It wasn’t until I tried to go a week without using social media that I realised how often I reach for my phone to check in with it. Most mornings, the first thing I do is scroll through my Instagram notifications, catch up on my Facebook feed, and watch others’ mornings unfold via Instagram stories.

Speaking to friends and colleagues this week, I asked for their feelings towards social media. Many complained of the time lost to scrolling. Others of distracting notifications and storage space woe. More though, people spoke of comparison, and many spoke to feelings of envy, inadequacy and isolation.

hand holding a mobile phone to take a photo
hand holding phone to take a photo

I started my week without social media with a question in mind:

Rather than connecting me to others, is Instagram or Facebook’s culture of self-expression harming my social connections? By spending so much time in an environment that encourages me to measure myself against my peers, am I competing with others for approval at the cost of my mental wellbeing?

Is social media doing me more harm than I realise?

In a society characterized by hierarchy and interdependence, our sense of who we are is often complicated by the need for the esteem of others. Through my cynic-spectacles, platforms like Instagram and Facebook set the stage for an elaborate theatre; a virtual popularity contest where the most basic of our social and ego needs are met and sustained.

Competing for social currency isn’t symptomatic of anything weird or sociopathic; seeking belonging, hoping for affirmative response and attending to our self- esteem is something we’ve been doing since we were apes. Why then, do I and so many other people feel uncomfortable with our relationship to social media and the way it makes us feel?

Unlike our monkey ancestors, we’re exposed to largely curated virtual selves every single day. We’re granted access to a growing archive of our peer’s identity journals. In exchange, the ups and downs of our lives, the worth of our contributions to society, our communities and ourselves are accounted for in our own digital galleries.

We carefully arrange our lives in 3×3 photo squares for our peers to monitor as they commute to work, sit on the toilet, or pretend-scroll through awkward social interactions and lift rides. But my lazy observations decrying the malaise of modern self-expression aren’t seat-shakingly new and are largely caricatured to paint a picture of a more serious concern.

girl in a beanie hat

Social media gives us the opportunity to recreate ourselves online seemingly without limits. For the most part, we accept that we’re unlikely to consume images of others that haven’t been through the self-curation mill. We know we only get to see the glossier moments of people’s lives, but the distinction between the real and the augmented is often blurred or lost. ‘Everything on Instagram is a lie!’ I scream whilst deleting my Instagram and blocking my nan on Facebook. Not so fast, mojo jojo.

Not everything on social media is a lie.

In many cases, the things we see on social media aren’t lies. Maybe they’re disproportionate representations of truths we’d choose to highlight if we were given the forum to do so. I choose to share moments of my life online and I try to be pretty transparent, yet my online profiles reflect my real life only to a degree. There’s much that isn’t shared and relatively little representation of the more mundane aspects of my life.

I have an idea of the person I’d like you to see online, the personality I’d have you consume, the values I’d have you identify, but I have a better idea of the person I really am when there’s nobody around to pass judgement. There’s a Hannah that picks her skin in the staff toilets and has to wait ten minutes to re-enter her office because her face is too red (#relatable), but you’re unlikely to meet that Hannah on my Instagram stories.

And it should probably stay that way too.

Content detailing my crusade against acne (or my permanently bruised left toenail that I just don’t know how to heal, so help me) has no place amongst the soft focus photographs of Nathan driving us into the sunset. But if it did, people might have a very different picture of the person I am when I log off social media. There is an element of idealisation in the way I present myself and my life online, because I do care how people see, value and judge me. I want to be accepted, liked and reassured in much the same way as anybody.

But is seeking validation from those I know and those I don’t damaging my self-perception? Have I begun to confuse my online self with the me I more often am.

Sharing my thoughts, feelings and experiences with just a few lines of a caption for context forces acute self-awareness as I consider and process the many different people my posts may reach, and the many different responses those people may or may not have. Proffering these small deposits into the social viewing space, I leave my self-esteem vulnerable.

My ideas of who I am and how valuable that person is are rapidly reassembled and revised as I monitor others reactions and responses. If somebody unfollows ‘hannah_outside_’, are they sending a clear signal that they hate the real life me? Maybe. But probably not. Should I take a like from a complete stranger as a valid token of my rising status in the Instagram echo chamber? Probably not. Is it too easy or fatalistic to assume that social media platforms create a culture of inauthenticity and competition? Probably. Might I also consider how our online interactions can enrich my experience?

fingers on a laptop trackpad

Either way the penny falls, trying to establish a self-assured identity in a world where the pressures of hyper-connection are growing is tricky. We may not be able to realistically remove social media from our day to day lives, and we may not want to. Take for example, trying to upload climbing league scores via Facebook without Facebook, trying to attend an event promoted on Instagram without Instagram, trying to follow a knitting tutorial on YouTube without YouTube.

Ultimately, I’m left with new questions, and many more of them than answers. Questions speaking to the value of connection online and the power of the tools to foster it. Where I find connection, creative inspiration, debate and friendship, I may also find insecurity and comparison. I have a responsibility to manage these feelings well and an awareness of the parts of social media that drive these feelings is important to me.

The more I use social media, the more conscious I become of the need to find the balance, and of the value in knowing that what I think and who I am can’t be measured objectively by the number of likes I receive, or the amount of followers I have.

With that in mind, you can find more of my virtual self on YouTube, or on any of my three instagram accounts. If you liked this blog post, share it with your friends, like it, upvote it, compliment it (publically if possible) and compliment me. Subscribe to it, subscribe to me and love me more.