Not long ago, we had a group of friends over for a cook-out. One of my husband’s friends commented that he wished his house was as clean as ours. My husband told him, “Don’t worry, this is the fake house for guests”, much to my dismay. This got me thinking, though, about our “fake” selves, or maybe a more palatable way to describe it is our “socially acceptable” selves. Social media like Facebook is prolific. I started my account because my family and friends are spread out around the country and I wanted a fast way to keep in touch and share news and pictures. We all know there are positives and negatives to using social media. Research shows mixed results, with some studies showing that depression tends to increase with more social media use, while other studies showed decreases or no difference (Rosen, Whaling, Rab, Carrier, & Cheever, 2013).
There are many hypotheses for why social media could increase depression, including that negativity begets more negativity and increasing time spent with technology decreases face-to-face contact and leads to isolation. I think another reason is the “Facebook self”. Most people put their best face forward, understandably. We filter out the pictures that are not flattering, crop ones that are so-so, and post all the fun things we are doing, trips we are taking, and the awards our kids are winning. I admit, though, I appreciate when friends mention that they stepped in doggy doo on the way out the door or that someone asked if she was pregnant, prompting her to respond, “Nope, just fat”. Have you ever cropped a picture so the mess in the background doesn’t show?
Reading Facebook-selves every day can be akin to receiving the yearly Christmas letter. Most of us have gotten these or may even send them. The letters delineate all the great things that have happened through the year to update friends and family who might not be in close touch. Reading every day about people who have more than you, do more things than you, have more perfect children than you, or a more romantic spouse can plant seeds of doubt. Am I doing enough? Am I a good enough mother (father, sister, husband, friend, etc.)? I’m not exercising enough. I eat the wrong things. Should I be making super-cute homemade treats for each of my children’s teachers? It can be easy to get sucked into the fantasy that is the Facebook self. It reminds me of old television shows where the families never had a bathroom, and if they did, there was no toilet. No matter how perfect the family appeared on television, we know they had to perform the same daily functions and duties we all do. A parent may post pictures of his child with a bunch of friends having a fantastic time or winning a game, but may not mention that his son was sent the principal for bullying another child, is failing math, or hit his sister.
Social media isn’t going away, nor do I think it should. However, it is important to understand that social media can have some negative effects, especially if someone is prone to challenges such as depression or anxiety. It can help to keep in mind that the person who has seemingly perfect kids, a perfect house, nice cars, and a spouse who caters to every need and want is posting the things she he or he wants you to see. If life really is that perfect, good for them! Realize, though, that this is rarely true. Everyone’s toilet needs cleaned, every parent loses patience, every person occasionally makes a poor decision, or has a bad day at work. Social comparison is a concept introduced by Leon Festinger and basically says that it is normal for us to compare ourselves to others and make judgments about our own lives based on what we see. Social comparison can be positive or negative. For example, if we notice that those who are confident speaking up in meetings are getting promoted, we might adjust our behavior accordingly, which would be positive for our career. If, on the other hand, we compare ourselves to others and decide that we need to refrain from eating despite already being thin, social comparison is harmful.
What can we do to avoid self-doubt stemming from social media?
I have been a psychologist long enough to know that there is no such thing as a perfect family, no matter how great things look from the outside. Recognizing that everyone has a Facebook self and a real, every day self can help put this in perspective. That perfectly posed picture might have been angled to avoid the pile of laundry in the background.
Rosen, L.D., Whaling, K., Carrier, L.M., & Cheever, N.A. (2013). Is Facebook creating “iDisorders”? The link between clinical symptoms of psychiatric disorders and technology use, attitudes and anxieties. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(3), 1243-1254.