• Melissa Paulsen, MA, LMFT, RPT-S

Highlight Reel vs. Real Life: Skewed Perceptions Caused by Social Media



“The more social media we have, the more we think we’re connecting, yet we are really disconnecting from each other.”


– JR, Source Unknown



More than 9 out of 10 American teenagers use social media. While many of us probably believe Facebook is the most popular, its popularity has actually declined significantly among teenagers in the past few years. Why? Because their parents are using it now! A recent survey showed that Instagram is the #1 social media application used by teenagers with Twitter coming in at #2 and Facebook at #3. Pinterest, Tumblr, Google+, and Reddit followed behind.



“Young women growing up on Instagram are spending a significant chunk of each day absorbing others' filtered images while they walk through their own realities, unfiltered,” (ESPN Article). Social media has a serious impact on people’s self-esteem, especially for those who are not aware of the skewed version of the people they are looking at or interacting with. ESPN recently wrote an article about a young woman named Madison Holleran, who resisted presenting her true self on social media. In the article ESPN explained, “Everyone presents an edited version of life on social media.” Madison was a beautiful 19-year-old girl attending college at the University of Pennsylvania where she ran track. While unnoticeable from the outside looking in, Madison struggled with depression and shocked everyone when she took her life by jumping off of a parking ramp on January 17th, 2014.



On Instagram, Madison personified herself as your typical first-year college student seen running track and hanging out with family and friends. The discrepancy between our social media selves and our authentic real-life selves could not be more evident than by the beautiful picture Madison posted of Rittenhouse Square with twinkling lights only one hour before committing suicide. Sometimes this is considered to be “smiling depression” when people are secretly struggling with depression but want to be perceived as happy and “normal”.



Ironically, Madison seemed to understand her life was nothing like the life she was portraying on social media, telling her mom it was “just a picture” when she told Madison how happy she looked. Still she did not realize other girls her age might be doing the exact same thing; instead assuming every picture she saw was someone else authentically happy, so unlike herself.


Many people go on social media looking for positivity and choose to post positivity. We must not interpret the positivity and perfectionism we view on social media to be how someone feels 100% of the time, but rather them choosing to post various moments when they are feeling happy. One study cited in a USA Today article stated, “Students said that number of likes or retweets is used as a tool of verification for acceptance within their group of peers. Few students said that they would take down a photo or a status if it didn’t receive a desired number of likes.”



So why is this important? Social media is unavoidable and we must teach children how to recognize the difference between real life and the highlight reel portrayed on social media. “Just as we teach our children how to ride a bike, we need to teach them how to navigate social media and make the right moves that will help them. The physical world is similar to the virtual world in many cases. It’s about being aware. We can prevent many debacles if we’re educated,” (Amy Jo Martin, Author). It is important to remind kids who are using social media that posts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter do not tell the whole story of someone’s life, but rather just a brief page of their story. Parents should consider the pressure of social media for teenagers to be the newest, digital version of “Keeping up with the Joneses.” Offering support and guidance, especially to teenagers, is crucial.



Psych Central has an article written by Kelsey Sunstrum noting ways to treat social media depression:


  1. Take the time to unplug from technology and social media accounts every day.

  2. When faced with social media-induced self-loathing, confront your negative thoughts and question their origin and validity.

  3. If you’re drawn to social media during times of boredom, ensure you have something to distract yourself, such as a book or fun phone app.

In summary, what you see on social media is what people allow you to see, which is not always their authentic selves. Don't compare your own reality to someone else's social media profile...and don’t let your kids do it either.



To read more on Madison Holleran go here: http://espn.go.com/espn/feature/story/_/id/12833146/



#Therapy #Counseling #MentalHealth #Depression #SocialMedia #Instagram #College

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