Keeping up with the perfect lives of social media might be killing people

Anyone who has spent any time at all posting to Facebook probably knows the reality of living in a fantasy world. Let’s face it: The images we’re uploading, the status updates we’re making, are only a part of our lives. We don’t generally post the other part, and in so doing, we create the illusion of our perfect lives for the benefit of others.

How’d you like to be a person trying to live up to a life as perfect as ours?

This reality is at the heart of the speculation about what is causing a spike in teen suicide, the Associated Press reports today.

The increase seems to parallel the rise in social media. Bullying may be part of it. But it’s also possible we’re part of it with our sharing of the best part of our lives.

“After hours of scrolling through Instagram feeds, I just feel worse about myself because I feel left out,” said Caitlin Hearty, a 17-year-old Littleton, Colorado, high school senior who helped organize an offline campaign last month after several local teen suicides.

Heartbreaking? Absolutely. And part of the reason it is is likely because many of us have felt the same way, and while the researchers of the latest study haven’t established a direct link between suicide and the perfect lives of social media, it sure feels possible.

The study only looked at teenagers in two studies. They were asked about use of electronic devices, social media, print media, television and time spent with friends. Questions about mood included frequency of feeling hopeless and considering or attempting suicide.

Thirty-six percent of all teens reported feeling desperately sad or hopeless, or thinking about, planning or attempting suicide, up from 32 percent in 2009. For girls, the rates were higher — 45 percent in 2015 versus 40 percent in 2009.

The tendency on stories like this is to judge a generation or a technology, but it’s not entirely a new thing.

“When dime-store books came out, when comic books came out, when television came out, when rock and roll first started, people were saying ‘This is the end of the world,’” Dr. Victor Strasburger, a teen medicine specialist at the University of New Mexico, told the AP.

He said parents “don’t get” the danger presented by smartphones and social media. But the reality is few people do. Otherwise, maybe we’d be more honest in depicting our lives.

  • AL287

    When I read that parents have started using tweets to avoid arguing with their children about homework, cleaning their rooms, doing various chores, laundry, dishes, taking out the garbage, etc. I realized we, as a society were in for a world of hurt.

    Humans fail to thrive without touch and face-to-face interaction. It’s what motivates us to go to work, school, church and a host of other uniquely human activities.

    As the study at the University of London suggests, it is likely the social isolation Facebook and other social media platforms cause that is increasing the suicide rate among teens.

    Volunteer work can be a powerful antidote to social isolation. It provides the social interaction that humans need to thrive.

    Fund raising used to be a face-to-face, voice-to-voice operation but GoFundMe has literally taken the personal interaction out of much of it.

    I really don’t want to be an automaton, mindlessly punching out messages on a tablet computer.

    I want to feel human with all the joy, wonder, pain, humiliation and consequences that entails.

  • Joseph

    Speaking as a millennial, this is definitely something I’ve learned I had to deal with, especially when I was in college. I definitely agree with the H.S. senior who was quoted as feeling like she was ‘missing out’. It is VERY easy to feel like you are missing out, have no actual friends, and are wasting your life, because what you see is the highlight-reel of everyone else’s lives. You rarely see someone sharing bad news, or even ordinary/average news. On a newsfeed, you are only seeing the best parts of someone’s life (new boyfriend/girlfriend, weddings, party’s, new baby’s/puppy’s, travel.
    As a consumer of a social media feed, you always have to keep in mind that what you are seeing is not what the majority of your peers are experiencing.

    • I remember when I was in high school, I saw a commercial for Fanta (“it’s fun to be thirsty”) that showed a bunch of kids on a boat having a great time. I felt like I was missing out, as if my friends — or people I thought were my friends — were probably all out together on a boat having fun, leaving me behind. It ‘s insane. And all of this is what marketing is all about. So when people use social media, what they’re doing — whether they realize it or not — is marketing. And they’re the brand.

      • Paul

        Absolutely. Or you’re following a professional where they are perfecting their craft day-in and day-out to get to where they are – you’re seeing the result. They aren’t sitting on instagram watching everyone be the best – they are out getting it.

        There are creators and consumers in social media.

      • Rob

        Your friends were getting cavities from drinking too much Fanta.

      • jon

        So all these years later and your HS friends still haven’t come clean about the fanta boat parties the didn’t invite you to…

  • MrE85

    People looking for an idyllic view of my life on any social media platform are going to be sorely disappointed.

    • Kassie

      The older I get, the more social media is about people dying, getting cancer and/or living their lives through their kids. I look forward to vacation/new boyfriend/fun time posts.

      • MrE85

        Come to think of it, my last two Facebook posts were about family members dying. When we get a new dog/dogs, I’ll post about them.

        • There are things that keep people up at night. These are the things we don’t talk about.

          • MrE85


  • Jay Sieling

    This is a really important topic. I try to address this in an Interpersonal Communication course. Social media and interpersonal communication is the second chapter. It comes right after establishing the importance of communication and relationships in general. As AL287 pointed out, we can not thrive with out human connection. So one point becomes social media is another tool to connect with others. We now have more connections with more people than at any other time in history. This tool has allowed us to extend our ability to connect with one another, just as other tools extend our physical abilities. (hammers, screwdrivers etc)

    I think we need to focus on proper use of such a tool. We need to coach and instruct youth that we shouldn’t put too much emphasis on social comparisons. Often we are comparing to a perceived perfection or an unattainable ideal. We now have two personae: our actual self and a digital self. We get bogged down by comparing our actual self, our self concept, with someone else’s digital self. Is it the tool that is the problem then? Or is it the over-use or misuse of the tool?

    Amber Case calls herself a cyborg anthropologist. I present her TEDtalk in class to spark the conversation about all of us being cyborgs (she makes an interesting case) The key take away from her talk is that this tool gets in the way of our down time, our time for self reflection. Being constantly connected, we constantly survey and compare to our connections, rather than take moments to disconnect and adjust ourselves. We need introspection, moments to discover who we are on our own – so we can plan and present ourselves anew. Ms. Case may go further than I would by claiming theses devices make us more human.

    This era of social media platforms that result in Catfishing and anonymous trolling magnifies an aspect of communication and the self. It is not a new problem, but the scope is greater and the speed of information is faster. I try to point this out by showing an episode of The Andy Griffith Show in class. In Floyd the Gay Deceiver, Floyd the barber uses a “lonely hearts correspondence club” to manage his identity in a dishonest way (he exaggerates the highlight reels of his life – like our modern day Instagram). He panics when one pen-pal makes plans to meet him in person and he has to enlist Andy to “help her see me as the man she thinks I am”. It’s wonderfully comic, and poignant as Andy tries to get Floyd to deal with and stay in his reality – not the made up self he want to present.

    Social media is a tool to connect. It can be good and possibly enhance our humanness. But if we use it as a wormhole to an alternate reality and stay there – forsaking our real self, there will be problems. Tools misused can cause problems. Tools can also become weapons (as we saw in the election, and the recent MPR study highlight distrust in media). Let’s be mindful of how tools can and should be used. But not lose sight of who we really are, and how we really connect.

  • lusophone

    I think there will be a sway to the underbelly of our lives soon, if it hasn’t already started. People are going to be attracted to the self-deprecating side of celebrities and consequently to the rest of the masses to medicate this malady. Like Dr. Strasburger said we see these new tools as a danger, but there is a certain amount of self-correction that always takes place. We do of course need to remind our kids and ourselves “how all this works.” We already have had different lives, like our home life, work life and such. A social media life doesn’t seem to be too different from that.

  • Rob

    I blame Mary Poppins for this focus on “perfect lives,” given that she was, by her own proclamation, “Practically perfect in every way.”