Recently I read this ESPN article on University of Pennsylvania runner Madison Holleran, a star runner and student-athlete who struggled from depression and committed suicide in 2014 when she jumped from the 9th level of a parking garage. Suicide in young adults (ages 10-24), is the third leading cause of death, taking approximately 4600 lives/year (CDC data). And sadly, according to the CDC, “a nationwide survey of youth in grades 9–12 in public and private schools in the United States (U.S.) found that 16% of students reported seriously considering suicide, 13% reported creating a plan, and 8% reporting trying to take their own life in the 12 months preceding the survey.”
The article on Madison Holleran, though, focused on the discrepancy between what she presented of herself on social media and what she was struggling with internally. On Instagram and Facebook, she was an outgoing, thoughtful, determined, energetic college student who found purpose in running, family, friendship and achievement. Her pictures reflected these positive traits and gave no indications of her increasing depression and loneliness.
We often rely on social media to give us insight into the lives of others’, believing the images we see online to be representative of our friends and family. Yet the research fully belies that what we present on social media is very different than who we are, how we live, and what we feel. For example, data indicate that lonely and unhappy individuals are more likely to use social media, and in turn greater use of social media is associated with less happiness and more socioemotional difficulties. Moreover, people who spend substantial time on Facebook are more likely to perceive of others as being happier and having better lives. And one author suggests, “inherent to the experience of using social media is the self selection of favorable material to represent the individual. This process is cumulative, and effectively creates a socially-derived and socially-driven, composite online image (‘social avatar’). Humans notably select their best aspects for presentation to others and the social avatar reflects this tendency, effectively facilitating the creation of a ‘gap’ between online image (representation) and offline identity (substance).”
It is this gap between online image and offline identity that is so difficult to acknowledge and accept, especially when someone so apparently fulfilled as Madison Holleran resorts to suicide. Social media is a presence in our lives that won’t go away, but perhaps we can all remember that behind the pictures there are people…people living messy, complicated, full lives that exceed the dimensions of a snapshot.