Social media sites have exploded in popularity over the last decade. These sites have helped to shape the society that we are living in today and act as one of the main avenues that today’s youth take to express themselves to the outside world. We are currently living in a world where the vast majority of people have multiple social media accounts, that they are actively posting content to. A report conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health (year?) found that 91% of 16-24 year olds use the internet for social networking. We use social media as a tool to form our identities and sense of self. We carefully select pictures to curate an image that we want to be judged on. Social media has encouraged the idea of us showing our best self, instead of posting realistic and layered versions of our lives we choose to express and identify with only the best parts. When we are creating this persona, we often disregard the ideas of truth and authenticity in an attempt to replicate the contrived images of perfection that we see on others social media feeds. When we fail to show our bad sides, we create a society that thrives on unhealthy lies and illusions rather than an authentic and inclusive society. Although social media enables the expression of diverse parts of our identity, the pressure to present our best selves results in inauthentic and incomplete communities both on and offline.
Social media often helps to peddle the idea of unrealistic perfection; people are encouraged to try and replicate the unachievable versions of distorted normality that they see online. This can be extremely damaging to both the mental and physical health of social media users, particularly when these users are of a young age and still trying to find their sense of personal identity. Social media platforms have fundamentally changed the way that people present themselves to the outside world. They have placed high importance on the aesthetics of physical appearance and put in place very rigid guidelines representing the type of physical appearance that people should aim for if they are wanting to be accepted into society. People strive to mirror the perceived ideas of perfection that they see on their phone and laptop screens. “High levels of exposure to appearance focused sites were found to be directly linked with weight dissatisfaction and an increased drive for thinness” (Miller, 2010, p. 102). Females wish to mirror the slender models that their social media feeds are saturated with while males want to replicate the muscular physiques that they are constantly seeing on their timelines. Social media sites such as Instagram present the idea that physical appearance is the most important aspect to a person. This has been proved to lead to body dysmorphia in both males and females. With the increase in convergence social media has become a critical part of our everyday life, this has increased the level of insecurities that users have to deal with. Body dissatisfaction is not something that is exclusively experienced by females; males are also commonly seen to develop mild to severe muscle dysmorphia as they try and replicate the action figure like body that they see constantly displayed on social media. Some of the harming effects of muscle dysmorphia can include extreme exercise, extreme attention to diet, anxiety when missing a work out, neglecting friends and family, avoiding social situations where they may appear muscularity small compared to the muscular build of others and the use of anabolic steroid to enhance muscle mass. Muscle dysmorphia can also lead to extremely low self-esteem in males as they feel like they are not measuring up to what has been falsely displayed on social media as societies norm when it comes to physical appearance. In extreme cases this can lead to self-harm as people are left feeling hopeless and like they don’t measure up to their peers.
There are many individuals and organisations who are working to create a society where we do not dictate self-worth based off online perceptions. There are some simple measures that could be implemented to reduce the damage that trying to replicate what we see on social media is doing to individual’s self-esteem. The 2017 report #StatusOfMind published by the Royal Society for Public Health outlined what some of these initiatives could look like, including pop ups on social media sites that will warn users when they are falling into the heavy usage categories, safe social media practices to be taught in the curriculum in schools, and social media platforms should identify users who could be suffering for any sort of mental health issue, which could be done through flagging certain search terms or hashtags. One thing to is that note Instagram has already done this to a certain extent by flagging certain problematic search terms such as #Bulemia and #Depression. If anyone searches these terms they will be asked if they need help and provided with resources. It was also suggested in the report that there should be wider teaching provided to both students and professionals on how to deal with mental health issues.
Many people acknowledge that social media has its flaws but it can also be argued that it’s not the sites fault rather it is how we are using these sites that is to be blamed. There are many people who use these platforms to talk about important issues that need to have more light shed on them. These issues commonly relate to individual’s sense of identity. Some of the commonly talked about issues are body related and mental health issues. In 2017 a report published by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) and the Young Health Movement (YHM) title #StatusOfMind examined some of the positives and negatives effects of social media on young people mental health. This report stated “Social networking offers young people who may be suffering from mental health issues an opportunity to read, watch or listen to and understand the health experiences of others – relating them back to their own reality”. Social media can givepeople a platform to discuss subject relating to their identity that they may not feel comfortable or safe discussing in person. Some of these topics could include sex education, identity politics, gender identity and feminism. There are many professionals who run social media accounts and use these platforms to facilitate meaningful conversations. This report also discussed how knowledge is key when it comes to forming health relationships with social media. If users look at Instagram with the mindset that they are looking at a highlight reel and not the norm, young people will be empowered to view this content with a new set of eyes. They will be able to enjoy the content for what is is without the excessive comparisons. I think it is important to make the distinction that it is not the concept of social networking that is to be blamed for the pitfalls of excessive comparison and false representation. Rather it is how we have been conditioned to react to the content that we see online, if we can change people mindset from that of jealousy to more of acceptance we can make social media a much more positive experience for many.
Social media has made it easier than ever to represent an edited or filtered view of our lives to the outside world, we are conditioned to curate a feed that favors perfection over the reality that is often seen as boring or dull in comparison. We are able to filter reality to a point where it may not even be recognisable anymore. The idea of truth is something that is commonly discussed when we are looking at social media. The digital era has seen a rise in the number of social media stars these people are commonly referred to in research studies as online micro celebrities. Micro celebrities can be defined as “a new style of online performance that involves people ‘amping up’ their popularity over the web using technologies like video, blogs and social networking sites” (Senft, 2008). These micro-celebrities are often accused of presenting distorted versions of their realities. A real life example of how the truth can be twisted in social media world was shown by the former social media influencer Essena O’Neill, Essena was an eighteen-year-old Australian social media influencer who gained popularity due to her popular Instagram page, she amassed over six hundred thousand followers on Instagram and commonly worked with brands to promote different products in exchange for payment. O’Neill was one of the first in the industry to speak out about the smoke and mirrors that make up the influencer industry, criticising influencers for cashing in on falsifying candid perfection. To protest against this and lift the curtain O’Neill re- captioned all of her photos with captions that were a more accurate portrayal of her previously published photos. Some examples of these new captions were “NOT REAL LIFE – took over 100 in similar poses trying to make my stomach look good. Would have hardly eaten that day. Would have yelled at my little sister to keep taking them until I was somewhat proud of this. Yep so totally #goals” (O’Neill, 2015) and “The only thing that made me feel good that day was thisphoto. How deeply depressing. Having a toned body is not all we as human beings are capable of” (O’Neill, 2015). Essena was someone who had carefully created a near perfect identity for her online persona. However, these modified captions show that we cannot always believe what we see online. Through Photoshop, picture editing apps and filters people have the ability to easily misrepresent themselves to others. They show how many people use social media to show their highlight reel. What they are trying to pass off as their everyday life is actually on the highlights of their life. This can be damaging as users can compare their everyday life to someone’s top moments and when doing this they will never be comparable.
In the digital age that we live in people are now able to make a living through creating online persons, this lifestyle is becoming increasingly attractive for teens as they are drawn to the flamboyancy and extravagance they see in their social media feeds. Essena O’Neill was one of many who would trade in more traditional jobs and start making a living through social media sites. These online influencers promote “what many young people dream of having and a lifestyle they dream of living” (Marwick, 2015). Through sharing their lives online with an engaged audience they can make money off sponsorships and brand deals. This once again brings up the idea of ethics when it comes to what you are sharing on social media. When you are sharing your highlights reel on social media sites in order to try and obtain better promotional deal do you have a responsibility to highlight that what you are sharing is not reflective of everyday life?
A study done in 2018 by the UCLA Brain Mapping Centre has looked at weighting up both the positives and negatives of social media. They noted how entrenched in our everyday life social media has become, the chief executive Shirley Cramer said “Social media has been described as more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol and is not so entrenched in the lives of young people that it is no longer possible to ignore it when talking about young people’s mental health issues” (Cramer, 2018). Some of the positives that came out of the study include awareness, access, emotional support, self-expression, self-identity, real world relationships and community building. Despite these positives Instagram was still ranked by the study as the most dangerous social media platform for young people mental health. The negatives noted in the study include anxiety, depression, loneliness, loss of sleep, body image issues, bulling and fear of missing out.
The idea of creating an authentic identity on social media is commonly being discussed and dissected in the media. It was recently touched on by TV host and political commentator Bill Maher, he said “We now live two lives. There’s the real us, the person in the kitchen or a bar, who speaks like a human with trusted friends, and then there’s what I call our avatar. Our avatar looks and sounds like us, but it’s not really us. It’s the persona we adopt in any sort of public sphere, which now includes your followers on Twitter and Instagram” (Maher, 2018). This reinforces the idea that we are misrepresenting our-selves on social media platforms and therefore creating a false sense of personal identity.
The idea of a digital footprint is something that is directly linked with our identities in the digital age. A digital footprint is not something that existed 50 years ago but it is a very real and serious concern for those growing up in the current digital era. The ideas of creating a personal identity through your digital footprint surround the philosophy of “you are what you share” (Leadbeater, 2009). The reality that once something is posted on the internet it is there forever is something that many do not take into account in their teenage years. In today digital society your identity is not just based on the content you are currently posting instead your social media sites often work as a time machine showing your progression over the years. People can see who you currently are as well as who you have been in the past. This can be used against you later in life in situations such as job interviews. Social media sites have changed what it means to have an online identity. People need to keep this in mind when they are sharing their lives on social media, people who are sharing a falsified version of themselves need to be aware that this version could be linked back to them for many years to come.
Hunt, E. (2015, Nov 3). Essena O’Neill quits Instagram claiming social media ‘is not real life’. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/nov/03/instagram-star-essena-oneill-quits- 2d-life-to-reveal-true-story-behind-images
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