Reality and Individuality

As we pass each other in the hallway, half glancing at our screens, it’s clear that Masuk High School society is in the grasp of its digital self. During the pivotal four years where we embark on the journey to develop our personalities and grow into our individual personas, we have all encountered a stumbling block, social media.

Peculiar as it may be, individuality is developed through socialization, pieced together in conversation and personal interaction. But for those coming of age since 2010, reality is expressed with duality, one world that occurs in the present, and one in the digital web of social media. Once personal and distinct, opinions, ideas and relationships are now broadcast to the masses of Instagrammers, Tweeters and TikTokers. Did social media kill individuality? 

In a mirror-like paradox, we are able to craft our digital identities to our desired identities, picking and choosing what parts of our lives to share and hide. Appearance becomes deceptive. Moreover, when we rely on social media as a standard of physical and societal appearance, an even greater deceptive loop is created. We obliviously hold ourselves to a standard. A standard measured by the best photos, moments and snapshots our peers have chosen for us to see. In the end, users of social media are all climbing the same ladder to an unattainable perfection. That is where individuality begins its downfall. 

Individuality determines the character of a particular person that distinguishes them from others. In a digital space, profiles replace personality, a culmination of our thoughts, experiences, quirks, likes, dislikes and persona. Apps like Instagram become an album of framed identities. With an infinite network at your fingertips, it’s easy to “experience” someone’s personality before meeting them face to face.

In order to succeed in this digital world, we rely on many of the traits that have been discovered to build communities in real life.  For example, we mimic aspects of our peers. In 1999, experiments of psychologists John Bargh and Tanya Chartrand led to the discovery of unintentional mirroring, or the chameleon effect. This discovery revealed the unconscious mimicry of the mannerisms, facial expressions and other behaviors that passively change to match others in your current social environment. 

On its own, unintentional mirroring enhances your persona, allowing mimicking to occur in intimate social circles like a classroom and school. 

When paired with social media, unintentional mirroring begins to overtake unique characteristics. Unconsciously, our impressionable minds are fueled by admiration- the appearance of an Instagram model, or the luxurious life an influencer depicts on their Tik Tok. 

We weave these admirable aspects of others into our own characters because we are conditioned to mirror the aspects in our social environment. 

“We tend to look at others’ lives and want to emulate what we see. It can cause people to compare themselves to others and want to buy the things they see in others or change themselves to be what they see as popular. The danger with this is obviously people can be not authentic or only show part of their true lives on social media,” said Masuk social studies and psychology teacher Jamie Sherry.

But our social environment has been drastically redefined. With social media, the environment is no longer defined by the immediate interactions with your friends and peers but has expanded outside the classroom, Masuk, and Monroe. 

Surveys conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago in 2018 showed that 90 percent of teens ages 13-17 had used social media. Additionally 75 percent of teens report having at least one active social media profile, and on average teens are online almost nine hours a day, not including time for schoolwork.

Social media usage has not dwindled. In fact a recent 2021 study conducted by the NORC found that 76 percent of American teens ages 13-17 use Instagram and 75 percent of American teens use Snapchat. 

This conglomeration of the teenage population into one digital space has increased our access to a popularity culture centered on likes and followers. The popularity culture of social media causes us to suppress our personalities in an attempt to compete. This may be for likes, followers, or jealousy. But in the end our individuality is lost at the starting line of the race to ideality.

It is possible that social media is creating a diverse access to different personalities, subcultures, and experiences. But it subsequently pushes us deeper into niche groups that share our similar interests and values and conforms to our pre-existing opinions. Therefore these niche areas of the internet encapsulate our values and opinions, impairing their ability to change. It is important to recognize the future social media creates for our interactions. 

We already interact on social media as means of communication, entertainment and personal expression and this is evident in our real life interactions. Our peers are less willing to hold a conversation before resorting to a glance at their phone and when a conversation is sparked, we have become unable to seek interest in others, ask questions and hold a meaningful discussion. 

The craft of conversation is at risk. We are so comfortable composing our words and personas online that we are forgetting how to act in a face-to-face environment.

“Virtual interactions can be great for catching up with friends you don’t get to see all the time, however, if you have a chance to get together in person and hang out, there are great benefits to that. We can pick up a lot more authentic cues when we are in person. We can tell when our friends are upset or anxious a lot easier in person based on verbal and physical cues that we may miss in a quick Snapchat or text message chain. I think it’s important to take inventory of how much social media time you are using and see how it is impacting you,” Sherry added.

Students and teens must interact, socialize and develop their personas in the real tangible world. Society must transcend the loose virtual webs holding it together and strengthen the reality in which relationships and personal connections thrive. 

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