THE BLOG

What You Aren't Seeing on Social Media

07/16/2014 01:12 pm ET | Updated Sep 15, 2014
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As an inhabitant of the social media world, it's easy to forget that there's still a lot going on outside the realm of the screen or the smartphone. Beyond the Facebook statuses we comment on and the profile pictures we "like," there are real people out there who are carefully choosing what to post, and more importantly, what not to.

Before posting online, we all take a minute to consider it from the views of our social network and how it will shape their opinion of us. Thinking before speaking, or typing or tweeting, is not a bad thing. But in the world of social media, thoughtfulness can easily turn to self-censorship as our profiles allow us to actively create an online version of ourselves.

According to a study on Facebook self-censorship, over a 17-day period, 71 percent of all users censored their own content at least once, and of those users, 51 percent censored their own posts -- 4.52 posts on average. The study also notes that "older users seemed to censor substantially fewer posts than younger users."

Millennials, who are supposed to be the most engaged online, are increasingly self-censoring. This isn't so different than what we do in real life, but social media provides a whole new level of control with the power to post, delete and repost our edited thoughts and feelings.

When I open Facebook every day, the status box politely asks me, "What's on your mind?" But the true answer to that question is almost never what I would post. Maybe I'd want to truthfully type: "I'm having a really stressful day. Life kind of sucks right now." But instead, I'll probably craft a line about my fun-filled weekend, a standard post about hating Mondays or nothing at all. Sure, I'll post when I receive exciting news, when I pass an important milestone, when I take some cute #selfies with a friend or read a good article. But not when I have an off day, experience a setback or feel like a failure.

Scroll down my Facebook profile, and you will see that I enjoy spending time with friends and family, am planning on travelling this fall, that I go to a good school and have a good job. My Facebook exclaims, "I am happy! I am living the life!" And maybe I am. Or maybe underneath all of that, I'm struggling with a personal problem, an illness, trouble at home or in relationships, lack of success at work or unhappiness.

This focus on achievement on social media, epitomized in picture perfect, filtered Instagram snapshots, eclipses all of the tiny imperfections that make us who we are, the shared struggles that make connecting with another person feel so meaningful. After all, a person is defined by their struggles and weaknesses and how they handle them, not by their successes. No, I'm not suggesting that we all begin oversharing online more than we already do, but that this habit of self-censorship has tangible effects IRL.

Generation Y is characterized by its ability to be driven to extremes. We operate in a more competitive job market, fight for spots in top universities with constantly shrinking acceptance rates and rising tuitions, trade personal time for higher grades or salaries. And we ignore the reality of the resulting mental and emotional problems, pushing them aside in pursuit of the unattainable Facebook-perfect life that we present online.

I find it more than consequential that Millennials, the most plugged-in and connected generation, suffer from the highest levels of stress, according to USA Today. Higher percentages of Millennials also report being diagnosed with depression or anxiety, and dealing with these problems through sedentary behaviors, like listening to music, eating and, of course, surfing the Internet.

In a paper on stigma and mental health care, Patrick Corrigan of the University of Chicago points out: "Less than 30 percent of people with psychiatric disorders seek treatment." On college campuses especially, the effects of ignoring stigmatized mental health concerns are very real and devastatingly dangerous. My fellow Northwestern students and I have felt them, as have those at other universities.

Living lives so heavily based on social media gives us a false sense of control, one we cannot have in the real world. And it can reinforce the stigma associated with mental health. It's perfectly normal for me to share an accomplishment online, but never a failure. Even if I overcame my own personal fear of judgment, what if it was seen by a professor? A potential employer? And it makes it possible for me to scroll through my news feed, marveling at my friends' wonderful lives in comparison to my own, or, even worse, to miss a very real problem by communicating with my friends in a public forum rather than face to face.

Social media itself is not the problem, but it can sometimes help to enforce it. According to Pew Research's Internet Project, Facebook is often a positive tool used to maintain social connections. It affords many opportunities for users to band together, to create groups focused on shared struggles and to reach out to others who may be far away but are dealing with similar issues. It can foster community and healing, but it also allows us the chance to ignore the reality of our problems, or to overlook our friends', and rely on the smiling face in their profile picture as reality.

So leave your happy profile pictures, your excited statuses and your picturesque Instagrams. But next time you connect with someone in real life, not on LinkedIn, take a second to think about everything you don't know about them from social media, and talk about that instead.