“Being enough is an inside job” (Anne Lamott)
Social comparison is the name of the game on social media. The race is on to accomplish perfection in the world where everyone seems superior. No matter how many hours a day young users spend to build a perfect profile, it’s an impossible goal — there is always someone prettier, smarter, better than you.
“Comparison is a thief of joy”, said Theodore Roosevelt in the beginning of the 20th century.
“Pride is the root of all sin”, said the Bible 2000 years ago.
Both the ego inflated by “I am better than you” and ego reduced by “I am worse than you” are detrimental for self-esteem, which remains dependent on external signals, not on intrinsic self-worth.
Everyone’s value is quantified by rankings of online popularity. A public display of success or failure, damaging kids’ emerging self-esteem. Social media popularity contests are like a cruel video game, in which the most unscrupulous players win. Trying to create a healthy sense of self in a toxic environment of social comparison renders a young user helpless, because others are in control of their value as a human.
Social validation feedback loop is a deliberate strategy that makes social media so addictive. The number of “Friends” and “Likes” becomes the measure of a person. If your online “self” does not have enough of these, you are doomed. Self-worth that is based on today’s “Likes” will be swept away by no “Likes” of tomorrow.
A person becomes an object. A form designed to impress. Not an independent human being with a free will, but a slave to public opinion. And the teenage audience can be unforgiving: “peer reviewers” are kids. They are not particularly benevolent.
When the “performer” and the “audience” both lack the empathy muscles for positive social feedback they so crave, negative loops of social anxiety and FOMO only make them try harder. Everyone is competing against each other for the piece of the attention pie, only concerned about what people think of THEM.
The sense of self generated by this process is a fragile construct. Shifting sands of social validation are an unreliable foundation that crumbles the moment fresh “Likes” are not coming. Kids feel like they are being ignored by the world if they fail to produce new “engaging” content about themselves.
Without a daily positive reflection in the social media mirror, they suddenly feel like THEY DON’T EXIST.
Identity: the Sum of All “Likes”
The young are constantly online at the time when their identity is just being formed. Crafting a sense of self in the world of face-to-face interactions is replaced with an artificial online façade created in isolation. The real person disappears.
Young users know that designing a profile worthy of attention is faking it, but dare not disengage. If they ever attempt to disconnect from The Matrix, the fusion of real self — unexamined and unformed — with the social media profile would not allow it. They don’t exist outside of it. To unplug is to lose oneself, as the only “proof of life” is social media feedback to your “content”.
Insufficient “Likes” lead to a negative self-esteem and hours of compulsive use in desperate effort to prop up one’s profile. To support constant “presence” on the online stage for a largely indifferent and distracted “audience”.
In the meantime, the real self is suppressed and neglected. It is not given a chance to form properly, pushed out by an online “persona”. There is no “self”.
Self-esteem becomes a sum of all “Likes”.
Insecurity: Not Enough As You Are
With everyone’s public profile a façade built for attention, social media is the biggest medium for envy and insecurity. Passive following of online lives of others leads to dissatisfaction with your own. Teens, especially preteen girls, compare themselves to their peers, or to distant celebrities with their air-brushed standards of Instagram beauty. The fact that most online photos are not even real is not obvious to the young who just begin to develop their understanding of the world. They don’t measure up, feel inadequate, and their self-esteem crumbles.
Self-worth needs to be separated from physical appearance. Girls need to hear they are valuable regardless of how they look. Instead, insecurity is algorithmically promoted: the worse girls feel, the more time they spend online, the more money social media makes.
Insecurity not only amplifies traffic, it also makes young users susceptible to mind control: leaked documents from Facebook offered advertisers the ability to target vulnerable teenagers who feel “insecure”, “worthless” and “need a confidence boost”.
Preying on young users’ vulnerability and fragile self-esteem, tech platforms proceed to bombard them with ads for products that promise to fix their “flaws”. The message is loud and clear:
You are not acceptable just as you are. You need to be fixed. Your life sucks.
Lifestyle commercials and popular influencers drive the message home: this is what good life is supposed to look like and here is a product to make it happen. That’s the essence of advertising: if you buy this, you’ll be happy. It will make you look better, live better, feel better.
But it’s only now that Facebook and others have AI weapons to catch young people at the moments of their greatest insecurity — in real time — and target them with behavioral advertising that takes advantage of anxiety and depression. Without the user’s conscious awareness of what is happening. Which is monstrously unethical: what a young person needs at the moment of weakness is not a product, but a message: You are ok just as you are.
Trapped by Social Media
Like addicted gamblers unable to peel themselves away from the slot machine, young people are trapped by their devices. Social comparison produces insecurity and anxiety that drives them deeper into social media addiction.
Adolescence is the time when the opinion of peers matters more than anything. This adolescent orientation toward the peer group was hijacked and weaponized by social media, breaking a healthy balance between self and others.
Spending time face-to-face with supportive friends is an obvious remedy. Unfortunately, in-person socializing fell victim to the new digital reality. Reliance on online social feedback became the only source of self-esteem. And that’s like building a house on the sand instead of solid rock.
Side Effects Warning
Usually kids start using social media at their most socially vulnerable time in middle school. They have not read all that boring research about social media being linked to depression and anxiety. All they know is that their friends are on TikTok and SnapChat and Instagram. Peer pressure kicks in and they have to be where their friends are.
They think: It’s fun there, I get to hang out with all my friends! And check this out — I get attention from hundreds of strangers online and…wait, that was mean… this is creepy and makes me feel uncomfortable…I don’t have what these kids have and I am jealous…this thing here is scary and gives me nightmares….I have to reply to all of these messages…I feel overwhelmed and I cannot keep up with it all… And suddenly, I find myself in the school counselor’s office filling out a risk assessment form. How did this happen?
A #StatusOfMind report and hundreds of other studies examining the effects of social media on young people’s mental health and wellbeing found evidence of social media feeding anxiety, feelings of inadequacy, and low self-esteem.
American Academy of Pediatrics coined the term “Facebook depression” back in 2011, defining the condition as “depression that develops when preteens and teens spend a great deal of time on social media sites”. Things have gotten a lot worse since then, today we probably have a whole host of similar conditions: Instagram depression, Snapchat depression, TikTok depression, and so on.
Social media does not come with side effects warnings — but it should. Like medications. Or cigarettes. What would that warning look like?
After a year of COVID-19 quarantine, parents are sharing that the number one concern we have for our children is the effect of social isolation on their development and mental health. 24/7 online connection was a poor replacement for the real thing.
The Cure for Social Anxiety
What keeps parents worried is that kids got so used to spending all of their time in bed with the screen, they are scared to return to the real world as restrictions are being lifted. They are filled with social anxiety of having to communicate face-to-face again!
Well, an effective treatment for social anxiety is exposure therapy. The goal is to desensitize the child to uncomfortable social situations by exposing them to such situations, until anxiety dissipates. If we give our socially awkward teens a chance to retreat into their devices, how would they ever learn? We, the parents, have to cope with our own parental guilt, and send our kids back into the world. Their discomfort is OUR exposure therapy.
I tell my kids that the cure for social anxiety is simple. It’s called the 20–40–60 rule:
- When you’re 20 you care what everyone thinks.
- When you’re 40 you stop caring what everyone thinks.
- When you’re 60 you realize no one was ever thinking about you in the first place.
Only intrinsic self-worth that exists independently of online public opinion can generate a lasting self-esteem.
You are enough just as you are.
Her research on the relationship between technology and psychology seeks to reveal how digital behavior manipulation affects human wellbeing.