There is no denying that social media is an integral part of modern day university life. Facebook is not only used as a tool for communicating with friends, finding out about deadlines and reading for each week, but it is also where parties are organised, events are shared and even where jobs are advertised. Social media definitely has its benefits and has, in so many ways, made making friends and finding things to do in a new city much easier.
Yet it also has an effect on mental health, which is impossible to ignore. Studies have shown that there is a link between the use of social media and negative effects on well-being. University is a time for new experiences and having fun, but it can also be incredibly challenging. Constant viewing of other people’s online profiles can make moments of loneliness even more isolating. This consistent comparison of your reality to other people’s carefully curated online personas makes it easy to perceive your own university experience negatively.
Tim Bono, author of When Likes Aren’t Enough, explained in Healthista that: “when we derive a sense of worth based on how we are doing relative to others, we place our happiness in a variable that is completely beyond our control”. Filtered versions of university life have created a digital, “ideal” image of university that most will never be able to achieve. With social media it is easy to build up a front that everything is great, and many worry about falling short of this image others have of them.
My friends from school all looked like they were having such an amazing time in new cities across the country, but coming home after the holidays and actually speaking to them made me realise how easy it is to use social media as a façade, a way to hide the harder realities of university life. They, like many people, had had issues finding their place amongst so much change, which of course was never reflected in the image they presented online. I had never really considered how much selection and editing was going on behind the scenes, how every account I was looking at had been curated to impress.
I wouldn’t be able to even guess how many hours I have spent scrolling through Instagram, looking at different versions of the same picture over and over again; groups of people in pubs, outside nightclubs, at cafes and restaurants and dressed up for university balls. I have been to club nights and house parties all over the country vicariously through Snapchat stories, each clip an attempt to prove how great a time everyone was having.
This need to show followers and friends every update in our lives for some reason suddenly becomes even more important at university. Perhaps because it is a time of so much change and growing up, the desire to look like you are doing university “right” is overwhelming. The instinct to film and upload a funny event or a night of great music is irresistible. There is a need to validate the university experience with online proof through social media. The frequency I have heard the phrase “Let’s go out tonight, I need a good Instagram” shows social media’s ability to control and warp what are allegedly the ‘best years of your life’. Three years of experiences and opportunities have been reduced to, and are judged by, albums of photos on Facebook, tagged posts on Instagram and Snapchat videos of nights out.
Increasingly more studies are taking place to look into the negative effects of the fear of missing out, or FOMO. Having to stay in to finish an assignment whilst everyone else goes out is hard enough as it is. But then having to actually watch everyone have a good time over social media, whilst you sit working on your own makes it even tougher. Studies have shown that feelings of FOMO can lead to stress, sleep problems and feelings of isolation, and the explosion of social media means that it is almost impossible to ignore the icons of friends out without you, bringing videos and pictures of everything you have missed.
Social media is an incredibly useful tool for navigating university, but the reliance on it as an indicator of university experience is damaging. The carefully-curated feeds of students across the country result in unfair comparisons. In short, reality will never live up to the filtered world presented through Instagram and Facebook. Trying to rely less on using digital proof as an indicator of a good time and focusing on the real, rather than the virtual, means that one version of the university experience isn’t valued over another. It will always be hard to completely disconnect from the social media world. But understanding the dangers of false comparisons and this imaginary need to always appear happy is important. You should enjoy university for what it means to you, not to your online followers.