Social Media: Toxicity at Our Fingertips—Part 1: The Problem

Part 1 of a 2-part series on the harmful effects social media can have on our self-esteem and body image.

The concept behind Social Networking Sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram is inherently harmless: they allow one to stay in touch with old friends, to share photographs, and to update others on important life events. However, to adolescent girls in particular, these sites have taken on a more infiltrating role in the lives of those who use them. Younger generations seem to post with a sense of urgency, out of fear that they will not keep up, will miss out, or—heaven for-bid!—be seen as having anything less than a vibrant social life. And so, any well-plated meal is captured, any fashionable outfit documented, and every social gathering put on hold until a flattering shot has been taken. Though this, too, may seem harmless, I am of the firm belief that a lifestyle that prioritizes the maintenance of a certain image on social media is damaging to the self-esteem of young women in America.

A central issue with the excessive use of social networking sites is that they are, by nature, vehicles for making visible unrealistic standards of living, beauty, and popularity. Too often does the life lived on the Instagram feed not match up with its counterpart in the real world, as individuals feel the compulsory and competitive pressure to maintain the best possible image on social media. While few will post a picture where they are alone on a Friday night, none of us hesitate to showcase the moments that make our lives seem more glamorous than they are. By so doing, we sell an image of ourselves and of our lives that is neither real nor attainable: no life consists solely of perfect hair, laughs with friends, beautiful views, and latte art. Not only do others buy into that image, but we ourselves, when faced with the disparity between what we think our lives should be and what they actually are, believe the lie that we are not enough. Com-paring our own ordinary lives to the filtered and seemingly perfect lives of our peers, we fail to realize that, in every case, behind every photograph is a girl with the same insecurities, struggles, and sweatpants as our own. It is an online culture of competition driven by feelings of inadequacy, a vicious cycle that provides the fuel for its own fire.

social-1206612_960_720Many studies have investigated the relationship between social networking site usage and qualities associated with poor mental health, depression, and low self-esteem. For instance, one psychological construct that encompasses much of what I’ve just described is called ‘upward social comparisons:’ that is, comparing oneself with others that might be considered superior to oneself, usually resulting in a decrement in self-esteem. In my opinion, this is partly why the most highly followed accounts on these sites are upper-class, highly attractive individuals who lead lives many of us envy. Recent research (Vogel, Roberts, & Eckles, 2014) has confirmed that exposure to upward social comparisons via these sites is indeed linked to lower self-esteem: put simply, when participants viewed target profiles where individuals displayed traits like an active social life and healthy habits, they had lower self-evaluations than when they viewed target pro-files with the opposite characteristics. The problem is, I would argue most individuals on social media spend more time looking at the profiles of ‘superior’ individuals, than inferior ones. This activity is correlated with depressive symptoms, particularly when the individuals are female adolescents low in social popularity (Nesi & Prinstein, 2015). Not only are these the young women who are typically the most vulnerable to low self-esteem, but they also tend to be victims of cyber bullying, which is another issue entirely.