Now that computers are as common as keychains and each generation is becoming increasingly tech-savvy, we have to take a hard look at the way social media is affecting our lives and minds. Social media might not have the same dangers as a virus or a catfisher, but the way it changes our interactions with others and how we view the world is worth taking note of. Teenagers like me are constantly logged on and know that while it’s designed to be fun, social media can have its fair share of downsides.
Take a moment and think: how often do you check social media every day? Do you scroll through Instagram while waiting in line? Snapchat your friends between classes? Tweet your opinion on a film straight from the movie theater? Social media is seemingly everywhere, connecting everyone. I’m genuinely surprised when I meet someone who isn’t plugged into online platforms, especially someone like me, a teenager coming of age in the digital era. With its pervasiveness, there’s no way that social media can’t impact us. While I don’t think it is entirely harmful, sometimes it seems that it might isolate us more than it connects us.
Even as someone who doesn’t really consider herself a social media person (I was only introduced to Snapchat when a friend snatched my phone and downloaded it for me, tired of how out-of-the-loop I was), I can’t deny that I’ve gotten caught up in it as well. Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest — you name it, I’ve probably tried it.
Social media certainly hasn’t been all bad. After I attended a summer camp for young writers, platforms like Instagram and Snapchat helped us stay in touch even as we scattered across the country. Without the ability to instantly connect through chats or comments, there’s no way we would have stayed as close, and I wouldn’t have a community of other teenagers to bond with over something I love. Because of social media, my relationships with people I know in real life have stayed stronger. Even the purely online connections have been positive, as I’ve swapped recommendations and bonded over obscure interests with people countries and continents away.
But despite all that, sometimes it can feel that there’s nothing more isolating than social media, even though it’s designed to connect and share. On a bad day, scrolling through your Instagram feed or checking Snapchat stories can only remind you of how alone you feel, of how far your life is from the beautifully filtered photos filling your screen. You think If only I could look like that, act like that, then maybe I could have a perfect life. If you had the right look, the right clothes, the right attitude. If you could fit in. In a world where studies have shown that many teenage girls struggle with body image and have serious issues, it’s undeniable that social media can push a certain idea of how people should look and act.
Social media as a network of connection can be fun when you’re part of the connections, but other times it can just remind you of what you’re missing out on. The party you declined the invitation to but find yourself watching unfold on Snapchat and Instagram anyway. The friends you drifted away from but still see all over your feed. The Friday night fun you missed out on in favor of staying in. On good days, of course, social media can be a reminder of all the fun people and places you’ve documented. But when you’re not feeling your best, it can feel like an unwanted reminder of everything you’ve missed out on, distilled by perfect filters and likes.
Instagram recently rolled out a polls and questions function, something I find myself increasingly using. What should I name the stuffed penguin I got as a Christmas gift? Should I make a Facebook account even though the website has been mostly abandoned by people my age? Silly stuff, but I tend to follow the results. What does that say about me? Am I conforming to what others say or simply taking advantage of a new resource?
Lines like that blur when it comes to social media. Sometimes I’ll scoff at the idea that it promotes conformity and only a certain kind of happiness — after all, I’m just checking out the lives of people I know — but then I remember how I can agonize about a photo or caption. How uncomfortable it can be to share a photo where I don’t think I look my best, or how many times I retake the same photo in an attempt to match the ones I see on my feed.
When on a recent vacation, I found myself frustrated that I couldn’t seem to translate the easy fun I was having to photos; my smile kept looking forced or a cloud would cover the sun, dimming the beautiful landscape. At a concert, I got annoyed that my short height in the crowd wasn’t allowing me to take good photos, even though I could hear just fine. I realized that the act of imagining future social media posts was actually making my experience a little worse as I lived it behind the lens of a camera. I didn’t need to document the fun I was having, but I wanted to prove to people that I was out on an adventure, and the need to perfectly convey the great time was taking me out of the moment.
Knowing that social media is packaged and perfected — that no one is always that glowing or effortless all the time — doesn’t always help when it comes down to it. It can be hard to remember that digital life isn’t designed for authenticity when all you see are cherry-picked moments of life that seem to isolate you in their perfection. In reality, no one has a life as perfect as the one they display on social media, but being inundated with carefully arranged depictions of other people’s lives can feel lonely when you can’t relate to them.
The hardest thing about these problems is that they’re almost impossible to escape from. When most people carry a portal to the internet in their back pocket, it’s hard to take a break from the virtual lives we have constructed. Sure, I often consider deleting apps or limiting my time on them when it seems like I’m spending too long on my phone, but then I worry how much I would miss out on.
Teenagers like me live a layer of our lives virtually, and a social media cleanse would isolate us completely from it. What if I missed out on more graduation party invitations? What if a friend I don’t see every day had some great news, and I didn’t know to congratulate them? What if someone I admire starts following me? I might even miss out on small things, like a video of something funny at school or new artwork by a friend. It frequently feels impossible to separate our online lives and our real-world ones when they influence and act as extensions of each other, making it harder to deal with the pervasive problems social media can cause.
Social media is going to stick around whether we like it or not, so it’s important to acknowledge that there’s an ugly side to it despite the fun benefits. As technology continues to evolve, our understanding of its impacts needs to evolve as well. Social media is pretty firmly integrated into our lives, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be aware of the problems that come with it. For me, it always helps to remember that no one’s life is accurately presented online. Behind filters and curated posts, we all have the same moments of loneliness or ugliness or disappointment. We just don’t often publically share them, choosing instead to focus on the triumphant or beautiful moments.
It’s okay if you like to document fun and beauty so the memory will last and if you make authentic connections through social media. Fun and connection are what these networks are intended for, after all. We just need to remember that social media is an organized extension of our lives, not something that represents our entire experience. After all, even my online friendships with the young writers from summer camp started with putting down our phones and tentatively living in the imperfect moments. We shouldn’t live through or for social media. Rather, it’s just a tool to remember and celebrate the lives we already have. It might not be necessary to cut off your online connections completely, but unplugging now and then is never a bad thing. Enjoy a moment without documenting it. Strengthen your real-world relationships as well as the digital ones. Without a filter, the world is still just as beautiful.
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