People crave recognition and dream of being popular. Narcissism seems to be on the rise. Have smartphones and social media spawned a self-obsessed generation? Donna Freitas does not believe so. Based on a large-scale survey and interviews with students in 13 college campuses in the US, she found that young people are mainly concerned with being happy but are under constant pressure to look perfect online. In other words, they are expected to give the impression that they are always happy, successful and full of energy.
“The happiness effect: How social media is driving a generation to appear perfect at any cost” sheds light on the consequences of the communications revolution that confronts us. The author shares many stories that are “the heart and soul of this book,” according to the author herself. One of the first stories we read is about a woman named Emma. Emma complains that people take pictures, do things and go places for the reaction that they are going to get on Instagram or Facebook. She admits that it is tiring being one way in public and acting differently in private, however, she believes “everyone is like that.”
Although the press has frequently slammed millennials for supposedly being narcissistic, the author believes that the world of social media is a far less scary place than the press would have us believe. “The young adults with whom I spoke are as smart and thoughtful as ever. They are doing their best to navigate a dimension or culture so new and different and so pervasive that it sets their generation apart,” Freitas wrote.
Freitas noticed that in all the campuses surveyed — despite their geographic, ethnic and socio-economic differences — 73 percent of students are preoccupied with appearing happy. “Adolescents learn early how important it is to everyone around them that they polish their online profiles to promote their accomplishments, popularity and general well-being. They practice this nearly constantly in their online lives and this has a tremendous effect on them emotionally, in their relationships and in their behavior on social media. For better or worse, students are becoming masters of appearing happy, at significant cost,” Freitas wrote.
College students are very much aware that they have to create an image and entertain a vast audience. However, people using social media soon find out that they cannot please everyone — they have different audiences. “Because of social media, we are becoming master manipulators, constant performers, and no one is better at these endeavors than young adults because they are learning earlier and earlier that these skills are central to success, either social or professional,” Freitas wrote.
Selfies, in particular, play a key role in defining one’s online image. Some students believe that the “photo culture” we see online is also used for professional purposes, however. If you consider your name to be a brand, a selfie or photograph becomes a powerful means by which you can promote yourself. An account becomes a marketing tool and a growing number of users are aware of the advantages of “professionaliz(ing)” online accounts. The image one curates on social media can eventually be used to create one’s own business online. Freitas underlines the extra burden women have to bear, saying: “Young women… not only must live up to expectations around professionalism and image building, but also must look good doing it.”
Selfies are often meant to express the fun we are having but the pressure to look happy at all costs reveals an alarming discrepancy between how we truly feel and how we want to be perceived online. A sense of longing for anonymity explains the phenomenal success of Snapchat. Anything posted on Snapchat — photos, selfies, videos or comments — disappear. On Snapchat, people can do all the things they cannot do on Facebook — they can be silly, stupid and let off steam.
Anonymity can be problematic, however. It allows people to take things too far and it can lead to online bullying. “The near-universal mantra that you must appear happy on social media starts to make more sense when you recognize how vulnerability turns you into a target. The appearance of constant happiness is a defense mechanism, a way to protect yourself from the risks that come with putting yourself out there for the scrutiny of others,” Freitas wrote.
Alice, a first-year student, said that “people want to see others as happy and people are easily bothered by someone who confesses that they aren’t happy or aren’t what everyone wants them to be. If more people stepped out of their boxes, found their true selves, and posted that self online, they would get a lot more hate and they would be a lot more vulnerable, but ultimately maybe more people would start being honest.”
Having interviewed 200 students and conducted a survey of several hundred more, Freitas realized two things. First, that smartphones and social media have taken over young people’s lives and second, that young people feel they are not equipped to handle this dramatic change.
Where young people are concerned, communication is the key. Parents and educators have to be open, approachable and understanding. It is the best way to encourage children and young adults to share the problems they are experiencing so a suitable solution can be found. As social media platforms gain popularity, it is becoming difficult not to join. However, the long-term effects of social media use are still unknown.