— graphics created by Jenna Podgorski, images submitted by friends of Curb
Parents of today’s teens remember a time when social media meant passing notes on folded pieces of notebook paper, late-night whispered phone calls and school problems that stayed at school.
That was then.
Now, teens are exposed to never-ending streams of content through social media. Social media have become an outlet that teens heavily rely on, and they’ve completely transformed the way we communicate. But when does the influence of social media become too overbearing?
Social media like Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter influence users’ self-esteem, body image and confidence. The persistent, looming pressure to please everyone holds us to high, essentially unattainable, societal standards. Learning how to come to terms with the fear of not being perfect and staying true to ourselves while living an authentic lifestyle will help us become more courageous over time.
As new technologies continue to emerge, Catalina Toma, associate professor of communication arts at UW-Madison, believes “the fear of missing out” is derived from social media platforms, ultimately highlighting the negative consequences of how we use platforms.
“Everybody tends to post these ‘glamorized glimpses’ into their own lives. They don’t post everything. They just post the good stuff,” Toma says.
When people scroll past updates in their feeds without reacting or interacting with them — even tapping on “like” — they’re engaging in a passive experience known as surveillance. Toma has studied the effects of this practice and discovered people who are more depressed are more likely to engage in Facebook surveillance.
“You might engage more in this bad thing of Facebook surveillance instead of curbing it,” Toma says.
Furthermore, Toma addressed how research studies highlight the influential power of “glamorized glimpses” on how we view ourselves, especially in terms of body image and self-esteem.
“When it’s your own glamorized glimpses, when you create your own image online, that tends to make people feel better, at least on Facebook,” Toma says. “Yeah, they’re glamorized, but they’re not unrealistic. They’re not completely detached from reality, right? Because the reason being, we still have an audience on social media who knows us offline.”
When carefully crafting an online presence, we try to adhere to the standards and norms of society, often fearing we are not good enough. When we post, we share insight on us living our best lives, we feel better about ourselves because we portray an image that we perceive to be real because we’re posting it, and at the same time post content we think our friends will enjoy.
Imperfection and perfection coexist. Toma says we never have enough insight and knowledge to understand the posting intentions of others — we only know our own habits.
“In the aggregate, it seems like everybody’s having a good time, whereas you know your own life and you know it’s not all roses and champagne all the time,” she says.
Whenever we spend time on social media, we tend to be competitive and compare ourselves to other people within our networks.
“As we go through life, we’re constantly comparing with people around us, and the most relevant comparisons are with the people who are most similar to us,” Toma says, noting this idea is called the social comparison theory.
Shiela Reaves, professor of life science communication at UW-Madison, says when we compare ourselves to others, we usually feel worse about ourselves. People will compare themselves to others because of what they see on social media. The pressure to be perfect instills this mindset in which we cannot be anything but perfect.
“I think that men get told about being fit and being strong and all the good things …Why can’t women have that? Why do we have to be perfect? We don’t, and we know that, but not all little girls grow into those stronger women and it breaks my heart. It really does,” Reaves says.
“I think that men get told about being fit and being strong and all the good things … Why can’t women have that? Why do we have to be perfect? We don’t, and we know that, but not all little girls grow into those stronger women and it breaks my heart. It really does,” Reaves says.
When social media users scroll through their platform of choice, they hold themselves to this standard of perfection. The content they share must be good enough for the approval of others.
“Our young people should be talking about dreams. They shouldn’t be talking about conformity and fitting in,” Reaves says. “That’s just not healthy.”
Jake Tenuta, an undergraduate student at the UW-Whitewater, provides a unique perspective as a young, male social media participant.
“I can definitely think of times when people will be very insecure about everything and having to live up to society’s expectations,” Tenuta says.
However, times are changing. People have become more accepting and willing to embrace unique attributes and characteristics, Tenuta says.
Skylar Witte, former Miss Wisconsin 2017, is passionate about advocating and speaking out on the themes of social media, body image, authenticity and confidence. With more than 13,000 Instagram followers and a well-known title, Witte thinks social media strongly affect how we see ourselves. With the rise of social media marketing, the shift away from traditional advertising has allowed people to craft their own understanding and vision of what societal norms are.
“They always say that Instagram is your highlight reel, and I would say that is definitely true,” Witte says. “It just comes together to really be the creation of what society views as normal and society views as standards.”
Even though social media and societal standards can sometimes be negative influences, they can also bring positive results.
“Social media is kind of creating this standard, but I also think that it has the potential to be a really positive influence just because so many people use it and so many people use it often, especially younger people,” Witte says.
According to Witte, social media can create an environment that promotes realness and inclusivity.
“It has this fascinating potential to really set the stage for creating a norm that is inclusive to everybody,” Witte says, adding that this norm can distinguish authentic lifestyles from fabricated ones. Witte also addressed how inclusivity needs to be emphasized more in social media, as it will ultimately contribute to a more positive online experience for everyone.
Witte suggests taking our highlight reels and reworking them into highlight reals. If people stay true to who they are, they can redefine the idea of perfection.
“Just as someone who has been on multiple sides of social media, whether it’s as a consumer or an influencer, or now, as a representative for brands, I think that it’s important that when we are using social media, we are being realistic about things,” Witte says. “You need to just be realistic on your social media and know that it’s okay not to be perfect and have bad days, and that’s normal.”