Everything I see, especially online, has something or other to do with the way people look. I mean, I can’t even observe other health influencers who aren’t posting pictures of themselves talking about how they overcame depression (focusing the spotlight on beautiful white girls who strive over intersectional women), without feeling like this world is has become less and less real. Like it is some perverse, voyeuristic wasteland and those who have the guts to put themselves out there appear to have more ‘know how’ then those who would rather hide behind a picture of a leaf and call it art. Growing up, I was infiltrated with pictures of beautiful women on magazines that made me feel worse about my body or my appearance. I couldn’t imagine girls in this day of age, the amount of streaming media showing beautiful woman could make any little girl or teenager desire to find something of her self in the posts. I am 30-years-old and even find myself trying to conjure some sort of identity through the way I pose or how polished my skin looks through a selfie filter. It sets the stage to ask the question: who am I? And does social media know?
Who Am I? Social Media Might Know
Identifying with who we are on social media can be a fun creative outlet but when does it become unhealthy? In 2022 TeenVogue published research documenting how psychologist Naomi Torress-Mackie, PhD, head of The Mental Health Coalition, documented a new phenomenon in the TikTok Community: where a patient had entered her office with a new self-diagnose: “Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).” According to the research, more individuals than ever are self-diagnosing themselves with DID expanding the prevalence of DID while spreading a lot of misinformation about the condition. The TikTok community has made both positive and negative reinforcements of mental health knowledge. The crisis of social identity is the main problem people tackle during adolescence. However, could the complex string of highly manicured and airbrushed social influencers be a common factor to adolescents negotiated sense of self? In the New Yorker, an article was published describing the relationship social media has on memory and identity. It stated by 2015, a year after Facebook started, people were sharing thirty million images an hour on Snapchat, Facebook and the like. Research Historians at Parsons “The New School,” study the development of young people growing up in a society that is perpetually documented and it has found that identity development is thwarted by the fact that these photos near fade. Due to the documentation of social media, teenagers are less willing to experiment with their identities out of fear of breaking social norms and distributing ‘disliked’ images or content. The persistence of certain images is more of a problem for some than it is for others. For many teenagers, social media represents a sense of self-control and freedom. Many teenagers are able to escape the mundane surveillance of their parents and enter into a new domain without restrictions and creative expansion. According to many researchers, the visual anonymity of social media also contributes to the creation of an identity. However, what is the legitimacy of those identities? I think it is common knowledge that the identity one portrays on social media is a fake sense of self compared to the part of you that has had too much to eat at a taco diner and runs to the bathroom or the part of you who feels shame, chaos and disconnection. The online platforms, although expressive, can make it impossible to share the real moments that impact a teenagers development: the scary, sticky and inhuman parts that help us feel a sense of belonging. Therefore, this can affect teenagers mental health because they’re forced to showcase an inauthentic representation of growing up (naturally). Thus, splitting their sense of identity by portraying two versions of themselves: the version that they portray online and the version of themselves in puberty offline. Yet, as stated above, for many the online identities can be a better expression of oneself away from school bullying, home abuse or harm. According to Wilson(2010), Rive et al.(2016), the main reason people have the urge of using social media platforms is because they have the option of aspiring their needs to construct their identities (for instance, me as a writer, artist and therapist) and also because they are able to feel the ‘best’ on social media platforms.
What about our offline lifestyle?
Although there may be some perceived benefits of cultivating an identity online, a lot of people have suffered from mental impact and anxiety while creating and also using their online identity (Lau et al., 2016). Depending on the use of the social media platform, when creating a profile, people have a tendency of focusing more on their online identity, rather than who they are offline. Take for instance, a social media influencer who says they’ve discovered how to end depression. They post a picture of themselves staring off into the distance on a beach in a bikini and then contribute to the literature of research on ‘depression online.’ As if, being on a beach and overcoming depression is now an objective look at what mental health recovery looks like. While individuals behaving this way online may become confused because they’re now disillusioned from themselves and their own identity, the different online networking sites may cause confusion for people because they’re somehow convinced that the online identity they have created is actually their real identity which is indeed not true. Thus, rates of remission for mental health conditions may be higher as individuals struggle coming to terms with how their depression may look online vs. how their depression may look in real life. If an individuals depression online looks exciting and restorative, it may signal that their is no reason to take medication or seek recovery in the real world. Ultimately, chasing the lifestyle of the influencer and missing the real picture of mental health recovery.