Of all the things millennials are known for, social media has to be the most predominant. A typical portrayal of a millennial might have his face glued to the phone, refusing to connect with the world around him and instead obsessed with the world inside of his screen. Though the stereotype is overused, there is some truth to it. With the rise of technology and technology-mediated forms of communication and interaction, there is an entirely new platform for socialization, self-expression, and sharing information.
Social media has made it incredibly easy to talk to just about anyone. Posting online or typing a comment takes just seconds, and requires absolutely no face-to-face conversation or physical encounter. This makes it easy to interact with people we may not know very well or have ever had a conversation with. Online social networks are extremely large: one 2013 study reported that the median teenager had 300 Facebook friends. Before the creation of these popular social media websites, I doubt very many young people could have claimed to have hundreds of friends. Thanks to huge online platforms, having 300 friends has become the norm.
We now have the ability to create an online presence and reputation that may not directly reflect who we really are and what our lives are really like. I have heard it explained this way: the content shared with us by our friends and acquaintances on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, you name it, is simply the highlight reel of a complex and often not-as-glamorous life that we do not get to see. Each person can control what versions of themselves they would like to portray to their 300-person network. The option to pick and choose means that we can filter our failures, weakness, and not-so-flattering photos out, leaving only our best experiences behind. Our social network accounts function as social résumés, emphasizing only that which we think others ought to know about.
On the surface, it seems innocent enough. Why would anyone want to put anything less than great on display for the world to see? But there is a flip-side: just as we create the most presentable versions of ourselves, so do all those around us. And when we enter the Internet world, we are ambushed by others’ highlight reels. We find out that our friends are landing the same jobs that we cannot seem to get. Our single status is made even more noticeable by the updated relationship statuses of our colleagues. Someone always has a better wardrobe, a more exciting weekend, a bigger group of friends. We take the best parts of everyone else’s lives and compare them to our very worst days. Young people could easily find themselves discouraged and disappointed by the constant reminder that the world inside their screens is giving them, the reminder that we will feel perpetually inadequate because there will always be people whose lives seem so beyond ours.
The issue is that the inadequacy we feel is not coming from reality. The fact that we can find our worth or lack thereof on a device that can be turned on and off means that our understanding of others’ lives is distorted. There is a healthy way to use the Internet and social media, but when we begin to define people, including ourselves, based solely on what we see online, we fail to see things as they are. Being an adult means to be rooted in reality, to pay attention to our real problems, our real successes, our real lives. At the end of the day, the Internet world has a lot to say and not as much to offer; there is a real life to invest in. Pouring ourselves into the things that truly matter will give us a better, more realistic sense of our worth.