O’Neill’s social media use was sort of a heightened version of how most people engage with these platforms; she had hundreds of thousands of followers, and was earning as much as $1,400 each for her sponsored Instagram posts.
But the 19-year-old’s admission that she felt trapped by the need to share and receive instant approval resonated, and for good reason.
MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle, who has long studied humans’ relationships with technology, said she often hears variants of this tale from people of all ages.
“More and more we live in a psychological culture of ‘I share therefore I am,'” said Turkle, author of “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other” and the director of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self. “We measure our worth by how many likes we have, by how many views we can garner. We take a selfie to capture the moment, but also to share it with others. We have our eye on how we look to others and in the archive.”
Such an awareness can be taken to the extreme. In her now-edited Instagram captions, O’Neill admitted to spending countless hours perfecting her look and retaking photos, trying to capture the perfect one that portrayed an effortless ease.
Some people go under the knife due to such pressure; plastic surgeons reported an increase in facial procedures among those under 30 in part because of popularity selfies, according to the 2014 American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery survey.
Image-based platforms “force patients to hold a microscope up to their own image and often look at it with a more self-critical eye than ever before,” said academy president Edward Farrior.
Turkle has interviewed plenty of people who have reported that their social media use is unsustainable, and people say they temporarily sign off for many reasons. It can be as simple as seeing Facebook or Instagram as a timesuck; the pressure to keep up can also take a toll.
But what Turkle said will be “the big driver” of signing off in the future is the anxiety people feel as their social media personas become increasingly distant from the reality of their inner lives. That’s the danger for people like O’Neill, who become pros at “doing it right.”
“You become very good at doing something that, in one way, its whole existence is predicated on that it represents you, but actually if you do it well, it starts to represent you less and less,” Turkle said.
Such users can become envious of their online personas, and it’s not unusual “to find our identities diffused to the point that we need to recenter,” Turkle said.
How social media platforms make us feel also has a lot to do with how we use them.
One study published earlier this year in the journal Computers in Human Behavior found that using social media doesn’t necessarily leave people feeling more depressed. University of Missouri researchers surveyed more than 700 college students on Facebook and found that using the site for “surveillance” — lurking around to check on how others are doing and comparing it to your own life — can cause feelings of envy, which leaves people more susceptible to depression.
But once the researchers controlled for envy, Facebook use didn’t leave people more depressed; it actually had the opposite effect.
“Facebook can be a very positive resource for many people, but if it is used as a way to size up one’s own accomplishments against others, it can have a negative effect,” said the study’s lead author Margaret Duffy. “It is important for Facebook users to be aware of these risks so they can avoid this kind of behavior.”
Part of the risk is the drive for likes, hearts and other forms of social media approval. So what would social media be without them? Artist Benjamin Grosser created a tool that essentially removed the gratification numbers from Facebook, and those who installed the browser plug-in reported feeling less stressed about sharing content. One man told him, “I finally feel at ease.”
It’s no wonder that in the search for peace, some sign off altogether.
But Turkle, the MIT psychologist, said it’s helpful to remember that all of these tools are relatively new, and our relationships with them are still quite immature.
“We’re struggling to find our psychological way because I think we’ve triggered things,” she said. “We’re made to communicate.”
And as time passes and we get more and more experience, humans will better be able to figure out how to virtually interact with the world in a way that fulfills, rather than drains, us.
Or, as Turkle puts it: “We’ll find a way to not have to quit it but use it with greater intention.”