10 min read
01 Feb 2018
10 min read
2285 words
Social media is both a blessing and a curse. The trick is to know how to reap its benefits, without succumbing to its dark powers

The world, as we know it, has been completely revolutionised with the growth of social media. Over the past two decades, this revolution has opened up new possibilities, changed the way we interact and build relationships, and provided a forum for self-expression. It has not only altered the way we form opinions and consume information, but, to a large extent, has also changed the way we reflect upon ourselves and the world around us. As social media continues to evolve, its influence on our self-perception, and the way we present ourselves to the world, also dramatically changes. So, based on our personal experience (as well as our peers') as social media users, we try to explore in this article how the way we present ourselves on social media and how overexposure affects our sense of the self.

False presentation of the self

Social media can be viewed as a pandora's box of sorts. According to many studies, beyond addiction, the use of social media sites can often lead to the onset of many psychological problems, such as Facebook-induced depression and anxiety. Another phenomenon that has come to light recently is the promotion of the false presentation of the self.

As opposed to news websites and blogs, where we can remain anonymous when we engage with the sites, social media platforms compel us to expose ourselves to a large audience (Facebook friends, Instagram followers, among others). We are required to create an online image of ourselves--an image that is affected by our likes and dislikes, our number of friends/followers, etc. Because we have become so coded for feedback, we, as users, carefully select the details and aspects of our lives that we want to reveal. Due to this practice of self-presentation, we tend to curate an identity of ourselves that deviates from what we know to be our true self, and we end up cobbling together an identity that we desire (our ideal self) or a certain image that we want the world to have of us.

This practice of false presentation of the self can be explained further if we invoke what are known as false-self theories. The concept of the self refers to how someone thinks about, evaluates or perceives themselves. This brings us to Carl Rogers, an American humanistic psychologist, and his theory of self personality. According to Rogers, our sense of self encompasses three different components: our self image, our self esteem and our ideal self. Growing up, all of us formed our own sense of self that was shaped by our experiences, our environment and our relationships. People with a strong sense of self are generally more self aware; they know who they are, and what their individual opinions and values are. People with a weak sense of self, on the other hand, have a difficult time figuring out their own personality, and tend to adopt the personalities of others. These people are the ones who are more susceptible to creating an identity (the ideal self) on social media that is more appealing than their real self. The incongruity between the real self and the ideal self leads to the creation of the false self, behind which people hide their real self. This level of incongruity depends on several factors, such as the way others react to us, how we compare ourselves to others and the extent to which we identify with others. Lately, due to our penchant for social comparison, reputation forming and sense of belongingness, social media has come to exemplify this very incongruity.

Sense of belongingness

Social networking sites play a huge role in mediating friendships in today's age. Because we are inundated by social media's continual information updates, individuals can feel a constant sense of connection with other people. That's why some studies have concluded that social networking sites have made it extremely easy for people to satisfy their need to belong. This need for belongingness, especially among avid users, stems from the belief that being part of a larger community gives them a voice, and strengthens their sense of individuality, particularly in a protected environment. And people now have the option of being part of online communities, where they can carry out interactions with complete strangers. Social media has, to some extent, also benefited those with low self-perception of themselves, and those who have issues with attachment, by giving them the comfort of feeling wanted by others. Actions like receiving comments and likes make these individuals think that they are worthy of love and appreciation, and this can gradually change their perception about themselves.

However, social media also displaces authentic social experiences by leaving little room for real-world interactions, thus exacerbating the social isolation faced by certain individuals. Recent studies suggest that more than two hours of social media use per day doubles the chances of a person's experiencing social isolation, rather than reducing it. Seeing photos of friends from an event that we weren't invited to, or scrolling aimlessly through someone's Instagram page and ogling at the most highlighted representation of their lives can engender a feeling of exclusion, as well as envy. This also creates problems stemming from what's known as fear-of-missing-out (FOMO), which is an actual phenomenon these days--a phenomenon that breeds more than anxiety. Ironically, even though we are looking for opportunities to fill in that social void via social media, we end up becoming even more detached from forming any genuine connection, and thus deepening our sense of social isolation. Such findings show just how imperative it is that we maintain regular face-to-face social connectivity--for the sake of our physical and psychological well-being.

Reputation management and narcissism

Our reputation has always been important to us. In fact, from an evolutionary perspective, natural selection has always driven us to maintain our reputation in front of our peers because it provides evidence that we can cooperate with other community members, which in turn ensures greater access to resources, eventually boosting our survival rate.

In today's technology-driven world, social media sites have become the go-to place for people to maintain their reputation. Today, interactions on social media sites immensely impact a person's reputation. Sure, we indulge in plenty of benign interactions that occur without any alternate motives too; however, there are many of us who chiefly use these interactions as a means of projecting an idealised version of ourselves to the world.

Many studies have shown that people use social media sites to engage in self-promoting behaviours that will enhance their reputation. Social media reinforces narcissistic tendencies because they serve primarily as self-promotional platforms. And since users can get fixated on the audience's feedback, people constantly evaluate their self worth on the basis of how well their posts are received, whether the image they're trying to deliver is accepted or not, and most importantly, on what kind of impression they are imprinting on people. Owing to this, people engage in behaviours that will highlight aspects of them that will help establish a certain reputation for themselves. Since people with narcissistic characters need excessive admiration from others, their grandiose perception of the self thrives on the easily attainable social media endorsements, such as likes, shares, or new followers. Enumerating all the ways social media has altered our world can be endless, but there is one firm argument that we can make: in the name of reputation management, social media has turned an entire generation into vapid narcissists.

Mindful socialisation

Social networking sites do fulfil some of our basic needs of connecting and forming relationships with others. And while these sites can have both positive and negative impacts on identity development, how we approach them is what matters. We need to remind ourselves that social media hands us masks to wear. Regularly reminding ourselves of the drawbacks of creating 'fake selves' should prevent us from getting caught up in the social-comparison game. If we don't, we slowly lose the very essence of being our authentic self. Thus, rather than letting social media platforms distort our true sense of self, we should become more mindful of how we approach social media platforms, and how our online interactions affect us emotionally, so that we can take measures before it takes a toll on our mental health.

Social media detox

We're currently living in a world where everyone is hooked to their smartphones. We even find ourselves checking social media apps mindlessly, scrolling through the newsfeeds unconsciously, right from the moment we wake up till we hit the bed. In the last one decade, social media has kept evolving, and it's now taken over large parts of our lives. In 2017, there were 2.46 billion social media users in the world, and it is estimated that by 2019 that figure will go up to 2.77 billion. For people hooked on social media, just the idea of undergoing a social media detox may seem puzzling. Some of us might even view it as a form of punishment. But is that the right attitude?

Social media detox is important for our mental health because it teaches us to take a step back and realise how dependent, and maybe even addicted, we've become to social media platforms. A typical social media detox regimen would include deleting apps and deactivating accounts, which means we have fewer things to do on our phone. Doing so frees up our time to engage with the world around us. This way, for once, we can actually listen to and participate in conversations, rather than pretending to listen while aimlessly scrolling through our phones.

Here we have come up with five simple ways to kickstart your social media detox:

  • Turn off notifications. This time-saving tip will keep you from getting distracted and wasting your time.
  • Have someone change some of your passwords. This allows you to focus on tasks that should be given more priority, and for once, you may end up submitting your assignment before it's due.
  • Stop taking your gadgets to bed. Read a book or try meditation instead.
  • Download apps like Moment, which tracks how much time you spend online each day. Your results may motivate you to change how you choose to spend your time. 
  • Deactivate your accounts. You'll have more free time to try out new things. Start learning a new language, for example, or pick up a new hobby.

Instagram: the new place to be?

Instagram, the photo-sharing social networking site, has become one of the most popular social media platforms. Compared to other social media platforms, Instagram is a more selective domain, where each and every element can be meticulously curated by users. The platform is increasingly coming to be considered the 'cool' social networking space. Without too much clutter, like a typical Facebook or Twitter newsfeed, Instagram's feed is also easy to navigate. And by adding new elements like DM (direct message), Instagram has extensively overshadowed many messaging apps (it has also pretty much eclipsed Snapchat's story feature, after the 'Insta-story' was brought into play.) Likewise, Instagram's 3 by 3 layout is another aspect that has attracted millions of users, allowing them to explore their creativity and project it more aesthetically. As a matter of fact, some people have spent years perfecting that grid and are so particular about it that when Instagram randomly added a fourth grid for a try-out, a massive outrage sparked across the internet.

Nonetheless, it has also become, arguably, the most narcissistic social media platform till date (according to a survey conducted recently, out of 10,000 millennials, 64 per cent agreed with this argument.) What started out merely as a photo-sharing app has turned into a persona-driven sphere, where--regardless of whether you realise it or not--you're spending a great deal of time and effort on the creation of your identity, under a highly controlled environment. The survey found that 78 per cent of millennials know someone who has deleted a post because it didn't get enough likes. Two thirds of participants admitted to 'rewarding' accounts which liked their posts by liking photos back, a practice known as the 'unspoken Instagram code'.

That said, while Instagram isn't exactly good for everyone, it's an amazing place to find and share inspiration. It depends on whether or not you choose to participate in the attention-seeking numbers game.