This post, unfortunately, may not resonate much with readers over the age of thirty or maybe even twenty-five, which makes up the majority of my following, so I deeply apologize. But on second thought, I think most of you already don’t relate to my “new to the real world” struggles–at least not presently–so maybe you can still enjoy this one just a smidgen. I want to talk about something that has been on my mind for years, but that I’ve never tried to fully dissect. I suppose now is as good a time as ever, so let’s have a chat about the good, the bad, and the ugly of social media. Spoiler alert: it’s mostly ugly. Or maybe I’m just a pessimist. That’s up to you to decide!
I feel extremely lucky that social media was only budding when I was in those terrible early teenage years when you already want so badly to fit in and be cool without online pressures attacking you even after the school day is over. I remember getting Facebook near the end of grade six, which seems crazy young looking back. I was among the first of my friends to create an account since my parents were so “chill” and didn’t worry too much about me doing stupid things online. And they were not wrong for doing so; I like to think I was a rather responsible child, a people-pleaser since birth, so I wasn’t trying to get into trouble or attract online predators, which was the main concern for most parents when the online world emerged. I was already irrationally terrified of getting kidnapped well before Facebook came into existence, so there was no way I would be idiotic enough to let someone track me down on the Internet and snatch me up on my short walk home from school.
After Facebook came Twitter, at least in the order of my own discovery of social media outlets, and I loved tweeting all sorts of stupid thoughts and quotes. The 180-character limit was fun and exciting and while restrictive, it forced Tweeters to shorten their probably already dumb contemplations into succinct phrases that likely made them funnier and/or more inspirational. We all know I can ramble on for decades and repeat the same crap over and over, so this limitation just might have been my saving grace. Twitter was fun for a while, and I continued to use it all through high school and even a few years after before deciding that my funny tweets were maybe more embarrassing than humorous and that nobody actually cared what I had to say. I do look back and think my posts are pretty hilarious, but I’m not convinced the rest of the world would feel the same. Although it is nice to have a collection of so many random memories and thoughts that mark distinct phases of my life. I suppose social media can have its perks, but as promised, this post will mostly explore its ugly side.
The worst of the worst–or best of the best, depending how you look at it–came along when I was in grade ten. It was near the end of my fifteenth year of life that Instagram arrived in the app store to bless and curse all of humanity for years to come. Upon discovering Instagram, I naively believed it was merely a photo editing app and didn’t understand why people I barely spoke to at school kept “following” me. This means I unknowingly posted every single photo I edited onto my profile, which I thought was a private collection and not a public showcase for all seven of my unwanted followers to see. That’s how Instagram began for me. But oh has it ever changed.
Since those humble beginnings, Instagram has become a multi-billion dollar platform (I totally made that number up, but I think it’s a safe assumption with its ever-growing popularity) where slightly above-average humans become famous and make boatloads of money for their posts, where brands focus the majority of their marketing campaigns, where people go to wallow in self-pity as they see thousands of beautiful girls with unrealistic bodies posing on yachts in Greece or drinking Aperol spritzes in Italy, and models with perfect everythings posting flawless selfies insisting they are “just like us!” while Kardashian-Jenners convince millions and millions of women that they need insane waist-to-hips ratios and butts that are impossible to achieve without a plastic surgeon. Needless to say, it can be a toxic, detrimental, and unhealthy place where so many of us find ourselves scrolling eternally, wondering why we don’t look that way, why we don’t have that much money, why we can’t go on luxurious vacations every other month like everyone else seems to be doing.
Now don’t get me wrong, there is SO much good that has come from social media platforms like Instagram. People from all over the world are able to connect, whether to find other humans with similar struggles, or to create communities of passionate, likeminded individuals who want to improve the world in some way, or to spread news about refugee crises and abortion laws and human rights issues… There are countless ways that connecting online has enhanced the state of humanity and has brought people together through tragedy and fear and major world issues. That is truly amazing and maybe, when we focus on those aspects, it might outweigh the bad. The craziest thing about all of it, though, is that no generation after mine will know what it is like to live in a world without social media. And that is scary.
I still remember the moment I started comparing myself to other girls and looked in the mirror and thought, for the first time in my life, that my body should look different. I was always a skinny kid, and one day I looked in the mirror and thought I wasn’t thin enough. This was before my Instagram days. I think I was thirteen years old, and to me that seems too young to be analyzing and critiquing the incredible body you live in (not that there is an acceptable age to start doing that; we should just skip it altogether), but what about now? Kids have Instagram in elementary school. They have access to all this BS far too soon, and if thirteen-year-old me could be so brainwashed by what she saw in the media even before it was flooding my phone, imagine how easily that self-loathing crap can eat up a ten-year-old whose only concern should be convincing her mom to buy the Dunkaroos she snuck in the grocery cart when she wasn’t looking. They should not be even remotely concerned with reading the ingredients list and obsessing over calories and grams of fat and how they might look if they eat the Dunkaroos. They should just be thrilled that their parents let them get the damn Dunkaroos and eat as many as they can get their hands on.
But the negative side of social media, particularly Instagram, goes beyond just the way it can imprint an unhealthy body image on so many; it also convinces us that our lives could be better, that we could be happier if we owned different things or lived in different places, if we dressed a certain way or shopped at certain stores, if we had certain careers and made a certain amount of money. Of course, this can go both ways. It can surely be positive if viewed as a source of motivation or as an introduction to different ways of life and career paths that inspire us, but it can also lead us to believe that who we are, where we are, and what we’re doing isn’t good enough when in reality, it is.
Instagram, once I finally figured out that it was a social app and not just a private collection of edited photos, only heightened this harmful habit of comparison; Instagram made it too easy to have millions of other people’s best moments right at your fingertips to continually remind you, photo after photo after photo, that other people are having more fun than you, are travelling more than you, are in happier relationships than you, are living out a life that you could only dream of because you’re not as pretty or smart or rich as them. And there are all different kinds of people on there too. There’s the hip Parisians in beautiful floral dresses and wedged espadrilles with woven bags around their dainty, tastefully accessorised wrists, romanticizing the French stereotype of eating croissants for breakfast and simply walking around the city to maintain a slender figure. There’s the fitness community full of slim but strong women with great butts and subtle six-packs who live off protein smoothies and salads and hit the gym seven days a week. There’s the chic, hardworking businesswomen of NYC and LA in their perfectly-tailored blazers and $500 jeans strutting from meeting to meeting reminding everyone that they, too, can hustle and chase their dreams. There’s the island-living mothers thriving on all-natural vegan lifestyles in tropical bungalows with their perfect families that wear only ethically-crafted, locally-made clothes. There are so many different lifestyles showcased online–all so wildly different–and for whatever reason I follow a handful of humans from each one of these categories, leaving me feeling more lost and confused than ever about who I truly am and what I truly want out of life.
One day I want to be a fabulous city woman with a ten-step skincare routine and a walk-in closet full of vintage purses and designer dresses, and the next I want to raise five children simplistically on a tropical island where coconut oil is the only product I use on my skin and green smoothies are consumed by the gallon. And then I start wondering about my own worldviews based on the ones I see other people share online. Should I believe in the power of healing crystals? Do I need to align my chakras (whatever that means)? Should I convert to Buddhism? Why does it seem that all Mormons are so beautiful and successful… Is Mormonism the secret to happiness? Should I move to California and become a full-blown hippy beach bum? Should I live in Canada and just be a “normal” person? (Thought I’d throw a realistic one in there so no one worries that I’m truly considering making any drastic, crazy changes to my life… but then again… maybe I should??) So after all of this over-stimulation I’m left with the hardest question of all: What do I really want? Who am I without all these influences swaying me one way or another day after day? What lifestyle would truly bring me the most joy and make me feel the most fulfilled? Will I ever know for sure now that my mind has been polluted by countless random people’s lives flaunted all over the Internet?!
There’s a quote I often find myself thinking about, and it goes something like this: “Can you remember who you were before the world told you who you should be?” The scary thing for me, and maybe most of my generation and the generations to come, is that I can’t answer that. Ever since I’ve thought seriously about the person I want to be, the job I want to have, and the life I want to live, I’ve had the Internet throwing a million and one ideas at me, clouding my sense of self. Like I said, this can sometimes be inspiring and reassuring and can introduce you to a career path you didn’t even realize was an option. But other times it is just too much; it is overwhelming, and with so many vastly different but equally alluring paths to choose from, it becomes near impossible to differentiate what looks fun and desirable from what is actually going to make you happy.
I guess I’m wondering how to navigate this life with so many idealistic snippets of different people’s lives fogging the view of my own. It is sadly difficult to discern between my own goals and dreams and those that appear to be the most fulfilling to the random people I follow online who are not me, who have entirely different lives and experiences and skills and passions than me. I suppose it is time for me to learn to tune into myself again, whatever that means. Perhaps I should take up meditation. Or maybe I’m just being oversensitive and really should stop worrying so much and try some things and see what happens. I guess I already know that is the answer. I guess I already know that is what I have to do, just like every other human graduating with barely any idea what to do next. But right now, in the limbo of almost-graduated confusion, it’s hard to keep calm and not let the perfect businesswomen of Instagram and island mamas of permanently sun-kissed beach babies control my thoughts.
I guess the truly simple answer is just to delete Instagram and any social media sites that leave me in a puddle of bewilderment and insecurity. Surely that might help me ignore those pesky outside influences that are preventing me from looking inward at my own desires. But come on, now. Why would I ever want to do that?! Then how would I know when my favourite fashion blogger gets engaged or what my favourite Instagram mom names her next baby?! Priorities, people. Let’s be realistic here.