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The illusions of social media

Published: 
Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Social learning involves looking to others for cues as to what is important, specifically, which traits are seen as valuable to others. Learning what is valuable affects our own ideas and ambitions towards becoming more valuable to others.

For young people still moulding a self-identity, what they perceive as valuable is used as a measure for determining their own sense of worth and self-esteem. Social media plays a significant role here.

Speculation has claimed that social media causes us to lose touch with each other, and a newer idea has emerged that it leads to an obsession with portraying a fabricated version of our lives, and even worse, obsessing over the fabrications of others.

An interesting observation is that Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram statuses are designed to be posted in the first-person perspective, so in our minds we read other peoples’ statuses as if they are our own thoughts. In literature, authors use the first-person point of view to give the audience the experience of being inside the character’s head and create a level of intimacy that allows the reader to empathise with the sentiments of the writer or their character. The reader temporarily connects with the thoughts associated with the character’s personality, and the gap between the reader and the character’s thoughts diminishes.

It is known that we can adopt traits of the people we spend the most time with, so perhaps it may be possible that the same effect can occur with our social media friends as their thoughts become part of our own internal monologue. Research into this area will be useful to determine the extent to which this is true.

Social media provides a platform for people to manage others’ impressions of them. They pick and choose the best moments of their lives that might make us believe they have more than they actually do. The effect of continually being bombarded by the glamour of social media is that we become dissatisfied with our own experience, and our perception of happiness becomes skewed.

We count “likes” for validation, allowing others to determine the value of our appearance and accomplishments, and often encouraging us to pursue superficial measures of success. We try to add value to ourselves by posting expensive purchases for everyone to see, and we become consumed in a cycle of competing with our peers to show who has the most exciting life, the most friends, the best clothes etc.

We are consumed by the Instagram culture of crafting a perfect moment, contrived to appear effortless, and candidly inserting ourselves into the image. We are so consumed that even while doing things that are genuinely fulfilling, it becomes more important to show the moment to our peers than experiencing and enjoying it.

The Human–Computer Institute at Carnegie Mellon University has found that passively consuming our peers’ posts and broadcasting our own lives correlate with feelings of loneliness and depression. Two German universities showed that “passive following” on Facebook triggers states of envy and resentment in many users, with vacation photos being the primary trigger. An envy spiral occurs whereby we respond to other peoples’ bragging with more bragging of our own, until our social media timelines look nothing like the lives we actually lead.

As you envy, consider for a moment that those who obsessively associate materialism with happiness are perhaps only clinging to the only forms of fulfilment they know, and are on their own journey of discovering the happiness that often eludes us. Would a fulfilled person continue to seek validation from their social media peers if they were as immersed in their own happiness as they appear to be?

Do not emulate the empty, or follow the lost. Know the difference between reality and illusion, and trust your own values and instincts to guide you on what is actually important.

—Jonathan St Louis-Nahous is the President of the Guild of Students of The University of the West Indies, St Augustine

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