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During her freshman and sophomore year in college, Lizzie Steimer had long blonde hair. In some pictures, it’s styled into perfectly messy beach waves, in others it’s perfectly straight. She’s dancing at a music festival, alongside two other girls, all of them wearing nearly identical crop tops. In other photos, she’s throwing up the Alpha Gamma Delta signal. She often has a drink in her hand, and she and her friends are partial to that elbow-grabbing hug-thing sorority girls do these days. There are costume parties, and 21st birthday parties, and just party-for-the-sake-of-partying parties. To anyone scrolling her Instagram feed that year, it would seem as though every weekend was the best weekend of her life.
What was really happening in all of these ‘grammable moments: She was depressed, and going through the motions. She felt very lost in what she calls “the fake world” of social media and college life. “I would get all dressed up and be very concerned with how I looked, and I’d go out with these girls who I didn’t really like,” Steimer says. “As soon as I got a group picture I really liked, or a picture that looked like I was having a blast, I’d be like, ‘Okay is everyone drunk enough that they won’t realize when I leave and go home to sit in my bed alone?’”
Back in her room, in bed and depressed, she would scroll through her Instagram feed, jealous of the friends who looked like they genuinely loved their lives. It didn’t occur to her that maybe they were faking it, too. She considered taking a break from school — going home to Rockville, Maryland — but she was afraid that the gap would only make college (and her misery) last longer. She felt like everything about her life as a University of South Carolina sorority girl was contrived, but she lived in the house. She was trapped. But as soon as she could move out, she quit the sorority. Then, most importantly, she stopped posting on social media for the length of her junior year.
Once she stopped performing on social media, Steimer had the time and headspace to focus on bettering her life in the real world. She landed a communications internship in New York at NASDAQ, which helped her learn more about who she wanted to be, “a serious person who works hard.” She cut her hair short and dyed it brown. The fact that she didn’t share every little detail about her new job or or new look on social media also gave her freedom to experiment.
Back in school, she overheard the gossip — at one party some Rugby player whisper, “Lizzie used to be hot, but now she’s just pretty.” After a year off social media learning about her true interests, she re-emerged reinvented on, of all places, her Instagram account: A side-by-side photo of her old self and her new self, short brown hair, glasses and all.
“I'm posting this mostly for myself, but I think there's probably some people out there who need to hear it,” she wrote in the caption. “To all the people who have told me I was prettier as a blonde, to all the people who have told me I used to be more fun, and to anyone who really thinks I was a cooler person when I had cooler Instagram pictures: The girl on the left is someone pretending to be happy and praying to get enough likes on her pictures to feel fulfilled, which never works. The girl on the right is a girl who learned how to look at life for what it is, not how other people see it or how it looks through a camera.” The photo got 200 likes and 24 comments, all positive.
Steimer’s story struck a nerve among her network for a reason. Young women today are spending a huge amount of time performing on social media, curating various versions of themselves. Instead of enjoying a moment for what it is, they’re thinking about capturing it and how it will be perceived. They’re constantly comparing themselves to not just their peers, but their peers’ extremely curated, filtered, and increasingly glamorous social accounts.
For a growing number of teens, this pressure to perform, to brand themselves, turns into a habit that exacerbates, or may even create, a true mental health problem.
According to a recent study in Pediatrics, the number of teens suffering a major depressive episode rose from 8.7% in 2005 to 11.3% in 2014. For young adults, it rose from 8.8% to 9.6% during the same time period. The increases were particularly sharp after 2011, which the researchers speculated may be due to teenagers' increasing dependence on social media. Overall, the studies on social media’s link to depression have been mixed, but the timeline makes sense: YouTube was invented in 2004. Facebook became available to all in 2006. Instagram hit the scene in 2010, and Snapchat started to pick up steam in 2013.
Even if it’s not a direct cause, there is little doubt that social media — especially image-based platforms like Instagram and Snapchat — is complicating things. “It is definitely changing how we grow up and figuring out who you are. Teens are always having to manage the highlights reel of their life. That’s really hard because they’re trying to think about audiences they don’t even know,” Jill Walsh, PhD, a fellow at Boston University who studies social media and youth development. “As a result, they do a lot of posturing and showing off that makes it then seem like, ‘Everybody else is happy and I’m the only one who feels like crap.’”
Indeed, when you talk to young women today, those who performed their entire adolescence online, they describe the moment they realized they had to stop caring so much about their online selves (and start working on their real selves) in terms we used to reserve for events like realizing your parents are imperfect: as a coming of age. Only this one comes to a head sometime during college or those years following high school. It’s not a midlife crisis, not a quarter-life crisis, but an entering-adulthood crisis.
“You’re supposed to look like you have it all and you’re having the time of your life. For me it made it hard for people to understand that I was depressed and I was having a hard time,” says Larissa May, 22, co-founder with Steimer of #HalftheStory, a platform that encourages young people to talk about authenticity online. “You can spend your whole life weaving and crafting a social story, which makes it hard for you to face your own reality.”
The pressure to perform can start the minute a teen gets a phone, which for a lot of kids is 12 or 13 or even younger, says Alexa Curtis, 19, creator of Media Impact and Navigation for Teens, a traveling school forum about social media, cyber bullying and other topics. The first thing they do is create Instagram or Snapchat accounts, two platforms that encourage editing your images with filters and allow you to quantify exactly (in likes, followers, screenshots, and views) how well-received your posts are. This takes all the pressures of adolescence and thrusts them into overdrive, explains Lisa Damour, PhD, a psychotherapist specializing in adolescent girls and author of Untangled. “It takes adolescence and puts it on steroids.”
Because it intensifies the natural urges of adolescence — the competing desires to fit in, stand out, and be popular and liked — social media can become a kind of trap, one Deanna Gomez-Whitehead, 20, fell into when she got an Instagram account at 14. Things weren’t going so well at home — her mom had married a man she didn’t get along with — but she could escape into the filtered world of Instagram. “I got obsessed with posting pretty pictures of myself or anything that made me look like I was doing something interesting, even if in reality I was just like, in my backyard with the dog,” she says. The Likes would roll in, she’d get more followers, and she’d feel better. “It was getting me attention,” she says. “At the time I wasn’t getting any real positive attention in my home life.”
As it tends to do, real life got more complicated, though her Instagram remained a happy facade. At 17, her disagreements with her step-dad reached a breaking point and her parents kicked her out. She spent the rest of high school living on a friends couch, and maintaining her online charade understandably became too much. Finally, she posted a moody picture of the sky, along with a caption saying she was tired of pretending everything was rosy. It didn’t go over so well. “It gets to the point where you’re living two lives. You’re going out of your way to look so happy on the internet because you really care about what people think of you,” she says. “When I finally did post something sad and real, people were rude to me. They were like, ‘Why are you complaining? You are normally so happy.’”
Part of the reason the pressure is so intense is that teenagers’ brains, even into young adulthood, are actually incapable of separating the edited world of Instagram from the real world, Dr. Walsh says. “They don’t have the reflective ability yet to sit there and think this Instagram feed is just a highlights reel,” Dr. Walsh says. “If you ask them are people posting a highlights reel? They say yes. But when they’re actually looking at it, they feel that it’s really who they are.” Of course plenty of adults struggle with this comparison game, too. But adults have the benefit of experience; they are not as jarred by the realization that things are not always what they seem.
Add to this the fact that once a narrative is created, it’s there for everyone to see, pretty much forever. This can create challenges when your audience changes, say, when you leave high school for college. “Before social media we all went to college and we started again. There was this wonderful developmental reset button,” says Dr. Damour. “Now the past never goes away.”
The result: Every new life phase is akin to a personal public relations emergency. You must re-brand. “Every junior or senior in high school gets to a point where they are comfortable, they just don’t care what people think any more,” Dr. Walsh says. “But as soon as they get into college, they start searching each other on social media. They 100% revert back to posting bikini pictures and really caring about status and ‘look how cool I am’.”
In college, the stakes of this similar popularity contest only get higher — at least that’s how it felt to Gabby Catalano, 20, when she started her college career at Emerson in Boston. She had dreams of becoming a writer, and she already had a stellar portfolio of samples. What she didn’t have: a popping social media presence. “All these other kids already had huge followings on these platforms,” she says. “I felt like I was so behind and I needed to catch up.”
Soon, the constant comparisons and the obsession with likes and follows lead to panic attacks and disordered eating. “I started caring more about what other people thought about me, and it just got to the point where I needed to remove myself from this environment,” she says. After just one semester, she withdrew from school, moved home to San Diego, and started seeing a therapist, who came up with the idea that she should delete all of her accounts for a minimum of 30 days.
As with Steimer, the break, along with starting classes at her local community college, allowed Catalano to explore her interests in a low-pressure environment, and helped her find herself. But some aren’t so lucky.
Jacquie Boudreau, 21, a student at the University of Southern California, says the worst part about all of this is how isolating this pressure is, and how it stops students from seeking help when they need it. She’s speaking from her own experience and speaking in memory of her friend Kaleigh Finnie. Three weeks after their freshmen year ended, Finnie died by suicide. She was 19.
The pair had met as roommates their first semester of college when they studied abroad in Paris, as part of a special USC program for spring admits. They spent their semester abroad creating social media magic: selfies in Paris clubs, group pictures in front of the Eiffel Tower. But behind the scenes they were jealously watching their friends’ “normal” college experiences on social media from afar and crying themselves to sleep.
“We were lonely and lost, but it was like well, at least everyone will think it was great,” Boudreau says. “For me, I constantly felt pressure to prove my Paris experience was even better than everyone else's at home. We wanted to show everyone we were having even more fun. It was like ‘You’re going to football games? Well, we’re doing Amsterdam for Halloween.’"
Even still, no one expected Finnie to take her own life, least of all Boudreau. “I was feeling the same sadness, the same pressure, but I had no suicidal thoughts,” she says. For everyone else: According to her Instagram posts and Snapchats, Finnie was always smiling.
“The thing with suicide is that you can never rationalize an irrational choice,” Boudreau says. But she does wonder now how things could have been different if Kaleigh had not been further isolated by the pressures of social media.
“Do I think Kaleigh felt like she couldn't talk to anyone? And do I think she was interested in coming across in a certain way just like I was? Yeah I definitely think that,” she says. “To look at all these Instagrams and Snapchats and just see people smiling and see people in the best parts of their day, it makes you feel more alone than ever in depression and anxiety. I can imagine in her darkest moments she really felt like no one would understand the darkness that she felt.”
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If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433. Are you ready to use social media to highlight the real moments? Share your story with #HalfTheStory or Join The Movement here.