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.
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.