This past week, an internal Facebook document was released which showed, essentially, that Instagram is toxic, and Facebook, Instagram’s parent company, is well aware. One internal Facebook slide stated, “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls.”
Sadly, this isn’t a surprise. Instagram creates a false reality: a highlight reel of videos and photos, touched-up and perfected. As you scroll through pictures and videos, your brain literally can’t help doing what it does best: compare. And comparison to ideals that we can never measure up against only does one thing: it beats us down. We feel less worthy.
This is especially destructive for teens, who are developing their identity and sense of worth, all while being inundated with signals that they don’t measure up. And yet, the core of this problem is much larger and one we all face.
At the heart of the “Instagramification” of the world is a contrast between expectations and reality. We set our expectations via comparisons. Growing up in the 1990s, I figured out that I had talent at running fast by quickly learning that I was faster than anyone else in PE class. Soon, that expanded to everyone in my grade level. My idea of good was derived from where I stood against two dozen students in my PE class, and then in the hundred or so kids in my grade. I pursued running, initially, because I was “good.”
It was a local, realistic comparison. Thus, it was one that allowed me to set appropriate expectations. Whether your talent was running, math, music, or science, we all understood how we measured up thanks to a similar process.
Now, imagine if instead of my first glimpse of my running prowess being against a random collection of kids my own age in my neighborhood, my PE class consisted of the fastest kids in the country. Would I think I was talented after I got my doors blown off? Probably not. I probably would have pursued another endeavor.
Welcome to the world we now live in. Except it’s even worst. It’s not just competing against the best, it’s competing against a modified and distorted version, as if I was competing against a bunch of kids who said they were 8 years old, but are actually 12. Or a bunch of kids who were doping.
We live in a world where we have severely distorted expectations. It’s not just appearance on apps like Instagram. It’s what it means to be popular or known based on our followers, likes, and retweets on a variety of social media outlets. It’s our expectations on physical performance and fitness, as we look at the shredded abbs of the most likely supplemented fitness gurus and actors. Or the anti-aging guru who props up all sorts of health solutions, while he himself is on supplemental testosterone. It’s our expectations of what it means to work hard as an entrepreneur as we watch people taking modafinil and ADHD medication to maintain focus that might work in the short term, but is in no way healthy over the long haul. Or the everyperson trying to measure their performance in bed against what they see on pornhub.
In many ways, we live in a kind of fantasyland, where the outward picture does not belie what is going on underneath. This fantasyland creates unrealistic expectations. We’re supposed to have it all: crush it in life and work, all while having the perfect family.
But what happens when our expectations don’t match reality?
We’ve all experienced that clash. Take my favorite sport, running: what happens if I go into a hard race expecting it to be easy, expecting that I’ll feel great and crush my goal? The moment the actual reality (i.e., this is HARD!) smacks me in the face, I abandon my goal, feel a wave of despair wash over my body, and wonder what in the world I got into.
The same phenomenon occurs regardless of your pursuit. Your expectations, how you perceive reality and the challenges you are taking on, help the brain predict what’s to come. If your prediction is way off base, you feel anxiety. When you are unsure, when you can’t quite make sense of why your lived experience doesn’t match up with what you thought you’d encounter, negative feelings soon follow. Those feelings are a cue to solve the prediction error. They are a message that something is wrong and we need to close the gap between the mismatch of what you thought would occur and what actually did.
Is it any wonder that many of us feel rejected, isolated, and lost? Like we can’t measure up? We’re setting up our minds to make bad predictions. It’s as if we enter a race expecting a world record when in reality we’re a middle-age recreational runner who trained modestly and is lining up for the neighborhood fun run.
To make better predictions, you need to give your brain better data. The best way to do so is to get back to doing real things. Step away from social media and the online world. Have real experiences with real people out in the real world.
The online world isn’t evil, but if you spend too much time in it, your brain uses what it has to define your expectations. And if that is a filtered, curated, distorted lens, then that’s what it’s going to use to make its best guess on what life should look like. Bad data in equals a bad prediction out. You don’t have to give up the online world, just give your brain a more diverse and realistic set of data to use. For a portion of your day or weekend, imagine you are in the 1990s again:
- Do hard things, occasionally feeling discomfort (exercise is great for this!)
- Go outside. Spend time in nature.
- Take your online conversations offline. Real conversations help us make sense of our own experiences in the world.
- Go do things. Travel, go to a concert, join the adult softball league. Real experiences, in the real world, with real people. (Hopefully this gets easier to do soon!)