When Essena O’Neill, social media “star” and model, quit all of her online platforms, the internet went crazy. Her now-famous YouTube video, which has since been taken down, proclaimed that “social media is not real life.” It was a daring exposé of sorts on the detrimental effects of her rise to online fame.

“I let myself be defined by numbers,” she said through tears in the video. “Everything I did in a day was to be that perfect person online.”

The video was shared and discussed by hundreds of thousands of people. Some wholeheartedly agreed and shared similar feelings while others vehemently disagreed, citing O'Neill as the fake. Whatever the reaction, it has since sparked a huge discussion: what is social media doing to us?

Social media, an enormous part of this generation's culture and university life, is an ever-present topic. According to the Pew Research Centre, “Multi-platform use is on the rise: 52 per cent of online adults now use two or more social media sites.” Facebook acts as the “home base” for most users. Seventy per cent of Facebook users go online daily, a number that is not quite matched, but still large for Instagram's 49 per cent. In part, this is because our technology use as a whole is increasing, but also derives from our growing infatuation with the platforms.

Whether you love social media or hate it, you’ve probably talked about it or used it at some point or another.

Social media is an excellent tool – it has revolutionized the way we communicate. In times of crisis or breaking news, it allows us to discuss and analyze situations on a global scale instantly and explore what others think about the topics at hand. We can share our lives with hundreds of friends or “followers” at once, plan events and show our support for people and movements.

Samia Khan, a fifth-year psychology student who recently gave a TEDx Talk at UBC’s event on the topic, is a frontrunner in the discussion of social media’s hold on our society. She spoke about aspects of hyper-positivity in our usage of it that result in detrimental effects.

“I think we’re at the point where you go from it being a connecting tool to it being an isolating thing,” said Khan. “We don’t really relate to each other as much because we’re not looking at each other’s realities.”

Even if we are truly connecting with all of these people, studies disagree. According to evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar in a Guardian report, we can only maintain meaningful relationships with about 150 people at a time.

Khan employs the term “self-hyping” to describe the way most of today’s users present themselves on social media platforms – with their best foot forward, displaying their highs and concealing, or at least not discussing, their lows. At first glance, this seems like a sensible practice. But over time, Khan explains, this could be breeding poor mental health.

Paul Hewitt, a UBC professor of psychology, studies perfectionism as a pathological condition. The same perfectionist principles that he studies apply in a lesser extent to many university students, especially in their usage of the social media sphere.

Why do we feel the pressure to perform well in every possible way? We derive a lot of self-worth from how others see us, whether that be in a strictly personal sense or online.

“What [some people] are trying to do is, in a sense, make up for a flawed sense of self,” said Hewitt. “The problem is one of self-acceptance and looking externally to get acceptance and worth.”

When we feel under-confident, sad or dissatisfied with our own personal sense of self, we seek validation through approval in the social media sphere with likes, comments, followers and shares acting as proverbial pats on the back.

“Likes and comments are very validating,” said Khan. “It affects the pleasure centre of your brain, so it’s like a surge of dopamine.” Once we get this artificial happiness through positive posts, we crave it again and learn that smiling selfies or posting accomplishments are the best way to get it.

“Trying to be perfect, there’s also an element of it that is in the interpersonal domain,” said Hewitt regarding perfectionism’s application to the contemporary usage of social media. “You’ll have people who don’t necessarily strive hard to be perfect, but will potentially present themselves to the world as if they’re perfect.” Perfection is validated the more popular you become online, but does not merely fade once you reach a certain milestone. There is no true marker for fame on social media.

O’Neill felt the same pressures. She described her 12-year-old self as feeling an immense sense of worthlessness because she wasn’t like the glamorous, skinny people she idolized in magazines and on social media.

“I thought, ‘Damn, [those people] would be so happy, surrounded by all of these people that love them and appreciate them. I want that. I want to be valued,” said O’Neill in her video. She saw the solution to her self-worth issues as stemming from the fact that she was not revered in the same way which caused her to pursue online fame.

In a competitive culture like UBC’s academic sphere, students are under even more pressure to maintain an image of perfection and accomplishment that everyone else seems to have. And it’s not just UBC – university in general breeds a drive for attainment that may or may not be realistic.

“Here we’re trying to put our best face forward because we want to talk about how it’s going to impact us in the future,” said Khan. “We’re competing for not only grades, but also extracurricular involvement, even our social life – it’s definitely exacerbated because we’re in a success-oriented context.”

If we feel that we are not measuring up to the unrealistic standards that we have set for ourselves as striving students, mood and mental health can certainly be affected.

According to Khan, this trend of hyper-positivity online is subconsciously internalized and acts as a subliminal pressure to present oneself as perfect. Since nobody shares failures or negative emotions on social media to a high degree, the low points are exacerbated by unconscious beliefs that we can’t really talk about them — at least not using these platforms.

Seeing everyone around us succeed in many different facets can take its toll. Urban Dictionary defines “FOMO,” or the “fear of missing out,” as “anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often triggered by posts seen on a social media website.” The popularity of this phrase attests to how common these feelings are. These socially driven types of anxiety could also be aroused in similar forms by physical or accomplishment-driven envy, leading to lower moods and self-esteem issues.

The push to put our best foot forward at all times is not self-inflating, but self-deflating.

In certain situations, a healthy dose of competitive nature pushes students to succeed, to cultivate their best work and encourage them to pursue goals that, without that drive, they may not have striven after. However, success and happiness are vastly different things. Even with huge amounts of success within the social media stratosphere, happiness is an independent gain.

“That’s not the way to feel better about yourself, by trying to be perfect,” said Hewitt.

The constant barrage of people’s highs and the absence of their lows may not be drastically affecting the entire student population, but slow internalization of these messages over time may still make students look poorly upon themselves.

“I think it’s really important to realize [that] the things that you’re seeing are someone’s highlight reel, as opposed to their daily log,” said Khan. “Don’t internalize it. Don’t think that this is the reality, because they’re just like you. They have high points and low points. Once you realize that, it takes some of the pressure off of you to be perfect.”       

With the current status of our social media presences, we aren’t talking about what is important: real friendship, good mental health, being happy, finding meaningful work and being satisfied with our lives.

“At the end of the day, whether we have a hundred followers or a thousand, maybe we shouldn’t even be trying to win at social media at all,” Khan said.

Hewitt advises students feeling the stressors of a perfectionistic lifestyle to surround themselves with the people who truly care about them and show that love in positive ways. 

“I would encourage people not to look at things in an evaluative fashion,” he said. We shouldn’t be constantly measuring ourselves against others, but evaluating our successes and failures on the basis that we are all widely different people with varying strengths.

“I think it’s not so much saying social media is bad … [but] the messages that we’re seeing on social media are one-sided. And maybe we should draw attention to that,” said Khan. “It creates social comparisons that we wouldn’t be doing in regular life.”

Social media remains an excellent platform for many reasons. But as impressionable university students, we should be looking critically at the effect that using it is having on our mood and mental health. With heightened perspective, we can use it to bring us together, not isolate us.