Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
I’m sure by now you’ve heard and quickly ignored the data. Social media makes us depressed, less social, and value ourselves less. We portray only the best versions of ourselves, and construct false virtual identities by omission. We scroll through these facsimiles, and feel more inadequate and isolated as a result. While this is an important problem, I wouldn’t necessarily disavow social media altogether. Positive self-representation is actually a kind of cognitive behavioral therapy shown to be effective at stimulating progress towards combating depression and low self-esteem. Yet, the very nature of social media at this moment seems to inhibit our progress towards positivity.
Before deactivation, I used to refer to my Instagram as a personal museum — a historical trek through the highlights of my past. Before posting a new image, I would “curate,” and make sure the visual addition matched my overall aesthetic. Having an overall aesthetic was key to a “good” Instagram profile. Consistency makes the spectator comfortable; it reinforces the identity of the poster.
This logic pervades every social media platform. On Twitter, the little quips that represent our internal monologues must be thematically, linguistically similar and in character. Even LinkedIn succumbs to this myth of social constancy; our professional lives become a carefully worded self-assessment, presenting past experience and future goals in one cohesive profile.
Particularly in college, having a consistent identity is expected. It’s an almost overwhelming pressure — from declaring your major, to developing a friend group, to vocalizing your future plans. We’re told to define ourselves by a predetermined checklist of goals — to pick the track towards our professional identity and then shape ourselves around it.
At the same time, this is the point in life where inconsistency realistically defines our existence. We are works-in-progress. Occupying a liminal space between angsty teenagers and full adults, indecision infiltrates every aspect of our daily lives. Yet somehow, at the very same moment that we’re supposed to be figuring out our lives, we’re expected to have everything figured out and on display.
Perhaps, then, the very reason we’re addicted to social media is this false sense of constancy. At a time when almost everything about ourselves is unknown, the validation of having a false, consistent self to fall back on is a welcome departure from the pressures of reality. In the same way, ready access to your peers’ consistent selves also provides some semblance of security. Social media demands our lives and the world to stand still, which makes it slightly less scary, if only for a second.
Because this secure effect really does only last a second, social media ends up making us more anxious, sad, and overwhelmed by the ongoing pressure to “be ourselves.” Ultimately, however, this false consistency breeds false security that inevitably fails when, as humans do, we progress. The attitude we have towards social media makes us keep up a nonexistent consistent selfhood. It inhibits this progression, and creates a cognitive dissonance between the past and present versions of our own identity.
College is a time for growth, for development, for inconstant movement towards a future in which you are smarter, kinder, and more experienced. As students, we should actively work towards constructing a better community for ourselves and our peers. Social media, by its restrictive nature, actively inhibits this goal. And until we change our mental approach towards virtual identity, it will inevitably continue to worsen our experiences with reality.
So, next time you log on, take a moment and be grateful for your progressive self. Try not to let your profile inhibit this progress. Instead, understand that inconsistency is the beautiful reality of undergraduate experience, and lean into it.
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