Thursday, January 12, 2017

How social media can affect your sense of self

When we check social media like Facebook and Instagram too often, we can be inundated with the good parts of peoples' lives. Facebook in particular has an algorithm that results in a news feed that prioritizes things to celebrate, like an engagement, a baby, or a new job. Then, when we scroll down an individual person's page, we see their highlights: how their diet has been, or fun things they do with their friends. What we don't often see, though, is the days they are home alone, in their pajamas, watching Netflix all day. This is especially the case with any friends who we only see online, whether due to distance or time; we only see the parts of their lives that they consider to be worth documenting. And when this happens, we often end up comparing the best parts of their lives to the worst parts of our own.

Social media is developed in such a way to be about building ourselves up. As we share our accomplishments and daily lives with the world, we get responses (likes, comments, reactions). Something as simple as discovering a new restaurant and having friends comment on how delicious the food looks can be a boost of self esteem, even if the same information shared in person wouldn't quite have that strong of a result. Along with insight into our lives, we share insight into our minds: interesting articles, funny pictures, and our thoughts about the world. We may intend to use these to share things we think are important to share (whether for humor or insight or both), but the result is also that it paints a picture of who we are. One particular friend may share lots of politically-charged articles, and that makes your picture of who they are very different from someone else, who shares recipes and DIYs, even if the rest of their content is exactly the same.

Having such insight into who someone is through social media creates an interesting effect; you may know a lot about the person, but that doesn't necessarily mean you are close. For example, you may have read your coworker's posts about all the things their kid says, and even watched videos of their home life, but never quite feel comfortable with them enough to get lunch with them. You may have a friend who you have only met in person once, and have shared incredibly personal things with on chat, but then when you meet them a second time after all these conversations, it feels like there's nothing to talk about. Of course, this isn't true for everybody. For some, it would be easy to find things to talk about with that friend, and no trouble at all to ask that coworker to get lunch together. But usually, the way friendships are formed in person is very different from how they are formed online. The coworker, for example, may know very little about you (despite following and friending each other!), despite how much you know about them.

Part of what's missing here is the humanness that comes with everyday interaction. When in school, you may see your friends everyday, and freely rant about teachers, homework, parents, and other kids at school. You share not only successes, but failures, and places where you need to grow. Online, we portray ourselves as robots, gods, and forces without boundaries. A profile can often read more like a marketing campaign than a human being. It is as if we are trying to disassociate from our own humanness. Recognizing our humanity, and the humanity of others, is important in making the world better, and for so many reasons. Going back to mental health and identity, though, it normalizes suffering. It creates a world where it is okay to lose sometimes, and where someone can feel sad without that sadness becoming a part of who they are. There are ways to do this in online communities. I know people who have created secret Facebook groups for close friends to share painful day-to-day moments, so they can receive support, or who have joined forums so they can hear from people with similar life experiences. But it takes initiative, as well as courage, just as it does in real life.

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