The Other Side of Perfect Instagram Photos

September 4th 2015

A few months ago, my boyfriend and I watched "Dazed and Confused" at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, a venue in Los Angeles that hosts outdoor films throughout the summer. It was my first time watching the classic flick, so I was excited to experience it amongst a crowd of hundreds of animated moviegoers. It seemed like the perfect summer activity, and I decided to post about the event on Instagram and Facebook:

Shortly after, several friends wrote they were jealous that we snagged tickets for the event, which sold out right away. What this image didn't reveal to my friends, however, was that I was a nonstop, sniffling, red-faced mess for three hours. I mention it in the caption, but none of my social media followers actually had to hear me struggle with my horrible summer allergies. I was sneezing around my boyfriend's college buddies so much that I considered leaving for home so I could finally breathe. (I was also running out of tissues and paper towels.) The cemetery cooled down quickly and sitting on the grass hurt our rear ends after a while. I sipped a single beer all night out of fear that drinking too much might put me in an long porta potty line.

Was it a fun outing? In many ways, yes, but my boyfriend and I agreed we wouldn't want to go to another Hollywood Cemetery movie night. We thought it wasn't really worth the trouble, but you wouldn't know that from my Instagram documentation of the event.

Things aren't always what they seem.

Many people use social media to upload posts about the positive aspects of their lives. Summer is a big time for engagements and weddings, and it's common to see tons of engagement ring and couple photos on one's feed. A lot of soon-to-be parents share baby bump or sonogram images on their social media accounts when they're ready to announce a pregnancy, and many blow up social media with vacation photos when they leave town. Judging by social media, it would seem a lot of folks have life completely figured out, but a growing number of people are catching on to the fact that social media images are not always what they seem.

"We don’t want our friends to think we’re lonely, so we post photos and statuses that show how much fun we can have," Elite Daily's Keena Alwahaidi wrote last month. "We don’t want anyone to know we eat a lot, so we post photos of artsy salads. Social media skews our perception of reality... Most of us don’t have perfect lives. So why say otherwise online? Maybe because that’s the fun of it too."

Last year, writer Olivia Muenter published a viral post for Bustle titled, "What I Instagrammed Vs. What Was Really Happening Or My Entire Life Is A Lie," which received more than 130 likes on the site's Facebook page.

"Instagram, like all social media, is about presenting the ideal version of yourself," Muenter wrote. "It's not not yourself per se. ... It's more like, all the best parts of you displayed to the world and ignoring all the worst parts ... I, like most people, post the things that are going to reflect the best aspects of my life and personality."

Earlier this year, three Norway brothers released a short film about a man who fakes a perfect life on social media while his actual existence is pretty bleak. The video received more than 13 million views on YouTube:

​BuzzFeed also released a video about Instagram vs. Real Life with a similar message on the fake persona we put on:

Last year, an Amsterdam artist named Zilla van den Born faked an entire vacation to her social media following to "prove how easily reality gets distorted.”

For two months, van den Born used Photoshop to doctor images of herself and trick her friends and family into thinking she was off traveling to gorgeous places. In reality, she was home the whole time, and when she did leave the house during her supposed trip, she disguised herself so nobody would recognize her.

“If I had the chance to do it again, I don’t think I would do it again,” she told BuzzFeed last year. “I really underestimated the impact of the project on myself and the people around me!”

What research has shown about social media's impact on our behavior and thoughts.

There has been quite a bit of research done on the behavioral and emotional effects of social media. Two years ago, a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that high school students who saw their friends "partying or drinking” on social media were more likely to try these things themselves.

“These results provide evidence that friends' online behaviors should be considered a viable source of peer influence,” the report reads.

Last year, psychologist and founding member of the Society for Neuropsychoanalysis, Richard Sherry, said that hyping up one's life on social media could potentially create false memories.

"Being competitive and wanting to put our best face forward—seeking support or empathy from our peers—is entirely understandable,” Dr. Sherry told the Telegraph. "However, the dark side of this social conformity is when we deeply lose ourselves or negate what authentically and compassionately feels to be 'us'; to the degree that we no longer recognize the experience, our voice, the memory or even the view of ourselves. When this starts to happen, feelings of guilt and distaste towards ourselves can create a cognitive trap of alienation and possibly even a sense of disconnection and paranoia.”

According to Dr. Sherry, social media can potentially "undermine the coherence between our real, lived lives and memories."

The New York Times recently published an article titled "Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection" that highlights the role social media plays in influencing college students, specifically. Students can feel pressure to convey perfect lives on social media. Gregory T. Eells, Ph.D., director of counseling and psychological services at Cornell University, told the Times that social media can make struggling college students think that everyone is happy except them.

Eells divulged to the publication that students sometimes come in for counseling sessions and say that their classmates appear so happy. He tells these folks, “I walk around [campus] and think, ‘That one’s gone to the hospital. That person has an eating disorder. That student just went on antidepressants.’ As a therapist, I know that nobody is as happy or as grown-up as they seem on the outside.”

The tragedy of Madison Holleran.

Last year, University of Pennsylvania freshman and track runner Madison Holleran jumped to her death off a parking garage shortly after posting the image below of park lights:

Prior to her death, Holleran posted many seemingly joyous photos with friends on the social media platform. In a piece published earlier this year, ESPN observed that Holleran's social media presence didn't indicate any signs of trouble, sadness, or suicidal inclinations.

"The life Madison projected on her own Instagram feed was filled with shots that seemed to confirm everyone's expectations: Of course she was loving her first year of college," wrote ESPN's Kate Fagan. "Of course she enjoyed running. Her mom remembers looking at a photo on her feed and saying, 'Madison, you look like you're so happy at this party.' 'Mom,' Madison said. 'It's just a picture.'"

The article notes that Holleran's high school friends had revealed to her that they were having trouble adapting to their news lives. To Holleran, however, "the lives her friends were projecting on social media trumped the reality they were privately sharing," Fagan wrote.

"Checking Instagram is like opening a magazine to see a fashion advertisement," Fagan continued. "Except an ad is branded as what it is: a staged image on glossy paper ... Instagram is passed off as real life."

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Have you noticed that social media makes personal problems more complicated?

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