I am sure that most of us have dreamed about what the perfect life would look like. Maybe we have done that with a friend or significant other around the question “What would you do if you won the lottery?” I think most people do subscribe to the belief that money does not buy happiness, but boy it would be fun to see if it could! The reality for all of us is that life is a combination of ups and downs, good times and bad. All of us are going to experience struggles in one form or another, and hopefully we are all able to experience life’s joys as well. However, today there seems to be a new force at work, with social scientists and mental health professionals expressing concern that we are living in a world where we are creating an unrealistic expectation of life, and it is being provided to us — especially young people — through social media. Some refer to this as creating a “fake life” that ultimately leads to significant mental health issues for some.
I am an regular Facebook user. In my life I have lived in a number of different communities and worked in five different school districts. I have a lot of friends that I rarely see, and until Facebook, had lost track of. I’ve had my negative moments on Facebook, and in fact, “banned myself” for four months after the 2016 election because of all of the negativity that was being posted, me included. I was falling into it and was not a real happy person. That said, today I check it out at least once a day. I am sure many of you do the same. While Facebook is not the social media platform of choice for young people today, there are still many that use it, or at least browse through it.
So what’s the problem? Have you seen many people post “bad” pictures, or share about the crappy things about their life? Sure, there a people that share out about loss or bad things that happen to them, but that’s not what social scientists are concerned with. Most of us share out about the great things that have happened to us. We put up pictures when our kids do something impressive, and brag a little in the comments we add. When we take trips we show all of the cool things that we have done. In essence, we have sanitized our lives, creating a snapshot of a beautiful perfect life. We show ourselves in a positive light creating an image that all is good. An example of this that went indescribably wrong was the Watts family in Colorado, who friends and family believed lived a beautiful, happy life, in large part due to what mom Shanann posted on social media. She covered up the financial disaster the family faced, as well as all of the other negatives the family faced. When she was murdered by her husband, along with their two children, people were shocked, in large part because they had no idea about all of the problems the family was facing.
Young people that are computer savvy have taken it to another level, often exaggerating and creating unreal or artificial images of their life. They use Photoshop to enhance images, both literally and figuratively. Whether they literally “touch up” photos to make them look better, or simply self-edit what they post, the images they present are not accurate. This has a negative impact not only on themselves by denying reality, but it also impacts others who see these “perfect lives” and determine their life does not measure up.
So what are we to do? We adults have experienced life’s ups and downs, and most of us acknowledge that painting an unrealistic picture of a “perfect life” could have a negative impact on a young person. Heck, it had a negative impact on the young mother of two mentioned above! A good starting spot is to have direct conversations with our kids about our own life, the difficulty we have had and how we persevered and overcame the tough times. We also need to talk about the good times and put into perspective what really made those times good. Another conversation we can have is to sit down with our son or daughter and discuss a person that both of you know well. Talk about what you know about them, the good and the bad. Then pull up their Facebook page or Instagram posts and discuss whether they tell the whole story. It become obvious that most people post about their best days, not their common old ordinary ones.
As we raise our kids there are common themes that we try to stress with them, most often connected to core values that we hold as parents. We do need to sprinkle in conversation that points out life can be hard and disappointing. We have done a disservice to our kids proclaiming that “all we want for them is to be happy.” Happiness is often very difficult to attain! Life throws tough things at us that are not going to make us happy! We also need to stress that life does not revolve around you. Many kids have a strong sense of self-importance. The sooner they understand that it is not all about them, the better. And finally, somehow we have to get the message across totem that they cannot live life in constant comparison to others. All of us know that we can never measure up to some people, and now in the social media world, that “fake world” created by some is certainly unattainable.