Overexposed and overexaggerated: The unfiltered truth about social media

A woman covers her face.

Allow me to let you in on an inner secret my close friends and I share, which we adhere to strictly. This self-invented golden rule goes, “Never check Instagram when you’re having a bad day, because all it’ll do is make you feel worse.”

Ostensibly, this statement comes across as harmless and amusing. But behind every sardonic statement lies a deeper, more insidious truth that engenders harmful effects. As teenagers, all of us strive to keep up with social appearances and hope to establish an online presence that screams of popularity and gregariousness.

Just recently, a friend sent a screenshot of her Instagram page to our group chat to show her pride in surpassing the 500-follower threshold. “I’m just waiting till I get to 800, because that’s when you know you’re popular,” she typed. The topic of conversation then moved into a gossip session on how a certain popular girl seemed to “have it all,” with her wealth and popularity that could be inferred from the photos of her exorbitant house and number of followers.

While feelings of envy are generally harmless and perhaps even provide a healthy dose of humility, a multitude of adverse impacts can deluge us like a tidal wave if we allow these emotions of envy turn into jealousy. Overexposure to the content circulated on digital platforms can exacerbate existing insecurities and cause youth, who are already extremely impressionable, to harbor unhealthy thoughts. In fact, a recent study by the Royal Society for Public Health found that Instagram is the most detrimental social networking app for young people’s mental health and can elicit negative emotions including ’FOMO’ (fear of missing out) and lowered self-esteem.

But the question remains: Is it really possible for anyone to ‘have it all’? Is there any truth in the clichéd saying, “nobody is perfect”? Ask any experienced adult and they would affirm this statement without a moment’s hesitation. But ask any youth and the response is likely to be one of denial. Social media sites like Instagram and Snapchat have become such a powerful and pervasive part of our lives. Everything that is posted online is carefully curated such that people are able to present the ’best versions of themselves’. Yet, this raises several doubts – is airbrushing our skin and heavily editing our pictures really just an attempt to present ourselves in top form, or is this simply a distortion of reality?

Many of us are guilty of comparing our own lives to pictures posted on Instagram: fancy cars, glitzy social lives, gorgeous resort bodies, highly coveted internships and research programmes – the list is endless. But we fail to realize that it is pointless attempting to compare ourselves to unattainable standards that are reflected in social media posts, because many of these pictures are, in truth, just a warped version of reality.

So how can we prevent ourselves and our peers from spiralling deeper down this rabbit hole of self-doubt and yearning?

There will never be a definitive solution, but a good way to start would be to take in everything that is posted online with a pinch of salt. The amount of energy we spend thinking about pictures should be equivalent to the amount of time we take to scroll through them. Instead of focusing on what we lack, we should be focusing on what we have. Attempting to master this skill is definitely going to be more difficult than deciding which filter provides the most flattering effect on a given social media app. But if we’re already able to understand the social complexities behind each post, then how hard can it really be?

This article was written by Ashley Tan, 17, as part of the 2017 State of the World's Children report.