The vast majority of millennials enjoy some sort of social media presence, be it Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, or one of many others. Social media is fundamentally a place of connection, allowing young adults instant access to the lives of friends and family around the world. But it is also a place of deception. For good or bad, social media is effecting identity and how people engage with the world.
Have you ever caught yourself impulsively checking the number of ‘likes’ on your most recent Facebook post? Have you checked more often than you are willing to admit? Most of us have.
It is nice to feel the instant validation that social media provides. It is affirming to see that little Instagram heart that indicates someone enjoyed a snippet of your life enough to make a small, public announcement of it. Maybe we even feel proud that our life is something that other people might envy.
But, how much do we exaggerate who we are in order to impress our friends in the cybersphere? Are we curating our “IRL” experience to earn an extra “like” online? Is that even a bad thing? While these questions undoubtedly involve all of us, there is no population better versed in this complex world than millennials.
The majority of millennials, especially those on the younger side, grew up in this world of “likes”, “tweets”, “snaps”, and “chats”. This means that every developmental moment through adolescence and adulthood has been seen through a cyber-lense and broadcast to a wide, unseen world. While people over thirty developed their core identity prior to the dawn of social media, millennials developed their identity within social media. As a result, “likes” shaped the identity of an entire generation.
For millennials, privacy is a setting on Facebook, not a concept that necessarily applies to our personal lives. Social media has created a world in which external influences have a disproportionate effect on individual identity formation. In other words, millennials may choose a certain identity because it receives the most “likes” online, even if it is slightly at odds with who they might be otherwise. They derive self-worth and satisfaction not from the activity or identity itself but from how it is received. This has a destabilizing effect on millennial identity, because it can encourage young adults to ignore who they really are.
Social media encourages users to romanticize their own lives. The online avatar in turn has an effect on the person behind it, as they try to live up to the idealized self that they created and compete with other people’s idealized selves. This is especially true for adolescents who are already struggling to maintain a self-image equal to that in Hollywood and advertisements. Social media, while affirming, can make young adults feel inadequate. And at its worst, it is a place of rampant bullying. Millennials have forgotten that flaws are what make humans unique.
But the internet is here to stay. The answer is not to try to block it out, but to recognize the problems and consciously work to counteract them. Healthy identity development will have to also take place off-line, where a young adult can internally analyze their own sense of self. This does not mean forgoing the internet forever. It simply means finding intentional space to do this self-work. It may be more difficult for millennials to develop an internally motivated sense of personal identity, but it is still possible. And it is vital to find space for that exploration in order to be a fully functioning, confident adult.
Technology allows today’s young adults more opportunities than ever and has created a truly globalized society. It is an amazing tool for academic and professional success, and millennials are masters of it. The solution is not to get rid of technology but to learn to manage interactions with it. Balance and intention are key.
The bottom line is that social media is fun and affirming, but it shouldn’t be the source of self-worth and happiness. In large part, self-worth comes from an understanding and acceptance of who you are, flaws and all. No one should have more influence over your identity than you.