As the use of social media has become an inseparable part of our daily life and communication, let’s take a glance at our online habits. To describe my (and perhaps your) regular wake-up routine, it starts with a pilgrimage-like scroll through the holy trinity of social media – Facebook-Instagram-Twitter, followed by an international news site. Way before my morning coffee, I see jaw-dropping beach pictures from a blogger that I follow, I see a mouth-watering avocado sandwich my friend from Munich has had for breakfast and I see how perfectly romantic the 6-month anniversary date of this girl I’m not even really friends with was. The daily amount of information we receive about other people’s lives from social media is immense, calling for the question: “How does all this affect us?”
The truth about false impressions
If one would try and characterize Instagram pictures with a common phrase, it would most likely be “Something nice is happening in the picture”. Indeed, the majority of social media posts depict a positive situation or life event. Glammed-up selfies, DIY decor or the latest coffee break, a successful job interview, a happy reunion with old friends or a scenic travel photo, you name it! As long as it has a positive vibe, it is the perfect Instagram material. While the likes are adding up, we must acknowledge that people are more prone to share the positive aspects of their lives than the negative, which automatically fuels an idealized perception of the real-life world. They say there is an Instagram version of you and a real version of you.
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine recently studied the impact of social media habits on the mood of the users. They reported that the exposure to highly idealized representations of peers on social media elicits feelings of envy as well as the distorted belief that others lead happier, more successful lives. These imaginary impressions might potentially create the so-called FOMO, “fear of missing out” (yes, it is a widely used phrase!). Seeing pictures of your peers hanging out at that cool karaoke bar having “the time of their lives”, while you are doing laundry and watching cat videos does not necessarily boost one’s self-confidence.
They say there is an
Instagram version of you and
a real version of you
What happens if we stay realistic?
Stina Sanders, a successful UK-based model who used to post stunning images, decided to do an experiment. She got challenged by the Daily Mail to quit portraying her seemingly perfect five-star hotel lifestyle and share “honest” shots. Do you wonder how the public reacted? After ditching all the filters and posting realistic images such as her trip to her psychotherapist, toes BEFORE a pedicure or smeared make-up after a night out, she literally lost 1,000 followers out of 13,000 within a week, followed by another 4,000. Interestingly, she received more positive comments than ever from the people that were supporting her decision!
One follower stated: “I hope you know that I am following you now because of your honest Instagrams. You may have lost many vapid and shallow losers, but you gained a lot who respect you. You’re gorgeous inside and out.” Indeed, she has now more followers than ever thanks to her honesty. People were actually happy to see that it’s OK to be normal. “I regret absolutely nothing,” Stina said to the Daily Mail. “Not only was it liberating, it has highlighted important issues like mental health and body positivity. It has got people talking openly online and I guess it has made people feel less alone.” She is currently writing a book about her personal experiences to spread the word of honesty in social media even more.
At Karolinska Institutet, there are a number of blogs with the purpose of connecting people within the campus and giving insight into the everyday life of working or studying at KI – precisely what the self-explanatory aim of social media is. The blogs cover a variety of topics, from research habits to campus events, and among the writers there are PhD students, undergraduates, as well as post docs. Yildiz Kelahmetoglu, a PhD student and a blogger at KI, emphasizes the freedom to write about any topic of interest, without any forbidden territory or omertà. It is entirely up to the writer to spice up the post with criticism or glorification. What makes realistic views more popular amongst KI blog readers, is the fact that people find it easier to relate and your sound becomes more like “one of them”, she believes. Hence, delivering an open and honest story might prove beneficial!
Fake news – a major problem online
Online news serves as a fast and easily accessible source to help people understand what is happening in the world. However, recently, news stories might often have accomplished the complete opposite. A lack of clear distinction between high-quality news sources and amateur fake sites on social media have lead us to a point where gossip-mongering sites can reach people as easily as professional news media, such as The New York Times and Fox News. An explosion of misleading or even fabricated stories has spread in many social media channels. In relation to the recent US election, the vast majority of fake news concerned American politicians. For instance, people on Facebook have read that the Pope endorsed Donald Trump (not true) or seen sloppy and made-up headlines like “Proof surfaces that Obama was born in Kenya”.
People were happy to see
that it’s OK to be normal
The significance of this issue is only going to grow over time, as more and more people are getting their news online. In 2016, 44% of US adults got their news from Facebook according to Pollster.
These increasing trends are putting the leaders of social media companies under pressure to use their power wisely. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has signaled the issue, but emphasizes to act carefully in regard to further actions. Earlier this year, Facebook decided to fire the entire team of journalists responsible for the trending news feature, because it selectively suppressed conservative news articles. Nowadays, software is used to select newsworthy articles, but the algorithm is not sophisticated enough to distinguish true from false news, according to Vox. Zuckerberg has laid out the latest steps in order to weed out the fake news problem. Facebook will apply third-party verification to fact-check the statements and also make it easier for people to report fake stories. Other measures include labelling stories with warnings that have been identified as false. “We need to be careful not to discourage sharing of opinions or mistakenly restricting accurate content. We do not want to be arbiters of truth ourselves, but instead rely on our community and trusted third parties,” Zuckerberg told CNCB.
The critical targets
When considering the potential effects of social media, teenagers are often the first and foremost affected group of people that comes to mind. While adults have found their point of self-confidence and identity, youngsters are more like a blank canvas. Adolescence is a crucial time for social learning and experimenting with identity. Online communication, often impulsive and anonymous, is especially attractive for youngsters. After all, reaching out to others on the internet does not require as much courage as in real life.
Having said all that, the dark side of social media also deeply affects teenagers. Cyberbullying is an increasing issue, especially since it might be challenging to discover, might be done anonymously and might never stop unless the target turns off its phone. Still, social media mostly provides positive encounters. Moreover, it seems to be entirely effortless for a youngster to connect with any novelty created in social media for those like-minded – new groups, trends and events. Perhaps the feeling of actually belonging to a group alongside with fellows fuels the progress of self-confidence.
Amongst the immense
possibilities and temptations
online, let’s find our own way
to empower ourselves and
other people around us
Much like everything else in this world, social media has positive and negative features. For most of us, social media is a place to escape – either from responsibilities or from boredom. As much as we claim not to give a damn about the latest sandwich snap, we still go back there.
How to get the most from this highly global and dynamic phenomenon? Beyond all the discussions about impressions created in online world, simple traits like curiosity, kindness, and empathy contribute to define the person behind the screen. So feel free to exploit the power of social media to develop your voice, to connect with like-minded people, to exude your energy and to simply explore. Amongst the immense possibilities and temptations online, let’s find our own way to empower ourselves and the people around us. •