Why Are We So Afraid To Be Ourselves Online?

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Words || Ellie Sindel

As humans, we like to have some kind of control over our lives – in relationships, in planning events, even in how we present ourselves on social media. We control, and are controlled, by social media. We choose who can see us and how much of our actual selves they’re allowed to see, but we are also controlled by it, in that we seek the approval of others and always need to be up to date on what people are doing. People have a need to only put out a pre-approved version of themselves; a version that always has their shit together and is always confident. We show the side of us that we want people to see. This persona typically shows up on Instagram, where people are simply seeing your photos, but they aren’t really seeing YOU.

Studies have shown that social media is damaging to our mental health, with Instagram being the worst offender. Through Instagram, people can experience body image issues, bullying, and FOMO; feeling pressured by the unrealistic expectations they have to meet in order to get likes. The endless amount of photoshopped and edited images that are posted daily affect how we see ourselves – for example, the constant stream of celebrities posing with not a stretch mark or inch of cellulite in sight can make people question their own appearance, and what is accepted and deemed ‘beautiful’ by society. People can also be bullied for their appearance on the app; they can feel left out by friends; or they can end up mindlessly scrolling through an endless feed of faces. Social media, Instagram in particular, have been found to be detrimental to our mental health, yet we keep going back. Why? My guess is because even though there’s all of those shitty aspects, there’s still an element of self-expression that we’re able to utilise, and we can connect with friends and see what’s going on in their lives. I have friends who live overseas – and more who are planning on moving soon – and it’s always nice to see how they’re going and keep that connection.

Instagram promotes photo sharing as a way to interact with friends, family, celebrities and even strangers, but because of the idealised society we live in and its insistence on perfectionism, we’re afraid to appear vulnerable or not good enough, even in a photo. Looking at my Instagram profile, you’d find photos of friends, family, my cat, and a few of myself taken by other people. I’d like to think that the version of myself that I put out there is fairly authentic, but there is a part of me that feels like I don’t look right compared to some of my friends, or like I’ve missed out on something like a fun night out with friends even though I would have been too tired to go anyway. We feel like we’re lacking something. It’s this idea of a scarcity culture, where we’re always thinking about what we don’t have – money, love, friends, resources. This results in feelings of not being worthy – never good enough, never smart enough, never thin enough, never successful enough. We have set these standards for ourselves based on what we see in other people, who also base their standards on what they see in other people and so on. This all usually takes place through social media. We see people getting engaged, graduating, having kids, getting their dream job, and we can’t help but compare where we’re at in our own lives.

Vulnerability is rarely seen online. We would rather appear strong, because we think that to be vulnerable is to be seen as weak. We all know that it’s alright to be honest, and that social media adds to this fear of being vulnerable, yet there are very few who have actually shown their vulnerability. On publicly viewed platforms, at least. Now people create a ‘finsta’ (fake-insta) – a profile where only a close circle of friends have access, where the account owner can post whatever they want; drunk/hungover photos, guilty pleasures, ~racy~ snaps (think: boyfriend grabbing your tits ‘cause it’s fun and why not), anything that they simply want to share with their people and not the entire world. Finstas have allowed people to be vulnerable online, and that’s a start. They have helped people to regain some control and change what kind of image is ‘expected’ of you online. I love seeing my friends post on their finstas, because I can see them – without all of the filters and the expectations. They look happy. Or sad, because they can be. They can show any kind of emotion they want because they know and trust every single person who has access to their finsta.

Control with social media is complex because there are so many different variants. We control who has access to us and what side of ourselves they see; we are controlled by who we see and how they choose to present themselves; and we control our own version of ourselves, whether that’s on a public account or a private finsta. Slowly but surely, attitudes to social media are changing. We know that social media is one of the most addictive things in the world, and that’s a difficult thing to break away from, but people are slowly starting to control their own narrative online. It’s a love-hate relationship with social media; it has some shitty qualities, but you just can’t bring yourself to hit that deactivate button because there’s still some good in there.