Once a pleasant distraction, social media has morphed into a forum for not so humblebrags. It’s time to stop scrolling,
<b>Photographed</b> by Ben Hassett
I awake and thumb through my Instagram feed: There is the mother of three whose post shows that she has made a delicious lunch for all her gorgeous children in 10 minutes—spinach-and-beet salad topped with a pistachio-cranberry compote—and they all loved it.
Another friend is strolling through the Fabergé Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. There are Croatian sunsets on yachts, thinkers at the Aspen Ideas Festival, private helicopter rides, glassblowers in Murano, swimmers in the Blue Grotto, and the Instagram perennial: Avocado toast. My favourite posts this summer were the photos of a straw bag with embroidered stitching that read, F*** YOU AND YOUR HAMPTONS HOUSE. Which is always posted by someone who actually owns a big Hamptons house.
I joined Instagram two years ago. At first it seemed like a lark. My first post was classic freshman fodder: My abs, after a workout at Barry’s Bootcamp. Now I look back and think, Barf. That’s as bad as the Snapchat duck-face pose or the “airplane wing” post (“Heading to the white beaches of Greece!”). How many middle-aged mums who exercise post pictures of their stomachs every day? I can’t count that high.
Social media, of course, plays a huge role in our lives. What used to take place gossiping over the backyard fence or on the telephone now happens virally, in bytes and bandwidth, with filters and editing software that can make even the dreariest night cosied up to a box of pizza seem like a glamorous romp in Cannes. Even the most secure among us can feel a stab of anxiety looking at Facebook or Instagram. Mental health professionals call it the compare-and-despair factor.
Recently, a psychiatrist friend told me that every single one of her patients reported feeling the shudder of self-consciousness brought on by social media. One woman even came in and curiously announced that her vacation was terrible. When the doctor asked why, she responded by pointing to pictures on her phone of another woman’s dreamy Aegean trip: “Well, my vacation didn’t look half as good as hers did!”
This epidemic of comparison is defined by the fact that social networks are bigger now than ever, although only virtually, says Maria A. Oquendo, president of the American Psychiatric Association. “We used to judge ourselves by our peers and our neighbourhood, and that used to be restricted to where you lived and worked,” she says. “But now our neighbourhood is huge, and so we compare and judge ourselves on a larger scale.” And, of course, critically, we are seeing the carefully edited images that others choose to show.
That artifice “creates this incredibly heated-up, hyper- achievement view of people that isn’t true,” she says. “Yet it is very difficult to remind yourself that these are highly selected and curated reports that people put up on social media.” Zoe Turnbull, a partner at public relations firm Serious Business, started out a decade ago advising companies on branding strategies using social media. Eventually she watched as people began to brand themselves, even though they had nothing to sell. “Thinking about ourselves with such scrutiny is unhealthy,” she says. “It brings out the worst of our emotions and forces us to constantly monitor the way we present ourselves.”
She sees social media as a kind of forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden—something luscious and easy, but ultimately poisonous. “Once Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge, they knew everything,” she says. “Once you know everything about everyone, the magic is lost.”
It’s not just those who are bored with humblebrags who are bailing on the medium. Last fall, the Australian model
Essena O’Neill admitted that her drive for “likes” had started to suffocate her. “I would just spend hours looking at everyone else’s perfect lives,” she wrote on her personal website. “And I strived to make mine look just as good.” In her final YouTube video, she described how—despite having more than 500,000 Instagram followers and earning as much as US$1,500 per sponsored post—she was emotionally depleted from depending on the approval of strangers. “We feel so alone, and we’re surrounded by everyone on their phones, equally feeling as alone,” she said.
Two things recently triggered the end of my love affair with Instagram, which, as a romance, started out as a glamorous fling and then soured into something seedy.
The first was that I began to notice a distasteful rush to be the first to post news of a celebrity’s sudden death. I would look at my phone in the morning and see an onslaught of Prince, David Bowie, George Michael and Carrie Fisher posts, and realise, vaguely sickened, that Prince, Bowie, Michael or Fisher had died.
The second moment came during the winter. I was watching my six-year-old son careen down a ski run. All the other parents around me had an oblong box of glass held up between themselves and their child, preserving the memory to post later in the day. The prima facie message would be: I am proud of my child. But the subtext would read more like: Here is my child. He is a good athlete, and we are rich enough to afford this ski vacation.
Luke arrived at the base of the mountain. He clocked all the parents twiddling their phones, stared me square in the face, and said, “Mummy, thank you for watching me with your eyes.”