenting hands of the online game.
If we can’t validate ourselves amongst the havoc of the falsity around us, it must fall within the control of our persecutor. The game usually works around the target of likes and comments: the more likes and positive comments someone receives for a picture or post, the more ‘valid’ it is. This can completely and utterly alter the way we see others and ourselves.
You take a picture of yourself – one you like, of course; one you deem ‘fit’ for the online world. You post it and wait for the verdict. If likes suddenly come flooding in, it’ll reward you with a dopamine rush; you’re glowing with self-confidence. If the internet stays a little quiet, ‘Perhaps I should take it down, I must have been wrong about it. Ahh, I see what they see now – goodness what was I thinking?’.
We’re told it’s fake. We know it’s fake. Yet in one way or another, we’re still sucked into this addictive, constructed world. We’ll compete. We’ll compare. Then we’ll fall down into our own inner hole, feeling lower than ever; lonelier than ever.
So to answer the question: how much harm is social media really doing to our self-esteem? To be frank, I’m surprised we have any self-esteem left at all.