We Are the Reason that No One is "Real" on Social Media

I hear so often that social media is part of the problem these days, and I get it on some level. With the invention of juggernauts like Facebook and Instagram, there’s been a major uptick in people’s opinions being judged as necessary by their owners. Every article, video, and status has a place for comments, and a way for you to make your feelings known with one click. As you would imagine, this results in a shitshow, because people without inhibitions are naturally shitshows. It’s a great chance for you to find out that friends of yours are racists or homophobes, or that people you thought you could trust, can’t be. Social media gives us a chance to peek at people in ways we otherwise wouldn’t be able to, and it…well…it kind of sucks.

Probably the most popular complaint I see is that people are “fake” on social media, that they “try too hard to be perfect.” Amongst mothers, I see this a lot: arguments that we should be talking about Post Partum Depression, stretch marks, and children’s tantrums without fear, because others need to know they aren’t alone. I’ve seen a number of women complain that they’re feeling more depressed when they look at other people’s lives because people tend to hide imperfections and hardships, and it makes them feel as if they’re struggling on their own. They’re not totally wrong: there are articles upon articles upon articles warning that there' is a connection between social media and depression. It’s a thing.

They’re just wrong about why it’s a thing.

See, a lot of the people I know maintain that social media is causing mental health issues because people are pretending, and that pretending leads to pressure, and that pressure leads to feelings of inaccuracy. Except that isn’t really true either, because the moment that someone decides to be vulnerable, or honest, or imperfect, they chance being ripped to shreds by the public.

Take, for example, a video recently posted in a group I’m a part of. This woman’s face was red and streaked from crying, and her child was howling in the backseat. You know the howling I’m referring to. It’s the kind of animalistic sound a kid can keep up with for what feels like hours. Every mother, I think, can remember at least one time they’ve had to hear that howling, and I think they’d also attest to the fact that it drains all the calcium from your bones and melts your brains in your head. It drains you emotionally almost immediately, and it makes you feel more and more like a failure the longer it goes on. Clearly, this child had been going for awhile, and Mom was feeling helpless. She sobbed for a few minutes, speaking to “moms like [her]” who had been through the same situation, and it was raw and sort of hard to watch.

So behind the scenes, this woman is apparently a little off. Be that as it may, she was suffering through something that I and many others have suffered through multiple times before. She clearly felt drained and scared and overwhelmed. So she decided to be real. She decided to be honest.

It did not go well for her.

There were definite outpourings of love and support, sure, but there were almost equal numbers of comments questioning her parenting.

“Why don’t you comfort your kid instead of recording it?”

“Who cares why your kid is crying when you can get attention on the internet?”

“Jesus, this woman is only worried about herself. Maybe if she worried about her kid, they wouldn’t be crying.”

You get the gist. The worst part is, some of these people were mothers themselves. So that was nice.

This isn’t an isolated incident, not even close. If you post a picture of your child having a tantrum, there’s a chance you’ll have to listen to someone asking why you’d “embarrass your child” like that. If you post about not liking your kids sometimes, you could face someone telling you that you shouldn’t have had kids in the first place, then, because kids are a gift and blah blah blah. If you post about fights or divorces or negative luck, there will almost always be someone asking you why you felt the rest of the world needed to know all of your business.

Because we don’t want people to be “more honest” so that we can feel more connected. We want others to be “more honest” so that we can feel better about ourselves.

Of course, there are many situations where this isn’t true, but there are many where this most certainly is, too. And we seem to be unable to see how that might lead to less people wanting to tell us anything about their lives.

We yell about women taking bikini photos after childbirth and how there should be more photos of “real bodies” when A) That person’s body is often their real body, and B) those with unconventional bodies have to field negative comments and scrutiny.

We want to see real houses, with real messes, but then the comments flood in telling people to clean up.

We demand to see real parenting moments with real children, but then a high percentage of the comments — higher than it should be — spend their time making insulting comments and mentioning how this wouldn’t happen in their house.

You want real vulnerability? You want people to be honest about who they are and what parenthood or the single life or marriage is really like? The answer then is support and self-confidence, not projection and condemnation. We need to come to terms with the reason why too many good posts feel unreal to us, and then we need to work on that, not demand that other people play themselves down in order to make us feel better.

Get what I mean? Photos of new houses, new cars, bikini bodies, or well-behaved children only bother us because we’re feeling as if something is lacking for us in one of those areas. We’ve become afraid that we’re dropping the ball somewhere, and these social media posts are the absolute proof.

Except they aren’t. They’re part of someone else’s life, which has nothing to do with ours or our personal situations. It may not even be their real life, but that isn’t really our concern. Instead, reconnect with the things you are happy with. Remind yourself of what you do have to be proud of. Realize that social media posts are mere moments in a whole life that belongs to someone else, and that you therefore don’t know enough to give an opinion — especially when it hasn’t been asked.

Let people be happy. Let them decide whether or not to share their low points. If they do, try to be supportive. If they don’t, don’t vilify them for not being “real enough.” It’s not anyone’s responsibility to reveal what they don’t want to. This is just as true for you as it is for everyone else. And, of course, take a break if you start to feel overwhelmed or sad — sometimes, being surrounded by your own reality can help to make others’ less bothersome.

True security comes from accepting your life as it is without needing others confirm it. I’m not even saying that I have it fully figured out, because I definitely have days where I make weird noises in my throat when I see someone looking like a model right after giving birth. But I also try to remember that everyone’s priorities and personal situations are different, so it’s not my place to demand that they act more “real” to match my personal narrative. None of us will get more realistic feeds until we stop trying to shame others’ realities, and define for others what “reality” even is.

The moment we’re comfortable with our own stories will be the moment we truly connect. It won’t be a moment before.

Photo by Sara Kurfeß on Unsplash