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Generation “ME”: The Epidemic of Online Perfectionism

A friend recently told me she deleted her Instagram account in the run-up to exams. When I asked why, she retorted, “I felt like I was becoming a bit obsessed with it, like I was rating how much people liked me on the number of likes I got”. Inwardly, I dismissed the comment as neurotic and pitied her for obsessing so much over what others thought. Yet scrolling through my feed later on, it dawned on me that maybe I, too, care a lot more than I realise.

As a university student, I feel under increasing pressure to be the full package – to thrive academically and have a great social life; to engage in societies and clubs – and social networks encourage us to emblazon our triumphs from every parapet of the internet. These sites automatically invest us in a comparison culture: a simple scroll down a news feed seemingly inviting us to weigh ourselves up against our peers. Yet with social media coming to serve as an unending popularity contest, anxiety levels among young people are on the increase. In a recent survey by YouthNet, a third of young women and 10 per cent of young men reported that they experience panic attacks.

From personal experience, I know all too well the pressure of presenting the best version of myself online. Recently, I joined Depop, an online shopping site that allows people to buy from, and sell to other users, with products displayed in an Instagram-style news feed. The site was fantastic at first: I made several sales within a few days, gaining a steady stream of followers and likes, and shifted some unwanted items from my wardrobe. But, as likes and followers stacked up, I found myself obsessively checking my phone for notifications, only to feel inferior when they stopped coming through. It sounds ridiculous, but I scrutinised myself against other, more successful profiles and somehow felt inadequate – my pictures weren’t cool enough, my clothes not stylish enough and my profile not interesting enough. Indeed, it’s this “not enough”-ness that seems to have manifested itself into online culture, which may be triggering our higher feelings of anxiety.

In a time where it’s possible to be “Instagram famous”, and vloggers and Youtubers can become real-world celebrities, social media tells us that being ordinary is no longer enough. Last year, a study by the NCS found that 88 per cent of 12 to 18 year-olds had reported experiencing stress in the past 12 months, with social media being one of the top reasons for this. The younger generation are growing up under a constant, yet discreet pressure from social media – it’s like a little whisper in the back of our minds, telling us, you’re not good enough.

In an incredibly pertinent TED talk in 2012, Connected, but alone? Sherry Turkle addressed our society’s internet-forged obsession with perfection. “Texting, email, posting… let us present the self as we want to be. We get to edit, and that means we get to delete and retouch.” Ultimately though, it’s this airbrushing of our lives that is damaging how we look at ourselves: with every Instagram or Facebook post, snapchat or tweet, we are grappling for approval, yet the more likes we gain the more insatiable our hunger becomes.

Before deleting your every technological mode of existence, though, let’s not forget the masses of benefits that social networks have brought us. We now have an increasingly broad spectrum of platforms through which to share photographs, messages and posts with friends and family – and what’s more, we can do it instantly, and across the world. However, as Turkle so truthfully pointed out, “human relationships are messy… and we clean them up with technology”. Social media sites give us the illusion of being constantly connected, yet by valuing quantity over quality when it comes to our network of friends, follows and likes, our perception is skewed into thinking that all this accounts for anything like real friendship or connection.

The crucial point, then, is not to let social media accounts dictate our feelings of self-worth. It’s about rewriting their inherent rules and finding a way to use these sites in a way that is healthy, that encourages us to share in the happiness and fulfilment of others rather than compete with it. If we can reflect ourselves positively and realistically through social networks, we can come to realise that we are enough – and more importantly, that our flawed, human, messy lives are so much more complex and exciting and fulfilling than any online profile can ever contain. Then, and only then, can we fully benefit from them. And if not, perhaps it’s time to de-tweet, to un-post and snap-back from our obsessive behaviours.