The truth about our lives online

In September of 2016, I joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Morocco. When I was in the plane, flying across the ocean, I imagined landing in this sunny desert country, full of exotic spices and new sights, and having an amazing time (not my only reason for joining Peace Corps, I promise). And I did have a good time in my first few weeks. There were walks on the beach and new foods and interesting new people to meet. But there were less fun things as well; I got sick and spent long hours lying on my bed, holding my stomach and wishing I was home. I found a cockroach in my room. My husband and I washed our clothes by hand in the bathtub, which seemed to only make them dirtier.

Since we all spent the first week or so in a hotel together, I became Facebook friends with several of the other Peace Corps volunteers. And something strange started to happen. I saw that a few of my new Facebook friends were posting pictures that looked amazing. A group of them eating crepes in the city together. A sunset over a strip of beach that wasn’t dotted with garbage. And even though we were all living in the same hotel, spending most of the day together, I started to wonder. Were they all friends already? Why hadn’t I made more friends? How had they found that part of the beach that didn’t have any garbage on it?

So I spoke to a few of my new Facebook friends in person, the ones who seemed to have Morocco all figured out already, and I learned what should have been obvious right away. They were in the same boat as me. They had found that cool part of the beach, but they’d also had kids throw fireworks at them as they walked along it. Maybe they had a swarm of ants in their room instead of a cockroach, but they, like me, had been through a mix of good and bad. But, of course, no one documents the bad on social media.

When we see a picture of someone we know—especially if it’s a peer—doing something cool or having some great new experience, we compare ourselves, often without even meaning to. I found myself doing it even as I was having my own experience in a foreign country, which just shows how pernicious FOMO can be. Or it could just show how susceptible I personally am to social media. Your call. Either way, I wanted this to be a reminder, especially as spring break approaches, that social media only shows half of the story. It’s true that your friends and acquaintances are out there having a great time (and good on them), but no one’s life is perfect, regardless of their Instagram. Your life is not worse or less exciting than someone else’s, especially based on such flimsy evidence as a few pictures on the internet.

Sometimes, that knowledge isn’t enough to erase the feeling that everyone’s having fun but you. Even knowing that social media is specifically designed to ignore the bad and make the good look better, it can still be an effective tool in making you feel like you don’t measure up to your friends. If that’s the case, there are a few things you can do. The simplest solution is to cut back on social media for a while. Easier said than done, of course, but the benefits might be worth it. Studies have shown that long amounts of time spent on social media often go hand in hand with stress, low self-esteem, and other depressive traits. The culprit? The user comparing their own life to others’. Interestingly, it was found that even comparisons that made the user feel better in the moment (“At least my life looks more interesting than hers,” etc.) were linked to these same negative traits. There’s just no upside to comparing your life to others’.

Next time you’re on social media and you start to feel symptoms of FOMO, remind yourself of the dangers of comparison, and know that you’re not seeing the whole story. If that doesn’t work, take a break from social media for a while. It might be a break from comparing yourself to others that you didn’t know you needed.

Author profile

Bethan likes reading, 80s punk, watercolors, and slow jogging. She is currently working on her Masters degree while serving in Morocco through the Peace Corps, with her husband Caleb.

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  • Jane Tallmadge
    March 6, 2017 at 8:49 pm

    I actually just wrote an English research paper on something somewhat like this and I totally agree! People haven’t seemed to notice the side effects that come from using the internet too much. It can be great (i.e. RubyGirl) but there are ways that it can damage your mental health and make you feel left out.
    Thanks for this!

  • Michelle Lehnardt
    March 7, 2017 at 9:32 am

    Just so true. Thanks Bethan!