Why do we want to record and publish every moment, minute, event of our lives? We photograph ourselves holding a coffee cup in the morning sun and put things in the caption like ‘Blissful moment. #lovemylife. #coffeeaddict. We hit ‘share’ on Instagram and wait for the hearts and likes. We can’t have an evening out anymore without creating evidence and letting everyone at home know that we have such a fabulous social life. If it’s not snapped on your smartphone, it hasn’t happened. Why? For who? When have we become so self obsessed? And is it arrogance, narcissism or insecurity that drives this strange modern day behaviour? Why do we think people want to see what we’re up to in our private life?
No skeletons here
Gosh, I am no saint. I am guilty of it myself, posting photos on Instagram of my happy children on the beautiful Valencia beach, a selfie because I think my hair looks pretty, a picture of a fun afternoon with friends. I have always liked creating written and visual content, stories, photographs, putting it all together, long before Instagram was a thing. So these kind of platforms obviously offer an easy and very addictive outlet for me. But I can’t ignore the fact that I am also hooked to the dopamine hit received from every ‘like’ by my online friends, and to get as much dopamine as possible I am trying to make everything in my life look just a little bit more beautiful than it perhaps is. Nice lighting, good angle, a pretty filter, a bit of cropping, choosing the perfect shot out of ten others. Shoving that pile of laundry out of the frame. And obviously I’ll be leaving out the skeletons hiding in the closets. Hands up, who’s with me? I am sure I am not alone.
Sex, drugs and…social media
Neuroscientists are studying the effects of social media on the brain and research has shown that positive interactions (such as someone liking your post) trigger the same kind of chemical reaction that is caused by gambling and recreational drugs. An article by Harvard University researcher Trevor Haynes tells us that when you get a social media notification, your brain sends dopamine, a chemical messenger, along a reward pathway, which makes you feel good. Dopamine is associated with food, exercise, love, sex, gambling, drugs … and now, social media. To make things worse, the reward centers in our brains are most active when we’re talking about ourselves. As a normal functioning human you probably talk about yourselves 30 to 40 percent of the time. On social media it is all about showing off your life. That means you are talking about yourself a whopping 80 percent of the time. (source: Now. The intersection of technology, innovation and creativity).
Then there are the Instagrammers with their 100k+ followers. They look like they have their lives way better sorted than us, don’t they? Their daily pictures show perfect homes, dirt-free children, sunny days out, loving marriages and gorgeous bodies fueled by green smoothies. And we lap it up like they are the next Messiah. It’s all lies and don’t we know it. Why do we still swoon over them? These people are marketeers, trying to make money. It is their job to make you believe their life and the products they are wearing, showing, sharing are worth coveting. Whether it is ethical to sell us a dream world, that is another question, but it gives them their income. And just like with any other advert, we can choose to either fall for it or not. If we remind ourselves that it is just futile entertainment, we stay in control and put it into perspective. If however we feel shitty about our own life as a result of scrolling their feed, then it is perhaps time to switch off the wifi and go for a walk.
Now as adults and middle aged cynics like myself most of us can see through this. We scroll through Instagram or Facebook, click ‘ like’ on something we find inspiring or funny and then move on with our lives. We probably have other stuff to do. Adolescents however are not yet able to see the bigger picture and the futility of it all, and risk a number of things. First of all, there is the risk of crushing their self esteem when the dopamine doesn’t hit and their post doesn’t get liked. Big deal, we think, but for a child? Secondly, there is the pressure of social media posts by their friends, seemingly all having a better life than them, making them feel isolated and depressed. Then there is the trolling and online bullying and last but certainly not least, the danger of creepy grownups privately messaging (without you knowing) your underaged child and abusing them, virtually or – god forbid – in real life. Want to know how real this danger is? Just go and type #12yearoldgirl into the Instagram search box to see how much inappropriate comments are made by older guys who clearly know these girls are children. Time to have a closer look at your kids’ devices, their apps and the privacy settings.
Pouting in the pool
What makes someone want to be on Instagram though, other than the dopamine hits? So many accounts and they are all trying to grow their followers. Fitness freaks, yogis, foodies, new mums with stylish interiors, and yes, the millions of pre-teens and adolescents trying to look like the next top model. You see that last category in bucket loads out in the wild these days. Just go to the beach, the park or hang around at pittoresk city spots and you’ll find them. They usually drag a mate along to do a shoot or they take turns pouting lips and standing in awkward positions. (Cue: girl seen from the back in bikini coming out of the swimming pool, looking seductively over her shoulder). I have even spotted mums photographing their daughters like this, obviously hoping they will be discovered as the next Kim Kardashian. That is the thing with social media: creating an account is free, making content can be creative and a lot of fun, and yes, it is possible to make a career out of it in some cases.
Multi-billion dollar business
Ask any 15-year old what they want to be when they grow up and ‘paid influencer’ or ‘youtuber’ will be in the top 3. And who doesn’t like to dream of a job as someone traveling the world, posting pictures on Instagram and getting paid for it? Nearly three quarters of Gen Z and millennials in the U.S. follow influencers on social media, 86% of them would post sponsored content for money, and 54% would become an influencer given the opportunity. (source: cnbc.com). For people over 40 like me, it is astonishing to think kids idealise this online world so much, but the fact is that online marketing is a career and influencers play a huge part in it. Influencer marketing is still projected to become a $15 billion business by the year 2022, even though the market is now becoming saturated and pay can be low for many people trying to make a living out of it.
If you have an Instagram account yourself, trying to promote your work as an artist or perhaps your small business, you know yourself that it requires commitment to frequently post something interesting in order to grow your brand and not lose followers. For those who have been able to make an actual career out of being an Instagrammer, some even grow tired of it. In the article The fatigue hitting influencers as Instagram evolves Brianna Madia, 29, tells about the fatigue of keeping a successful social media account alive. Madia currently lives the #vanlife, documenting her travels through the desert with her husband and two dogs. While her traveling lifestyle might seem like a dream to followers, Madia says she’s “grown tired of catering to an audience of 285,000 bosses”. She says deleting her Instagram is something that she dreams about frequently.
It is not all doom and gloom in the world of Social Media though. For me personally it’s a quick and easy way to stay in touch with friends and family all over the world (especially important for me because I’m an expat). It is a great tool to find and meet like-minded people online or in local groups. Without it I wouldn’t have made all the friends and connections in my new city as quickly as I did. I also use it a lot to find out what’s on locally in terms of concerts, art exhibitions, festivals etc. and to check out the reviews on a restaurant before making a booking. It is not only a place of rampant consumerism either – some ‘influencers’ use their presence online to promote greener ways of living. Positive News lists a number of follow-worthy young people who are trying to make the world a better place. I have learnt and read about a lot of things because someone shared it on social media. Climate change, political activism, mental health, feminist and LGBT issues and equal rights, zero waste campaigns, you name it, if it wasn’t for social media we would all know a lot less about these things. And I guess that is worth a few measured dopamine shots.