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“Until I took some time to retire my personal online persona, I realized I too had become a part of this toxic cycle: an online world wrapped around perfection rather than authenticity,” writes VOX ATL reporter Myla Somers.

Illustration by Myla Somersall/VOX ATL

Editing Out Imperfection: Social Media’s Blur Between Reality and Fantasy

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Scroll. Refresh. Repeat. These three steps encompassed the vicious habit of impulsively checking my social media. Before pressing send on my posts, I anxiously reviewed each picture and caption. I ensured the selected filters looked natural, and picked apart each piece of content for possible critiques. I often deleted pictures and reposts, fearful that minuscule flaws may be noticed, or that somehow my post may distort my desired public image. Scrolling through my feed at the end of the day contributed to feelings of inadequacy. The desire to keep up with the accomplishments of my peers and role models left me feeling unproductive and unfulfilled. So I decided to disable my social media accounts. I realized the digital world of social media is distorted and distressing – an unrealistic highlight reel of purposefully picked captions and content. The elimination of flaws from social media, whether through photoshop, or the editing out of imperfect parts of our lives, blurs the line between reality and fantasy.

Social media has become more integrated into daily life due to technological innovation and evolving digital usage. Common Sense Media, a nonprofit research organization, establishes that overall screen time in tweens and teens has increased by 17 percent since 2019, with a daily average screen time of eight hours and 39 minutes in 2021. Pew Research Institute interviewed 1,058 families with children ages 13-17. Findings suggest that 45 percent of teenagers categorize their time online as “…a near-constant basis.” An additional 45 percent of survey respondents outlined being online several times a day. Both statistics correlate to nearly nine-in-ten teens being online multiple times a day. Living in a digital age, this research suggests that social media usage is nearly inevitable. This raises the question, what are the consequences of this?

As I became more engrossed in the lives of my favorite influencers, I started to lose myself. My self-image became warped, the parallel of my life to those I followed digitally became my metric for beauty and success.  My facial features, body type, and accolades were solely validated on the basis of the content I consumed. As I looked in the mirror, I only found confidence in traits and habits celebrated on social media. The Chicago School of Professional Psychology covered this topic, outlining how overconsumption of social media distorts perception and increases the danger of “multiphrenia,” a fragmented view of oneself due to one’s self image being pulled in many directions. The article illustrates that social media provides an opportunity to re-create ourselves as an online personae – posting the prettiest pictures and solely posting positive news.

However our shiny and polished virtual lives present an idealized fantasy of ourselves, rather than our authentic selves. This in turn creates a fear of vulnerability, shaping the content we post. Dr. Sarah McMurtry, PhD, a licensed psychologist and owner of the psychology and wellness program Perspectives LLC, tells VOX ATL, “messaging on social media can make acceptance and appreciation difficult.”

A 2019 article published by Penn Medicine addresses the dangers of social media on perfectionism. The tendency to draw comparisons to content consistently seen can have grave impacts on mental health. Feelings of perfectionism can contribute to anxiety and negative self image. In the piece Jeremy Tyler, PsyD, an assistant professor of clinical Psychiatry, further outlined how social media’s emphasis on posting highlight reels can camouflage individual flaws and struggles. 

“A big trigger for perfectionism is social media and that fear of missing out,” Tyler said. “It can be challenging to take a step back and recognize that what is being posted isn’t reality. Many assume that people with those perfect photos don’t have problems, but they do.”

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Dr. McMurtry establishes that teenagers’ salient nature contributes to threats of social comparison. She discusses the influence of visual stimuli stating, “What you see in front of you is hard to not pay attention to. What you see becomes your truth, or what is expected from society.” Dr.McMurtry compares social media to data collection, and reveals that the emphasis on posting picture-perfect memories skews our archives, removing personal knowledge of feelings and thoughts that accompany captured memories. She suggests, “It can be hard to see the full picture.” 

From desiring to embrace new beauty trends, portraying a picture-perfect summer break, or consistently embracing the “team no-sleep” mindset, social media’s focus on “perfectionism” camouflages real flaws and struggles. Until I took some time to retire my personal online persona, I realized I too had become a part of this toxic cycle: an online world wrapped around perfection rather than authenticity.  Since reactivating my accounts, I have been more conscious about the content presented in my feed. Through following influencers who provide a holistic view of their lives, perfection is no longer my metric for posting. 

Although the negative impacts of social media may appear grim, with safe practices, they have the ability to enhance our lifestyles. From increasing our network to maintaining old friendships, social media can serve as a useful tool for communication. Dr. McMurtry notes the value in balance and self-reflection. She asserts that our social platforms can supplement our interests in passions, providing positive messaging and support. We can understand if changes in our visual stimuli are needed by reflecting on what makes us stressed, the emotional impact of the content we consume, and possible feelings of dissatisfaction.

“Allow social media to be a powerful tool for your life,” says Dr. McMurty. “Versus an open door that can create any type of message or plant any type of seed.”

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