Friday, May 19, 2017

Instagram is a Liar Sometimes and Other Mental Health Awareness Month Musings

*TW: depression, anxiety, suicide, and general themes of mental health*

My freshman year of college, I took a couple months off of Instagram. I was going through a huge transition, and being on social media wasn't helping me comfortably adjust to my new life. When I re-downloaded the app, the first thing I did was go through my following list and remove a bunch of the people I'd gone to high school with. It didn't seem fair that, while I had struggled through high school and continued to struggle through college, the people who'd had such a great high school experience were also killin' it in college.

I know now that my perceptions did not accurately reflect the lives my former classmates were living. Like me, these people were experiencing trials and tribulations as part of life. I didn't know that their smiling faces and enthusiastic Instagram captions only told part of the story. At the same time, though, my Instagram account painted the picture of a smiling, enthusiastic college student. I, too, was lying.

My Instagram account from the month I decided to delete the app. Look at all my smiling!

We've all heard not to trust what we see on social media because it only portrays part of the story. People only post the good stuff on social media, so there's no way to know what's really going on in someone's life. You have to take others' social media posts with a grain of thought.

I was fine with this concept for years. I'd see someone caught mid-laugh at a party on social media and think to myself, "what a liar." Then, I'd open Instagram and upload my own "candid" mid-laugh pic before crying for a couple hours and falling asleep at 9 pm.

Some prime smiles and good times. What's missing from these pictures: I'd just gotten out of the hospital, moved out of my apartment, quit my job, and had to step down from my role in a campus publication. I was having a really damn hard time.

There are countless arguments against being authentic on the internet. Being authentic is difficult enough as it is, because it requires you to be vulnerable and being vulnerable is HARD. Many people actively work to keep their personal lives off of social media in order to maintain a professional internet presence. Hiring managers and other members of our professional lives definitely check us out on social media, so there's a lot of pressure to keep it clean. The internet is also known to keep things for forever: once it's up, it's up. Even if you delete an embarrassing post, there's still a draft of it in a database somewhere. If you post something and forget to delete it, it can easily be brought up in the future and easily used against you.

There's really only one good argument FOR being authentic on the internet: to share the human experience. We all go through good times, and it's great to be able to be there to encourage and congratulate each other as we graduate, move, get hired, or even just have a good hair day. We also all go through bad times, which is alienating enough as it is. What's even more alienating is not seeing your struggles represented in your environment. Not only are you having a rough time– you're the only one not managing to live your best life. There must be something wrong with you.

One of my research projects in college was examining social media habits and their effects on mood and outlook. In multiple cases, researchers found that simply opening up Facebook had a dampening effect on one's mood. This negative impact got worse the longer the participant remained scrolling on the site. Qualitative research methods showed that participants perceived their lives as worse than their peers' based on what they saw on social media. We compare ourselves to our environment, often without meaning to do so and without any awareness of the process, and we find that our full story doesn't compare to the purely positive spins posted on social media.

My Instagram from the week I got dumped. The only indication that I might not have been having as good a time as it looks like I was having is that I captioned one of these pictures "feeling blue" and another one "I am a rock! I am an island!".

I was recently listening to an episode of my favorite psychology podcast when the topic of social media and self-perception was brought up. The research I've already described was discussed through the personal anecdotes of someone just a couple years older than myself. The guest describes the pressure to keep up with her Facebook friends, who were getting married and buying houses and having kids while she was traveling and working odd jobs. After a while, she found it hard to keep up with her Facebook self, as she continued to post about the great stuff in her life as her marriage and career fell apart around her. She found she was unable to portray herself as taking the bad with the good. After all, no one else on her timeline was talking about the bad stuff, even though statistical reasoning suggests at least 25% of her friends were going through similar difficulties.

We all fall trap to that line of reasoning: if no one else is doing it, why should I? If everyone else on my Instagram feed is laughing and smiling, why should I allude to the reality of living with chronic depression? If everyone else on Facebook is posting cute couple photos even when they're fighting, why should anyone refrain from doing just that? It creates this vicious circle: I'm not being honest because I don't see anyone else doing it, but others aren't being honest because they don't see anyone else (myself included) speaking honestly, either.

A series of tweets in which I expose the world to exactly what I'm experiencing in that moment.

The conclusion I drew from getting rid of my high school friends on Instagram was that none of us are quite who we pretend to be on social media. The conclusion I drew from the literature review I wrote in college was that social media can be a space in which to create and maintain an open community, but that we put up barriers which often keep us from reaping the benefits of these platforms. The conclusion I drew from listening to this podcast was that, by not being honest ourselves, we're contributing to the problems that make social media impact us so negatively.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and I've been thinking about how grateful I am for the people in my life who speak honestly about their struggles on social media. They encourage me to be vulnerable and they help me not feel nearly so alone. One of the most important reasons for Mental Health Awareness Month is to bring awareness to a very serious aspect of health that affects everyone, whether directly or indirectly. How are we supposed to bring awareness to mental health if we're only talking about it in the abstract and not sharing our experiences? I say this as someone who regularly shares mental health-related articles on social media and who has talked about my struggles with chronic depression and anxiety in the past. I also, however, regularly refrain from talking about the reality of my day-to-day life as a human and a human with these mental health conditions. I'm striving to be open without oversharing on social media right now.

Most of all, though, I'm striving to not paint a picture of myself on social media that simply doesn't exist. I don't have to share the most vulnerable details of my life to not portray myself as happy all the time always. For me at this point, that means honest Instagram captions, honest (and even vulnerable) tweets, and keeping my Facebook professional instead of just happy. I'm still working on not sharing smiling photos on days when I'm not smiling.

A post shared by Hannah | Broke & Fabulous (@thehannahgold) on

This post may contain facts pulled from research, but that doesn't mean my opinion is 100% right. Do you agree with my opinion that we need to be more honest on social media in order to mend the divide between ourselves and how we perceive others? Can vulnerability on the internet help raise awareness of mental illness, therefore providing countless resources to those in need? Let me know in the comments below!

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