Before Social Media

I’m at a coffee shop next to a table of teenage girls who have done nothing for the past half hour but take pictures together, solo, and in varying sub-groups. They pose for pictures to post to their Instagram stories. I hear them critiquing and complimenting themselves and each other, self-scrutinizing to a degree I wouldn’t have thought possible until witnessing it now. They act like sixteen-year-old models on a shoot, obsessed with how the photos will turn out and which ones will be worthy of a cover photo in their Instagrams rather than enjoying each other’s company.

It’s so sad to see, so heartbreaking to think of all the struggles adolescent girls already go through in relation to family, friends, love interests, and their own bodies but that they also now have to consider their virtual image. It isn’t only the physical but now an online facade to present to strangers, acquaintances, and peers that could be met with a barrage of praise as often as criticism. 

All of this focus on their photos comes at the expense of savoring time with their friends in an authentic way. Rather than creating meaningful memories together, they will have photos that represent the “great time” they had together when, ironically, the great time was forfeited as a means to their end. I’m appalled at how social media has brought us to this point–beyond celebrity screen and magazine comparisons, beyond peer comparisons even. They’re creating and comparing to a fiction, a false sense of self and reality, carefully curated to present only what one wants to present. The photos will serve to convince them of something true when it was a sham. 

I feel so sad for these girls, especially as I think about them in relation to how I used to spend time with my friends in high school, gabbing about cute boys and crushes, driving around in the country, going to get ice cream, watching movies with pizza, laughing late into the night for fourth meals. All these incredible moments and memories are reduced to how they can appear in photographs. I want to tell them not to waste this precious time of their youth, but when we’re young, we think we know everything. We think we know and understand the world and ourselves in ways older people can’t. Generations before mine probably feel the same about my generation and how much at 37 I have left to learn. 

Tik Tok, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat…we’re losing our humanity in favor of personas. We’re less real with each other, which means less true connection when true connection is what all of us really need. We need more time in nature, moving our bodies rather than sedentary time in front of screens, more focus on what’s happening in the present rather than how it will appear in the future. I want to move forward, not in a Luddite reversal or rejection of technology and virtual spaces, with a balance between what is virtual and what is tangible and concrete. We need to prioritize reality over image. The reality, even without filters and attempts at curated perfection, is pretty incredible and worthy of attention.

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