Being real in a virtual
Humans are social beings, even the most introverted of us. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that in a country as vast as Canada we rely heavily on social media to stay connected. Yet, the virtual world allows us to create an image of ourselves that may not line up with reality. Does it matter?
Identity is an organizing principle of “self” that includes your beliefs, experiences, memories, personality, relationships, and values among other facets of your being. A strong sense of identity helps us distinguish how we are the same as—and different from—others and is critical for well-being.
When we’re young, identity development involves separating from caregivers. We experiment with roles, behaviours, and ways of being to figure out what feels right. As we age, our identity stabilizes, but it’s not carved in stone: we’re constantly growing and developing our sense of self. Every experience we have impacts and shapes us.
The digital playground opens a world of possibilities for self-experimentation not bound by day-to-day realities. At every life stage, we can experiment with a multitude of interests and disciplines: try out being an intellectual, an artist, a gardener, or more.
We can test the ability to entertain or provide political commentary. We get feedback and can develop in an area, or not. We can strengthen new identities online that might not initially receive support in our real-world experience.
With unfettered access to a worldwide audience comes the harsh reminder that our identity experiments will lead to mistakes, and unlike the memory of a real-world faux pas that might fade with time, social imprints last into the future. And the lack of accountability on social platforms also means that we can embellish.
Whether or not you construct a cartoon image of yourself, the version of you that shows up online is essentially an avatar: a digital representation of your self. Inherent in every self-representation is the potential to put (only) your best foot forward rather than being authentic. Authenticity is a two-pronged concept that involves self-awareness (knowing your identity) and self-expression (presenting yourself in a way that is consistent with identity.)
Because Facebook users typically connect with family and community, for example, our digital presentation usually aligns very closely to our real-world identity on this platform. That’s a good thing since research has connected authentic self-representation on social media with greater life satisfaction and overall well-being.
Other platforms can be less authentic. For instance, you’ve likely seen an “influencer” in a ball gown, sipping champagne and leaning against a Lamborghini parked in front of a private jet. You’ve also probably heard the background stories about how these influencers often beg, borrow, and almost steal props, hotel stays, and clothing to look as if they’re living your dream life.
On the one hand, you know it's all as fake as a glossy image of an 80-year-old photoshopped to look 40. On the other hand, a tiny voice deep inside of you asks, “why not me?” Seeds of dissent about your worth and experience of the world are deeply planted by the illusion created for social media. In fact, research shows that just a few minutes of scrolling can impact your mood.
Researchers in Quebec found that adolescents and young adults who have more frequent psychotic experiences (paranoia, hallucinations) and mental health concerns (anxiety, depression, and suicide attempts) also tend to spend more time on digital media.
Scrolling social media encourages us to focus on our more superficial identities related to appearance or the newest gadgets. This is intentional. Various industries have benefitted from marketing to our subconscious need to “belong.”
However, according to psychologist Erik Erikson’s theory of human development, when we reach adulthood and beyond, our identity focus turns to making a mark in the world and giving back to younger generations.
But if we’re distracted by inconsequential shiny objects in the media, we're not asking ourselves the deep identity questions we need to be asking, including “why am I here?” “what are my gifts?” and “how can I make my life truly matter?”
Erikson’s work posits that social media distractions could contribute to stagnation—the failure to find a way to contribute. Stagnation could lead to avoiding self-improvement efforts and feeling disconnected or uninvolved with society as a whole.
The content we create and expose ourselves to on social media changes the way we think about ourselves and others. Be sure your social media experiences align with who you are and who you want to become. If you want to make a difference in the world, it matters.
This article was originally published in the February 2024 issue of alive magazine.