Social Media and Self-Worth

The novel I’m writing explores the relationship between social media and self-worth, something I’ve been reflecting on recently. Social media shouldn’t impact on self-worth, but in my experience, it does. 

I’ve been on various social media platforms for nearly fifteen years. At the most formative point in my teens, I suddenly had an online life as well as a real one. The politics of an all girl’s school didn’t end when the bell rang, it followed me home.

I belong to the Bebo generation, where you ranked your friends in your Top 16 and saw how many people had visited your page. You had a love heart to give someone each day and used it as currency for bribing friends. I’ll give you my love if you come to the staff room with me. Or, can I borrow your textbook? Only if you give me your love. Looking back, it’s saddening to think that the desire to look “popular” online seeped into the school day. But that was the mid-noughties, when you couldn’t use social media until you got home. I dread to think what it would’ve been like with smart phones. 

I had a great group of friends throughout school, but I wasn’t popular. I was the quiet, diligent girl that was good at art and wore eclectic outfits on mufti days. On Bebo though, I could express myself through choosing a skin (gross) with a clashing font, writing a bio about all my fAvE FiLmS (ones that made me look cool), uploading photos of me and my friends trying on ugly evening dresses in TK Maxx and selecting a video for my page – I have a vague memory of mine being Elephant Love Medley from Moulin Rouge. I soon found that BOYS from local schools started adding me and my views went up. Making new friends to talk to on MSN after school made me feel popular. Like I fitted in. Like I was doing the whole teenage thing right. 

After Bebo, I turned to Facebook from GCSEs through to university where it was all about being tagged in streams of unflattering photos, joining groups titled ‘that awkward moment when…’, writing on friend’s walls after just seeing them, filling up your calendar with events and speaking to someone you fancied for hours on Facebook chat whilst pretending to do homework. Admittedly, it was a place to share memories with people you connect with in real life, but there was a focus on the number of friends you had. I use ‘friend’ loosely – if you met someone on holiday in Portugal, you’d add them. The competitive comparison was toxic – I had one friend who, on my birthday would count how many messages I’d received against hers the day before. My social life took a dip during the summer after GCSEs and I was left out of gatherings. I would have been blissfully unaware if there weren’t photos posted on Facebook. I can still feel the sting of teenage rejection on finding out my friends were all at a house party whilst I was at home with my parents on a Saturday night. Looking back, social media provided an unhealthy backdrop to my teenage years. Whether it was how many love hearts, Facebook friends or birthday messages I had, there was always a number to check my self-worth against. 

I’ve come a long way since blindly navigating social media as a thirteen-year-old, but I don’t think I’m the only millennial who has experienced damaging repercussions from it, whether knowingly or not. I never used to care about how many Instagram followers or likes I had, I didn’t even bother using hashtags, but as I received more engagement, I started to pay attention to it. Instagram became addictive and I sought out that short-lived boost to my self-esteem as the notifications popped up, one after another. When things went wrong in my personal life, whether I was going through heart-break after the end of a long term relationship or being ghosted by someone I’d been seeing for a few months, I’d turn to social media for reassurance, to feel valued in the face of rejection. 

Over the last couple of years or so, I found the happy medium between my real and online lives. I started to post when I’d taken a nice photo and didn’t stress over how many likes it received, rather than feel obliged to take a photo with the purpose of growing my following. I deleted the app I used to track unfollowers because I realised how weird and harmful it was and felt so much better for it. However, during lockdown I noticed that Instagram had a negative impact on my mental health again. In a world where we couldn’t leave the house, apart from supermarket trips and our allotted one-a-day walk, I sought out Instagram to feel connected to others and for glimpses of the world outside my four walls. For some reason or another, probably because I’ve been using Instagram sporadically over the last year, the algorithm hates me. My engagement has significantly dropped, and I fell back into the trap of feeling down when a post doesn’t get many likes. Even though I know how ridiculous it is and it’s all relative (my least liked post might be someone else’s most popular), I couldn’t help but take it personally, regarding it as a reflection of my self-worth.  

When Instagram makes me feel this way, I’m tempted to delete it or take an indefinite break but that’s running away from the problem. There are ups and downs to all relationships and I need to work through my issues with it because my reaction says more about my self-esteem than the failings of social media. I do have issues with how Instagram encourages us to seek validation from others, but it doesn’t mean we have to let it. I’m not sure what happened to the initiative of taking away Instagram likes because I can still see mine, but I’m all for them disappearing.

It feels narcissistic to admit that Instagram impacts my self-esteem. I know I shouldn’t base my worth on how many people like a pouty selfie. It says nothing about me, just that I have a face, but when I’m feeling insecure, my default setting is to post a posey photo to try and regain control over my opinion of myself. However superficial it is, I still find it hard to separate my self-worth from social media, mostly due to the impact it had on me during my teens, not helped by becoming involved with the modelling industry. Since I was sixteen, my “success” has been measured against how I look in real life and online. Social media and body image is a whole other can of worms and one I won’t open now but it’s also something I’m working on. 

Unlike in the past, when I would allow myself to spiral into a gloom of comparison and inadequacy when a photo didn’t perform well, I decided to reflect on my relationship with social media. Instead of trying to “fix” the problem from the outside – putting time and energy into growing my engagement by posting daily, researching hashtags, etc – I’ve addressed the unhealthy mindset social media has instilled in me from an early age and will continue to work on detaching my self-worth from it. If my protagonist is going to learn how to stop quantifying her self-worth against Instagram followers and likes, then I probably should too!

Being in the midst of a pandemic most definitely puts things into perspective. When this is all over, I won’t remember the time I spent mindlessly scrolling Instagram. I might’ve relapsed into getting caught up in the online world during lockdown but it’s opened my eyes to what gives me a rush of genuine endorphins; spending time with loved ones, losing myself in books, attempting to write my own, going on long walks and listening to podcasts, cuddling my cats, cooking tasty meals…all of which, unsurprisingly, are experienced in real life. 

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© 2021 by Freya McIvor