Virginia Woolf wrote, “It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality.” So it is with envy of what other people have—or, in the case of social media, what we perceive other people to have. What’s exhibited on Instagram does not always reflect real life, but it’s easy for us all, adults and teens included, to forget that fact.
Whether we realize it or not, we all curate our social media presentations more than the average art exhibition. We present a certain image to the world, whether that’s of “fun loving, free spirit” with festival pics, the “perfect mom” with beautiful family pictures and “candid” shots of kids doing adorable things, or the “happy couple” with hundreds of pictures of canoodling and gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes.
What’s not shown is all the work that goes in to making these lives: the hours spent at work to afford the concert tickets, the organization of family pictures and begging, pleading, and arguing with family members to get them in to the “perfect” outfits, or the work in therapy that it took to get to a place where the couple could comfortably reach out and connect with each other.
What’s also not shown is the illusion of it all. A good friend of mine from a while back had a beautiful Facebook page, filled with pictures of her family, trips she was taking with her husband, and joyful messages of hope and inspiration. Behind the scenes, however, it was a different story: Her marriage was falling apart, she was overwhelmed as a mother, she lost her job, and had returned to destructive habits she’d battled for years. Just because something looks good, doesn’t mean it’s worth envying.
So what do we do with this knowledge? As a social worker, I’m of two minds. One is that we all could be more honest about our struggles. Instead of pretending that everything is perfect when it’s not, connect with people (in real life!) who might be able to make a difference in improving things. The other is that we sometimes need to exercise the option of turning away from our devices to help us with our envy of what (we think) other people have.