Social Media, Mental Health, and the Pressure of Perfection

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This week, I am going to take a look at the culture of perfection and comparing oneself to others that social media promotes, particularly among college students, as well as its detrimental effects. In today’s society, students feel pressure to be perfect in all arenas including academics, extracurriculars, and socializing, which is only exacerbated by social media.

Carl Rogers, who formulated the humanistic personality theory, stated that a discrepancy exists between the real or perceived self (who you think you are) and the ideal self (who you want to be). The closer these two states are (congruence), the more psychologically healthy one is, allowing one to live an authentic and genuine life. The further apart they are (incongruence), the more likely a person is to have stress and anxiety, which is the case with social media, where people portray an ideal self in an attempt to meet unrealistic standards. This has an effect on real life, as demonstrated by a phenomenon (known by names such as the Stanford Duck Syndrome and Penn Face), where on the surface, students appear happy and have it all put together, when in reality they are stressed and struggling to stay afloat.

Society creates certain expectations of the perfect college experience and many individuals also set high standards for themselves. A study done by Duke found that female students feel the need to be “effortlessly perfect,” appearing smart, successful, overly involved, in shape, good looking, and popular. This is epitomized by #LuckyGirl, which has been used often on social media, including over one million times on Instagram. The hashtag can be used by females to claim that great things happen to them because they are lucky, rather than taking credit for the effort they put in to get where they are. Similar feelings could apply to males as well.

When people are unable to live up to these standards, they could lose confidence in themselves or feel left out, which could have severe effects including mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. One example is mental health activist Kevin Breel, whose TED Talk shown above went viral in 2013 (and he spoke at BC yesterday). He talks about his struggles with depression, which began in high school. He was a star athlete that was seen as popular, happy, and outgoing in high school, but he was afraid to reveal the truth. He believes that social media doesn’t allow us to see people for who they really are and that the stigma around mental health issues causes people to hide their problems.

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Another prominent example is the story of Madison Holleran, a top student and star athlete in high school, who also ran track at Penn. Like many students who attend elite schools, she did not know how to deal with struggles that she faced for the first time in college. Her academics, track, and social life were not going as well as expected. She felt pressure to be both happy and perfect. In her Instagram posts, she appeared to be having a good time, but her struggles were hidden. Her friends’ social media posts gave the impression that they were having a better experience than her in college. She was diagnosed with depression and committed suicide in January 2014 at the age of 19. Her story highlights the danger of social media being used to constantly compare oneself to others. Social psychologists Leon Festinger’s social comparison theory states that we base our self-worth on how we compare to others. The facades people create on social media (and in person) cause individuals to believe that others are thriving and not struggling like them, when the reality is that everyone faces difficulties and nobody is perfect.

In my next blog post, I will talk about how social media can be used as a platform to start discussions about issues such as these and challenge the stereotypes it creates.

13 comments

  1. I liked the unique topic you took on here. It is a nice reminder that with all of the capabilities and positive things surfacing as a result of social media use, we must still consider the risks. Just as my grade school teachers used to tell me about how “the internet is a great tool if used effectively,” the same applies to social media outlets. Calling upon the ideas of Carl Rogers really helped to put things in perspective. I can relate to the discrepancies between the perceived self and the ideal self, especially in the context of social media. While I may portray myself in a certain light through my digital posts and photos, in reality I am not always as happy and adventurous as I lead on. I am okay with that, as I use these outlets to capture and convey enjoyable times that I want myself and others to remember. In viewing others’ posts, I try to keep this in mind. While social media reflects some aspects of life, it does not reflect all. You would not post a photo of yourself feeling down after a fight with a friend, because we do not wish to attract attention to ourselves in this light. Sometimes, when I view profiles of friends and acquaintances, I feel as if I am missing out. Whether this is the case or not, I think it is important to remember that not all of reality is conveyed over these posts.

  2. Nice post. I guess my main question is that if we ALL know that social media presents a stylized version of life, why do we compare ourselves to it. Aren’t we going to wise up and realize we’re only seeing part of the story? Or, is it because we see so many good things (and no bad) that we highlight the inadequacies in our own life? Hmm.

  3. Max, this is an awesome post. I saw the story about Madison’s suicide earlier this spring and thought it was great that people are finally talking about this issue. I think you hit on a really important point: the things that we see online are not necessarily reflective of what’s happening in the real world. We can’t help but compare ourselves to these unrealistic expectations.

    I’ve seen an increase in videos showing the differences between models that appear in advertising and their “untouched” photos and realize that even the most beautiful people are not beautiful enough for the standards we’ve set as a society. Even so, we still idolize these images of perfection and strive to become more like them.

    We see a steady stream of fun and exciting posts and filters that hide our flaws. It’s created a new type of issue within our society that definitely deserves some attention.

    Looking forward to your next post on the topic!

  4. This is a great post that hits on a lot of interesting points. I find myself always comparing my college experience to my friends on Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat. I find myself saying things like, “I wish I went to that school” or “They’re having so much more fun than me”, when in reality I am having a great time at school. Mental health is a huge issue that, as you demonstrated, can be worsened by social media. On the flip-side, social media has the incredible potential to bring us together and to support people struggling with their mental health. I remember when the story of Madison surfaced on the Internet, and I remember how much her story resonated with me. I ran on the track team for two years here at BC, and it was always incredibly challenging to balance athletics, school, and academics. I totally understood how she became so stressed out and anxious, and it was so sad to see that she didn’t receive the help she needed. As both you and Kevin Breel pointed out, sometimes people look completely fine on the outside, but on the inside are struggling to stay afloat. Social media can serve as an outlet for people to reach out to one another and show support. I am excited for your next post!

  5. Thank you for this post, which raises a much neglected topic, in my opinion. You really held up the mirror to our eyes by saying how we create what could almost be described (at least in some cases) as an alter ego. The incongruence between our real selves and our ideal selves is definitely something to think about. I think also there ought to be some education for social media users, particularly for young users as they enter the social media realm. Whether it be parents teaching their daughters to think more critically about what they see on Facebook, or whether it is a teacher in school that shows boys that you don’t have to be the star quarterback on the school team to be popular, this should be a much more prominently talked about topic.
    Although the issue of seeing a distorted world of super skinny and beautiful people has been around ever since mass media was created, social media has a far greater reach, and we need to find ways to deal with the anxiety and other mental health problems that arise from constantly following other people’s lives and inevitably comparing it to our own. Thanks for bringing up this important issue!

  6. Max — I am really intrigued by this topic because I think that it is an issue relevant to our BC community as well as college campuses across the country. I remember ESPN’s story about Madison Holleran going viral last spring. Since then mental health in social media has become a hot button issue. However, I also wonder like Professor Kane said about our ability to recognize the ingenuity of our peers’ post on social media and avoid comparing ourselves to impossible level of perfection.

  7. Max,

    I really appreciate you posting your blog on such an important topic that I think we can all relate to. I know I have been guilty of retaking selfies on Snapchat or for changing filters on Instagram so that I can make everyone look their “best” – but I wonder is it really their “best” if I am changing what they look like? Reading your post made me truly think about the real vs. perceived self, as it pertains not only to myself but to others. I cannot help but think about my little cousins – their lives revolve around what they posted on Instagram that day and how many likes they got. One of my cousins is a gymnast and she insisted on doing some flip on the beach (over and over again until she liked the picture) in Nantucket solely so she could say “NanTUCKet” (the type of gymnastic move) on Instagram. After reading your post, I will definitely try to be more aware of the congruence between real and perceived self that you mentioned, and I will try to teach this to my younger family members as well.

    Thank you for sharing this!

  8. Max, good job raising an important issue that we should all be aware of. I liked how you brought in some scientific ideas from the field of psychology. I am sure that nowadays psychologists do a lot of studies on the impacts of social media and are finding some interesting results. Social media definitely encourages us to portray a perfect life even though that is not reality. I don’t even have to google “Stanford duck syndrome” and “penn face” to know what those terms mean. And I am sure BC has a similar problem. At an elite school like this the pressure to fit in and succeed is immense. We were all high achievers in high school, but not everyone can be at the top of the class in college. This is definitely one of the harder things to cope with as part of college life. When we don’t succeed to the level we have in the past social media is always there with everyone else’s depictions of their “perfect lives”. It is easy to see how this can lead to mental health issues. I also read about Madison Holleran’s story and how quickly everything spiraled downward for her. It was hard to read, but is something that we must confront. We need to learn that no one of us is perfect and try not to let social media affect our own self-worth.

  9. Max – I was hoping someone would post about this story, it hit home with me. My cousin’s life ended in the same way, top student, incredible athlete, went to an elite school, and after just 8 months, ended her life.

    None of us, not even her parents knew what she was going through because we so often judge people based on their social media posts and just assume their life is fine. I’m always hopping that as these stories come in, it will help people sharing the same struggles rally together and build support groups. If you search certain hashtags on instagram it is very easy to find small networks of people that have done this, however, sometimes it is used as a space to encourage each other rather than healing each other.

    Mental health is such a big issue in this country with its lack of resources and negative stigmas… perhaps stories like these can be used to educate people and help parents realize that although they are “new” to the world of social media, they should know that what people present online is not a true representation of them.

  10. rebeccajin06 · ·

    Hi Max, this is a great post. I really liked the Rogers quote you included and how much it relates to the struggle today to look perfect on social media. I also found the Madison story to be very compelling and an example of how perfect one’s life can appear on social media when that clearly was not the case at all. It is so easy to make your life appear “perfect” especially in college when your friends and family from home are so far away. All it takes is one pretty picture to make it seem like you have so many friends, you don’t miss home, and you fit it when in reality everything might be the exact opposite. I think this trend was especially prominent during freshman year of college when it seemed like all my friends from home were loving school but then when everyone was home for Thanksgiving the truth really came out. Hopefully with more advocacy and awareness of this issue, we can try to scale back the unrealistic expectations that are conveyed through social media. I’m excited to see what your next post will look like!

  11. Great post. I respect your points on how easy it is to succumb to social pressures and compare oneself to others online. Our society is ultra focused on the media, and I think it’s important to reflect who we are as individuals.

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