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It’s hard to imagine a world without social media nowadays. I mean, how else would we find out what our friends, colleagues, exes, childhood frenemies, and friends-of-friends-of-friends, are up to?

Like where they’re performing next.

Or how yummy their post-rehearsal almond croissant and caramel frappe-mocha-chino was.

Or where they found the amazing no-show socks they’re wearing, that manage to not only be truly no-show, but also stay up, instead of slipping off and getting all scrunched up underneath your arch.

Whether we’re sharing a snippet from our weekend with our friends on Facebook, or creating a behind-the-scenes video for our YouTube channel, figuring out how best to utilize social media is tricky.

Last week we talked about how best to share our latest wins with our online friends and social media followers. And how we are more likely to be respected and liked if we just share our latest accomplishments with the world in a genuine, straightforward way, than if we try to mask it in humility or a complaint of some kind (i.e. humblebragging).

There’s been a lot of interest in recent years about the connection between social media use and our mental health. And increasingly, how the relationship is a little more complex than it’s often made out to be (like here and here). So this week, I thought it’d be nice to take a moment to explore one aspect of this research. Specifically, how the way in which we share various aspects of our lives could have a more positive – or negative – impact on our mood, emotional state, and overall well-being.

How’s that now?

The tension between idealized us and authentic us

I read an article recently on how there’s a growing industry devoted to helping social media influencers look rich and successful, when the reality may be quite a different story (The ‘Fake Wealth’ Industry Making Influencers Look Rich).

And while influencer culture is a whole universe away from the way most of us utilize social media, I do think we still have a tendency to want to present our best selves online. Kind of like how the version of us that goes out on first dates is not exactly the same person that our good friends or family see if they were to surprise FaceTime us at 7am on any given day.

But while a part of us wants to present a more shiny, perfect, idealized version of ourselves on social media, there’s also a part of us that wants to be authentic. And to be accepted by the world as the unique, quirky, wonderful – but also imperfect individual we are.

So how do these conflicting desires play out on social media?

A Facebook study

A team of researchers (Bailey et al., 2020) analyzed data from 10,560 Facebook users who took a personality assessment and rated their life satisfaction through an app on Facebook (specifically, the myPersonality app).

Of course, what we say about ourselves, and what we actually do are often very different things, so the researchers compared the participants self-ratings with two other factors. One, predictions of personality from the participants’ Facebook likes, and two, predictions of personality from participants’ status updates. 

Because apparently, there are ways to use all of our activity on Facebook to build psychological profiles on us. (Which is not at all creepy or invasive, and totally doesn’t make me wonder how all of my activity data is being used. Of course, having already finished watching pretty much everything else in my Netflix queue, I’ve been on a documentary kick lately. And watching films like The Social Dilemma, The Great Hack, and The Cleaners have probably skewed me a bit to the more paranoid side of the spectrum…)

Anywho, the gist is that the researchers were able to calculate a “Quantified Authenticity” score for all of the participants, ranging from highly authentic to highly self-idealized.

And was there any connection between how authentic participants were on Facebook and their life satisfaction ratings?

Authenticity and life satisfaction

Indeed! There was a significant positive correlation between authenticity and life satisfaction scores. Meaning, that the more authentic participants were in their Facebook interactions, the greater their life satisfaction scores. And the more self-idealized they were on Facebook, the lower their levels of well-being.

In other words, participants who portrayed themselves on Facebook in ways that were more closely aligned with how they genuinely see themselves, experienced higher levels of well-being than those who presented themselves in ways that they knew were not quite as representative of who they truly were.

The problem, of course, is that because of the nature of correlational studies, it’s not clear if authenticity causes greater well-being, or if people with higher life satisfaction scores simply tend to be more authentic on Facebook.

Quick random sidebar: if you’ve ever heard the phrase “correlation doesn’t equal causation,” but weren’t quite sure what that means, here are some fun examples that will clarify this, and show how there can be significant correlations between two clearly unrelated things – like the number of people who drowned by falling into a pool and the number of films Nicolas Cage appeared in that year. Or per capita margarine consumption and the divorce rate in Maine. Or Miss America’s age, and the number of murders by steam, hot vapors, and hot objects.

A more rigorous study

So, to dig a little deeper, the researchers set up a two-week study, where they recruited 90 students to post authentically on social media for a week, and then post in a more self-idealized way for a week (or vice versa).

Before starting, all participants completed a personality assessment, received personalized feedback about their profile, and completed several assessments of their life satisfaction, mood, and positive and negative affect1. 

And then, half of the participants were asked to “list three ways in which they could express themselves more authentically over the next week on social media.” While the other half were asked to “list three ways to express themselves in a more self-idealized way.”

At the end of the week, they retook the assessments, and flip-flopped their approach to posting, with the authentic group now posting in a self-idealized way, and the self-idealized group now posting in a more authentic way.

And did these two different approaches to social media have any impact on their well-being?

Social media approach and well-being

When the researchers compared participants’ well-being over the two-week period, they found some significant differences.

When participants posted authentically, they experienced higher levels of well-being – specifically, more positive mood and affect. When they posted in a self-idealized way, their levels of well-being were lower.

And at the end of the two-week period, those who posted with more authenticity in their second week, were experiencing more positive affect, lower negative affect, and were in a better mood overall than those who started the study by posting authentically, and then switched to posting in a self-idealized way.

So what are we to do with these findings?

Caveats

Well, before we get to that, it’s important to note that it’s possible that avoiding social media altogether could be better for some folks. And also, that a week is also not a very long time. And the differences, while statistically significant, weren’t gigantic. So it’s not clear how big of a difference in well-being there might be over the long term for everyone.

That said, we’ve probably all experienced how mentally and emotionally exhausting it can be, to feel that pressure to be something more than we are at that moment in time – whether on social media, in our professional lives, or in our dating lives.

Takeways

So at the end of the day, at least when it comes to our mental and emotional well-being, we should probably do the thing that parents, friends, and colleagues always say before we go on a date or job interview that we’re nervous about.

“Just be yourself.”

Or in the words of best-selling author, podcaster, and branding expert Dan Schawbel, “Be the real you because everyone else is taken and replicas don’t sell for as much.”

Does this mean I’m going to show up on Zoom calls wearing my faded, ripped-up hoodie from college, and disable the “touch up my appearance” setting?

No way! That “touch up” setting is awesome2!

And sure, putting our best foot forward makes total sense in many areas of our lives, whether it’s going on a date, an interview, meeting a new student and their family, or the screen goes up in the finals of an audition.

But I think striving to be our best selves, and getting sucked into the societal or social pressure to present ourselves online in the most idealized, perfect way are different things. In that the latter, can be a pretty slippery slope. Especially since when our idealized selves start to get more and more likes and positive comments, we can begin to worry that the real us isn’t enough.

An experiment to try for the next couple weeks?

So, for all sorts of reasons, being more authentic on social media might be easier said than done. But in lieu of a New Year’s resolution, maybe this would be a fun thing to experiment with as we get ready to start 2021?

If you’re inclined to give this a try, you could emulate what the participants did in the study above.

Take a moment today to brainstorm a few ways in which you might express yourself in a more self-idealized way on Facebook/Instagram/YouTube/etc. in the coming week. And starting today, spend the next seven days posting in a more self-idealized way.

At the end of the week, take a few moments to reflect on your mood, and how you felt during the last seven days. And brainstorm a few ways in which you might express yourself in a more authentic way on social media during the next seven days. Then, spend that week posting in a more authentic way, reflecting once again at the end of the week on your mood, and how you felt relative to the previous week.

Hopefully this little experiment will leave you feeling that maybe the real you, while not perfect, is totally enough. And maybe even pretty darn great. =)

After all, as designer Diane von Furstenberg once said, “You’re always with yourself, so you might as well enjoy the company.”


References

Bailey, E.R., Matz, S.C., Youyou, W. et al. Authentic self-expression on social media is associated with greater subjective well-being. Nat Commun 11, 4889 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-18539-w

Footnotes

  1. Affect is essentially another indicator of their emotional state, kind of similar to mood, but not exactly.
  2. Especially when combined with a Lume Cube lighting kit and a dirt-cheap but awesome HDMI-to-USB capture card + DSLR camera if you happen to have an old one lying around capable of clean HDMI output! (Full disclosure: those are affiliate links, btw, for the lighting kit and capture card I use)