In a lot of ways, social media is great. It allows us to communicate with friends and family, to meet new people and to reconnect with old friends. On top of that, social networking sites are a wonderful platform for companies and brands to get in touch with their customers and for artists and celebrities to connect with their fans. And all this with just the click of a button. Fantastic, right? It is. But unfortunately, it is not all roses and rainbows. A few years ago people occasionally shared the odd message or photo on social media, but nowadays we are throwing our whole lives on there. An estimated 72 percent of all adults in Switzerland use social networking sites and over 50 percent of children are already using social networking sites by the age of ten. We now spend more time on social media than on any other online activity, with teenagers leading the way and often spending well over three hours a day on social networking sites. Somehow we have become obsessed with sharing every tiny detail of our lives with the rest of the world and we are constantly looking into the lives of others.
So why do we do it? Why do we feel the need to share everything we do and every thought that enters our mind with people that we often don’t even know that well? And why do we put numerous pictures of ourselves online? In 2013 the Oxford English dictionary named the word ‘selfie’ word of the year after its use had gone up 17,000 percent in just 12 months. Teenagers nowadays take multiple pictures of themselves every day and post several selfies on social media on a daily basis. Mental health expert Dr. Gregory Jantz says: ‘Not only teenagers but also many adults nowadays look for their self-worth and affirmation through what others are telling them online. And this constant need for validation can become quite addictive.’
So when does a healthy need for acceptance turn into an obsession? In the ITV documentary ‘Teenage Lives Online’, 19-year-old Danny from Newcastle says: ‘When I first started posting selfies on social media, getting likes from people felt great. It was one of the most amazing feelings.’ But then things started to spiral out of control. ‘I started pinpointing every little flaw,’ he says, ‘I saw every blemish. Suddenly my nose was too big. My hair looked too flat.’ Danny became obsessed with his appearance and fell into a severe depression. Eventually he tried to commit suicide and was diagnosed with body dysmorphic disorder. After receiving intense medical and mental treatment, Danny now feels better about his appearance and doesn’t feel pressured to look perfect anymore. ‘Without social media this never would have happened,’ he says, ’it fuelled my self-esteem issues.’
While Danny’s case is rather extreme, most people still only share the best possible version of themselves on social media. Psychologist Dr. Aric Sigman says: ‘People are feeling more and more pressured to always look perfect. They want to look picture perfect all the time. And photoshop apps make that possible.’ By constantly posting perfect snaps of ourselves we are hoping to get the approval and validation of others. Somehow being human and having flaws isn’t acceptable anymore. Striving for perfection is not necessarily a bad thing, but it becomes a problem when we do it solely to get the approval of others or to outshine our online friends.
Dr. Sigman says: ‘We as human being always compare ourselves to other human beings. It’s called a social comparison process, it’s natural. We’ve done if for tens of thousands of years and with social media we are now able to compare ourselves with thousands of people. We are seeing people who are slimmer than we are, who are having a better time than we are, who have more friends than we do. This can lead to a distorted social comparison process which can lead to people feeling unhappy with their own lives and ultimately feeling depressed.’ It is important to realize that what we see on social media isn’t a realistic representation of real life. We get to see a polished and cleaned-up version of people’s lives. We see pictures taken at just the right angle, in just the right lighting and with just the right filter. And of course we only get to see the good stuff. We see the parties, the weekend getaways, the fancy dates. We don’t get to see the bad hair days or the boring and the bad stuff. Once we realize that, it becomes a lot easier to put things into perspective and to stop social media from destroying our self-image. We have to stop comparing ourselves to these seemingly perfect people with their seemingly perfect lives. Spending time on social media can be great, but we can’t let it affect our self-worth. After all, a lot of what we see on social media is just a pretty façade and is only a small part of the bigger picture.
Melissa Van Roosbroeck is a style and fashion writer.