Our next blog post on the difficult, but important topic of mental health, discusses the impact that social media has on how we see ourselves and each other. In, What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen author Kate Fagan describes the incongruence between Maddy’s social media posts and what she was actually experiencing.
Social media is a controllable platform to tell the parts of our life that we want the world to see. Fagan, a former student-athlete herself, says, “We share things in public that we couldn’t offer in private. If we’ve accepted that we are different in private, is this not also true for how we reveal ourselves in public? And which version of ourselves is more real?” Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat all allow us to pick and choose what we disclose to others. And of course, most people choose to show their best pictures, most successful moments, and happiest thoughts. When we are struggling, some people post less often or others transform themselves for the moment to what they wish they were feeling. When Maddy’s parents commented on her looking happy in her pictures, she responded with, “it’s just a picture.” A picture is worth a thousand words…but shouldn’t we question the motivation behind the picture?
Instagram was Maddy’s favorite social media source and her feed was filled with perfect, beautiful, smiling, happy pictures. Even in her pictures of Penn and Penn track, she looked happy and like she was enjoying every minute of her college experience. Online, we can create who we want to be: handling each challenge with ease, always looking our best … essentially, everything appears perfect. We even have a filter that allows us to manipulate our pictures by changing the contrast, lighting, and softness of the colors to ensure the perfect picture. Through a filter, according to Fagan, “sometimes it feels much easier to live in that reality than the one where I am always flawed, challenged, and occasionally sad.” The danger is in comparing online personas (yours and others) to your real life, because in reality, we do feel sad and imperfect and that’s completely normal.
The shift in our communication from in person interactions to texting and instant messaging has also given us more opportunity to hide our true feelings and our real selves. Text messaging is just words. We can create a tone or lighten the text by using abbreviations like lol, nbd, or idk. We also can communicate in the digital language of emoji. There are thousands of emoji symbols easily accessible and interpreted by those we message. Even a sad or crying emoji is much lighter than using words to communicate how you are feeling. As our digital communication has dramatically increased, our face-to-face communication has dramatically decreased. Face-to-face, we can read body language and see cues for how someone is really feeling, but online, we lose the important nonverbal cues that help us appropriately interpret the message. Unfortunately, this pattern leads to less authentic, genuine connections, which ultimately affects our mental health.
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