Upon logging into Facebook or Twitter in the past few days, some of you may have come across posts talking about 18-year-old Australian Essena O’Neill’s decision to abandon her famous social media accounts. Essena became “famous” after beginning a lifestyle/veganism channel on Youtube, where she gained large following of about half a million people. These individuals also provided her with Instagram fame, giving Essena a platform to post an abundance of beautiful images of herself and the things she was doing on a day-to-day basis. While most people are just hearing about Essena now, I’ve actually been following her accounts for about a year or so; ironically, I completely idolized her for eating healthfully all the time, wearing cute clothes, having a perfect body, hair, and skin, and traveling to exotic locations. Only after seeing her video about the sad truth behind her social media accounts did I realize how much my perception of her differed from reality. The pictures of her candidly laughing, effortlessly holding her wind-blown hair while bikini-clad on the beach, and smiling for selfies—the very pictures I so greatly envied—turned out to be extremely posed. They were taken for the sole purpose of getting more likes and comments. Often, Essena said she felt trapped within the image of who she wanted herself to be on the Internet; she became extremely lonely, isolated, and depressed. All of this is food for thought in analyzing the role social media plays in society and popular culture today.
Two personal experiences of mine serve to show how skewed social media really is. Last year, before transferring to Notre Dame, I went to Fordham University. There, I found myself unhappy, missing home, missing friends, and wishing I were somewhere else. I tried to push the thoughts out of my head and instead occupied myself by refreshing social media feeds, making myself feel even worse. My Facebook and Instagram feeds were flooded with pictures of friends at their respective colleges, posing with sorority sisters, partying, tailgating, laughing, etc. It seemed like everybody was having the time of their lives at college while I was sitting at my desk crying. When I went home for Christmas break, though, I realized something: so many of my friends weren’t really enjoying college. Actually, many of them voiced dissatisfaction with college to their parents and were filling out transfer applications or taking the rest of the year off. I was shocked; I’d thought for sure that college had to be the best four years of everyone’s lives. Looking back at my posts from last year, people probably thought the same thing about me; I posted so many pictures smiling and laughing with my friends, when, in reality, I was simply hiding how upset I was on the inside. Another example of this: one of my friends blacked out and made a complete fool of herself at a tailgate, but decided (once she regained consciousness) to post an Instagram all-smiles. The comments on her picture? “Perfect,” “I want your life,” and “I want to be you.” All from people who had no idea what actually went down that day. Moral of the story: social media never tells the whole story.
My second example happened a few weeks ago when I broke my phone (RIP, I will never forget you *tear*). The week and a half where I was phoneless was seriously brutal and I’m honestly sad to admit that. The absence of my phone led me to see how dependent we are on our phones in several ways. First, I noticed how much people use their phones during social interaction. The amount of times I sat at dinner in NDH and watched people pull their phones out to start scrolling through Twitter or Facebook was obscene. It’s ironic how social media can suck the “social” part out of real-life, person-to-person communication. I’m guilty of doing some casual phone-scrolling sometimes (especially when conversation lulls or becomes awkward), but now I realize just how rude it is. It’s basically saying, “Hey, I know you’re right in front of me and all, but I kinda have more important things to look at.” Second, we are all so used to having something in our hands at all times. Without the comfort of the iPhone-shaped rectangle in my hands, I constantly found myself wondering what to do with my hands. I had to keep my ChapStick in my vest pocket just to have something to toy around with. Third, people are looking down all the time. As I walked to class with my eyes upright, barely any other eyes met mine. People were moving from place to place without even realizing what was around them, their eyes all downcast, fingers swiping up and down, left and right, double-tapping, and hovering. I mean, you go to one of the prettiest schools in the world; there is SO much more to look at than a bunch of glowing pixels. Fourth, I am obsessed with social media. While I was (impatiently) awaiting the arrival of my new phone, I kept my computer in my backpack at all times so I could still text, e-mail, and refresh sites like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and Pinterest. Snapchat doesn’t have a desktop version, so naturally, I logged into my account on my friends’ phones several times and made my sister check everyone’s Snapchat stories to see if there were any interesting ones. Oh, and I posted an Instagram off my friend’s phone. While at dinner in NDH. I am a hypocrite!!! That’s the thing, though; we’re all hypocrites when it comes to social media.
Younger generations like my sister’s (she’s thirteen) are being exposed to social media sites at earlier and earlier ages every year, and I definitely see the effects this has on them. For example, my sister refuses to post on Instagram unless it’s a “good time.” She once cried for an hour in the car ride home from vacation because I wouldn’t send her the picture she wanted to post at 6:00, sharp. Some people I know will go back and delete photos they previously posted just because they didn’t get “enough” likes on them. There are so many better things we could be doing with our time. I’m not saying we should all give up our social media accounts, because that simply won’t happen. I’m also not saying we should stop editing our pictures and coming up with creative captions because, let’s face it, we still will. After all, social media is a form of self-expression, an outlet for creativity, and a method of communication. I guess I’m saying that we could all try to focus a little less on our social media “selves,” and a little more on who we come across as in person. Do we want to be known as people who don’t know how to hold conversations at lunch or who rudely bump into people because we don’t look up from our screens? Personally, I don’t want to look back on these years and wonder why I wasted them away by being too infatuated with the person I come across as on my Instagram profile or Twitter page. Let’s try to just take it day by day and appreciate life in the present. Let’s be game-changers.