Here is the full text of a conversation with freelance journalist Chrissie Russell where she was exploring the notion that logging onto social network sites can actually result in us feeling worse about ourselves rather than feeling happier and more connected.
Do you think people feel under pressure to have the ‘perfect’ life online? If so, why?
Yes I do think that many people feel under pressure to have the perfect life online.
Some people, not all.
In my experience there are varying reasons as to why people portray their lives inaccurately – and of course there are varying degrees of inaccuracy. For many people in our society the “perfect” life is a life devoid of unhappiness, stress, illness, loneliness, rejection and being wrong. It is a life where everyone loves us, wants us, asks us questions to which we can give expert answers. Where ex partners still want us, ex friends regret betraying or leaving us and every photograph of us is flattering. A brief glance on any given day at a Facebook feed will reveal lots of “Yays” and smilie faces and announcements of yet another great night out. For some people this is simply how it is – they are happy, they are having fun and they are acknowledging and celebrating that.
For some though, we will exaggerate, sometimes hugely, what we perceive as positive because we want other people to perceive us as happy, therefore attractive as friends, or partners, robust, without ‘pathology’ or ‘problems’, popular and wanted. It can become , for all intents and purposes, a popularity contest. Or it may be to show ex friends or ex partners “what they are missing”.
Whatever the reason for exaggerating it is of course based in the fact that we are dissatisfied with our real life and so we invent one. We airbrush out the less happy bits so that we can fool ourselves and others into thinking all is great in the truly mistaken belief that this will eventually bring us the happiness we crave. We are obsessed with the perfection that we are sold relentlessly every day. We buy into it, and we sell it on. This is ultimately exhausting and self defeating. We know we are lying to ourselves and the world, but importantly we FORGET that a lot of other people are doing exactly the same, because they are just as fragile as we are. And this is when it gets dangerous for our self esteem.
So to bottom line your first question – people who lie online do so because they are unhappy. They are not aware that how they are feeling is common, and they don’t feel secure enough to simply be how they are – to go without virtual make up, so to speak.
What problems does this cause if any?
The problems this can cause are many.
As a result of reading exaggerated description of their peers lives, and the ensuing comparison that will most likely occur (except for the most secure and grounded people) , changes will occur in how we think about and judge ourselves and our own lives.
I often peruse Facebook and more recently Twitter, and am interested to watch conversations unfold and arguments begin. There is a lot of competition online, not just to be the most popular and interesting, but also to “win” arguments. And it can get quite aggressive. I’ve come across many social psychologists who are studying these behaviours and are writing about exaggerated aggression online, bullying, “trolling”. These more negative or damaging behaviours can be heightened where anonymity is allowed or facilitated and we see people being abusive, cruel to eachother. And all of this without consequence.
This is a worrying trend for me and for colleagues of mine with whom I’ve discussed these issues.
Do people get depressed reading other people’s status’s and thinking their life is failing in comparison?
It’s not scientifically sound to say that people get depressed in the clinical sense by reading other peoples’ status. It is reasonable to say though that if we are already feeling insecure and are prone to thinking poorly of ourselves, or simply having a really bad day, as we all do, then these thoughts are easily triggered when we are bombarded by peers’ successes or prowess.
My work with teenagers is providing me with much fodder for thought on this one. I certainly have observed that reading what peers advertise as their lives can have a big effect on the thoughts and feelings of teenagers. It’s more difficult for them than for adults. For teens, online social networking has always existed and so they don’t differentiate between what is real and what is not as easily as adults. They are more likely, in my experience, to judge what they see online as real and true. And so the gap between how they feel in reality and what they are begin sold and told online is far greater for them, and consequently more painful.
Is there the danger people can get sucked into creating an online life vastly different from reality? Is it healthy?
I have seen people retreat more and more from real life friends in the hope that they won’t need to face the reality of their own struggles, their own insecurities. We can be hugely intolerant of ourselves and our humanity. And for some, hiding online is a temporary solution to that. A form of medication, if you will. We hide on Facebook, Twitter, on porn sites etc. This can be damaging to real life relationships. It alienates us from ourselves and from each other, resulting, ironically in a loss of contact, the very thing we were searching for online in the first place.
What advice would you have for people reading or using Facebook?
I think that it’s important that we bear in mind that what we see on Facebook, Instagram, wherever, is not, cannot be, a full reflection or description of what is going on in the lives of other people. We are seeing only what they have selected for us to see. It’s like a big advert. We do not yet live in a society where perfectly normal things like sadness, pain, or bad hair and spots are ‘allowed’. We do not give ourselves permission to be “imperfect”.
How many people choose bad photographs of themselves as their profile pictures? How many people say “Oh God I feel so alone and hopeless today after a painful experience in a club last night that filled me with self doubt”??
Generally speaking I would encourage social network users to make sure not to neglect real friends. Allow for the fact that what you’re reading may not be true and is certainly only part of the story. Limit your time online and meet real people for coffee, call them on the telephone or skype. Dare to be honest and allow authenticity into your relationships.
The fulfilment you gain will last a lot longer than the brief high of fifty “likes” under a photograph of you in a big gang of grinning acquaintances with your thumbs up.
(The resulting article is here.)