Mr Kokott: Social media – actual selves versus ideal selves

15th June 20

COVID-19 has given us all an opportunity to stop and reflect on what is important in our lives. It has provided a unique experience where we have been forced to look at life from a different angle. The psychology of social media, and the fabricated world it recreates, has always been an interest of mine. Tracking the changes in how people interact via social media over the past eleven weeks or so has been particularly interesting.

Year in and year out, I find myself standing in front of some pretty vulnerable teenagers explaining how social encounters via the internet are accounting for the rise in teenage depression; this is often reported in commercial newspapers as well as psychological publications and reviews. I continue my talk by mentioning that social networking is not always conducive to positive mental well-being – no one has a permanent highlight reel I find myself preaching over and over again. Not one of the friends you host on social media has a perfect life which carries with it zero adversities. COVID-19 has given us some breathing space in my opinion. It has allowed for genuine interaction – face-to-face conversations without the airbrushing or the selling of a “product”.

It is so easy to get caught up in the lives of others by scrolling through our news feeds without taking a step back to recognise that the moment that they are current projecting is not all moments; that moment is not all moments, and whilst you may be experiencing adversity in that moment, others aren’t … and vice versa. It is evident that those of us using social media can “sell” an image. I can create a happy family. Add in a child. Add in a dog or a cat. I’m not saying that all posts are pseudo or made up to sell an image, what I’m really trying to get at here, is the fact that we are selling our ideal selves and not our actual selves; this is where the psychology comes in.

Whilst “likes” and “friends” boost our self-esteem, it is a self-esteem based on the ideal self, rather than the actual self. I’m not suggesting that people photoshop in backdrops to make out as if they are having fun, but that moment when your phone takes a photograph is not necessarily all moments – it may be just that moment – that great moment – one worth sharing and “selling” to the world, but it isn’t our reality and so we go back to our world and wait for the likes to reel in. We all fall prey to this and it is not always a negative thing. The problem creeps in when we start to compare our actual selves to the ideal selves of others. Depression sets in – “how is it that everyone else has such an exciting life and mine is so monotonous and bland?” We reflect on our own lives and feel inadequate. Why don’t I have holidays like that? Why am I stuck in this rut? Why isn’t my relationship that fun, full of life? Why aren’t my kids as bright, as quirky, etc, etc… However, for the first time since social media came into our lives, we are able to understand our own lives on an even playing field. Money, glamour and selling a lifestyle currently does not matter. We have all been forced to turn to our actual selves and this is what I am starting to notice. Whilst mental health is of national concern at present, this time the focus is different.

It is refreshing to see more transparency when it comes to social media these days. We are learning more about one another and ourselves for the first time in a long time.

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