Over the last five years, there has been an overwhelming increase in the number of people actively engaged on social media networks. From Facebook to Twitter to LinkedIn, people across the world can connect with one another and share personal information and updates about his or her life. This paper will discuss the ways in which individuals are portraying themselves online, how that may differ from offline versions of themselves, and what that means for the overall understanding of their own identity. It will be evident that social media has enabled people to create a perfect version of themselves, which not only falsifies who they are to others, but makes it difficult for them to decipher who they truly are inside. Understanding this process will be of great value to coaches as they help clients address issues of identity, self-esteem, and acceptance.
The Definition of Social Media
Social networking sites, also known as social media, have been developed to connect people who share similar friends, interests, beliefs, and activities. They can be defined as a web-based service that allows individuals to construct a public profile, maintain a list of people with whom they share a connection, and share those connections with other people in the system (Boyd and Ellison, 2007). Anyone can join a social networking service, though individuals have a degree of control in regards to who can view their profile and information. Facebook is the most popular social networking site, and as of 2010, stood as the third largest country in the world with over 700,000,000 users (Rubenstein, n.d.). Social media is the #1 online activity and continues to grow around the world (Rubenstein, n.d).
Identity Construction in Cyberspace
In light of the heightened use of technology and social networking sites, the majority of interactions people have with one another takes place in cyberspace, which means direct contact with other people is decreasing (Klotter, 2010). Stephanie Rosenbloom of the New York Times (2008) states that,
…people are not only strategizing about how to virtually convey who they are, but also grappling with how to craft an e-version of themselves that appeals to multiple audiences…
On a social media website, users are able to choose their name, what pictures are visible, and what comments are said to them that can be seen by others. If they disapprove of what someone says to them, they can delete it. If people do not like a picture that someone posted of them, they can remove it so that their peers cannot see it. This type of control over identity, also known as the hyperpersonal model or impression management, gives people
the opportunity to put their best face forward online – by posting flattering photos and emphasizing certain aspects of their personality. (Kaplan, 2011)
People can control who they want to be in social media more than they can with face-to-face communication (Kramer and Winter, 2008).
Social Media as a Positive Influence
Research has shown that various aspects of social media can increase the self-esteem of its users. A study done by psychologists at Cornell University found that creating a positive online image of ones self can give users an ego boost (Kaplan, 2011). As researcher Jeffrey Hancock (2011 cited by Kaplan 2011) stated,
Unlike a mirror, which reminds us of who we really are and may have a negative effect on self-esteem if that image does match with our ideal, Facebook can show a positive version of ourselves.
Moreover, when the identities created are validated by others, the approval received from friends and followers continue to increase self-esteem. For example, on Facebook, the number of friends one has, comments on a post, number of ‘likes’ on a status update, or being invited to various groups or events (Balick, 2012) can reinforce the desire to portray themselves as that created identity. In addition, the ability to talk to people without the intimidation or fears one may face in person can also increase the amount of confidence one gains from interacting online with others. Research has shown that talking to people online may make it easier for shy kids to reach and out connect to others (Stout, 2010). As Dr. Rachna Jain (2010) states,
It’s easy to approach someone you’d like to meet [in social media], and this can be done more easily and fluidly.
When both image and confidence of a person is at their highest, self-esteem is, too, elevated.
The Downside to Social Media
While some studies do show positive effects of identity construction online, other evidence suggests that social media can be detrimental to a person’s sense of self. Though people can have hundreds or thousands of friends online, those relationships do not transfer over into real life. Research conducted by Thomas V. Pollet (2011) of the University of Groningen discovered that time spent online communicating and building relationships with others did not translate into a larger number of offline friends. He writes,
…these media may be less effective at building and maintaining emotionally intense relationships than other types of communication. (2011, cited by Roan, 2011)
This has led to people feeling more lonely and isolated than ever before (Green, 2011) because people are spending more time in front of a computer than in front of real people, without gaining significant value in those relationships.
Just as external validation gave individuals a confidence boost, a lack of validation can just as quickly decrease confidence. For example, if a social media user posts a picture of him or herself on Facebook that they feel is flattering, yet none of their friends comment or ‘like’ it, their self-esteem decreases. As Dr. Dorren Dodgen-Magee (2010) states,
We look further to the outside world to define who we are…we just aren’t relying on ourselves to take care of ourselves in the same way.
There is also a tendency to compare oneself to a friend or stranger on social media, a behavior known as Facebook envy, where people
constantly underestimate how often other people have negative emotions, while overestimating how often they have positive ones, (Szalavitz, 2011)
and assume that others are happier or more successful than oneself. Since people tend to only post the positive things going on in their lives, without feeling it necessary to include the negative, their friends start believing that to be the entire truth. As Dr. David Swanson told CBS News (2011, cited by anon, 2011),
What you put on display is how great your life is—the cars you drive, the vacations you go on. Nobody’s life is that perfect and so, whenever you start to compare your life to those images, you’re going to be depressed, because you’re going to feel like your life is lacking.
Social media makes it easy for people to compare themselves to others in a one-dimensional, Facebook-only sort of way. This leads people to become depressed and insecure, or overcompensate by posting status updates that may be exaggerated or untrue in order to match the excitement and happiness of their online peers.
Implications for Life Coaching
The consequences of social media on a person’s sense of self can be great, and this will undoubtedly influence a coach’s relationship with their client. If the social media popularity continues to grow, people will constantly be carrying around multiple versions of themselves, perhaps forgetting who they truly are and continually trying to be as happy or perfect as their peers. It will be up to the coach to help the client sort through the identities to figure out which version is comfortable and authentic to them.
There are a number of powerful questions coaches can ask clients who are actively engaged and affected by social media. First, coaches need to help clients understand their use of technology and their purpose for using it (Lloyd, Dean and Cooper, 2007). Clients need to explore what it is about social media that is important and what value that brings to his or her life. They need to answer, “What role is this serving?” and identify whether it’s helpful or harmful.
Second, coaches should ask their clients how they are maintaining a balance between their social media life and their offline life (Jain, 2010). Coaches need to ensure their clients believe that there is not only a life outside of social media, but that it can often be more meaningful than the online version. If clients begin to feel Facebook envy or insecure when they compare themselves to others online, coaches need to create a space for clients to explore the positive pieces of their own life and remember gratitude. By encouraging clients to look at what they are grateful for, the need to constantly identify what they do not have will lessen. Moreover, coaches can ask clients what pieces of the other person’s situation are better or intriguing. By figuring out what makes a client jealous or envious can bring insight into what they may want in their own lives that they do not feel they have.
Lastly, coaches need to assist their clients in monitoring emotions and reactions to social networking sites, whether it be anger or distress (Jain, 2010). If those emotions surface, it can serve as another chance for coaches to help generate ideas as to what about the situation, status update, or picture is causing those emotions to come about. Then, ways to respond to those reactions can be generated and implemented. More importantly, discovering whether or not those emotions are based on truth is also a vital tool for reflection and exploring perceived happiness in others. Is that person truly living a better life? Is it true that they have no problems or struggles in life right now? These are the kinds of questions clients should be answering. As technology expert Katie Linendoll (2011, cited by anon, 2011) states,
…a Facebook profile never tells the whole story.
Social networking sites can be a positive part of one’s life, connecting a person to relatives across the world or old classmates that he or she has lost touch with. However, recognizing that a social networking profile is a constructed identity, chosen by the individual, can often be forgotten and can be damaging to a person’s self-esteem and sense of self. If the online version of oneself is an ideal one, perhaps having that goal as a reminder can be a healthy inspiration to reach that. However, it is imperative that the created identity is aligned with the values of the individual, never trying to be someone they are not or overcompensating because they do not like who they actually are. Life coaches have the skills to help people figure out those important questions so that clients can live a life, both online and offline, that is full of positivity and contentment.
Balick, Aaron. (2012). Social Media, the ego, and the self. Minds Work. Retrieved January 11, 2012, from http://www.mindswork.co.uk/wpblog/?p=76
Boyd, Danah M. and Ellison, Nicole B. (2007). Social Network Sites: Definition, History and Scholarship. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, 13(1), 210-230. Retrieved January 11, 2012, from http://www.mendeley.com/research/social-network-sites-definition-history-scholarship-26/#
CBS News. Study shows some suffer from ‘Facebook envy’. Retrieved January 11, 2012, from http://news.cnet.com/8301-1023_3-20030550-93.html
Cooper, Diane L., Dean, Laura A., and Lloyd, Jan M. (2007). Students’ Technology Use and Its Effects on Peer Relationships, Academic Involvement, and Healthy Lifestyles. NASPA Journal, 44(3), 481-495.
Dodgen-Magee, Doreen. (2010). How Is Technology Shaping Generation Y? [Electronic version], Biola Magazine Online. Retrieved December 16, 2011, from http://magazine.biola.edu/article/10-fall/how-is-technology-shaping-generation-y/
Green, Summer. (2011). Technology bringing relationships into the new age [Electronic version]. The Signpost. Retrieved December 16, 2011, from http://www.wsusignpost.com/2011/11/19/the-effects-of-technology-on-relationships/
Jain, Rachna. (2010). 4 Ways Social Media Is Changing Your Relationships [Electronic version]. Social Media Examiner. Retrieved December 16, 2011, from http://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/4-ways-social-media-is-changing-your-relationships/
Kaplan, Karen. (2011). Are you so awesome you’d friend yourself? Facebook found to be a great esteem builder [Electronic Version]. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved December 16, 2011, from http://articles.latimes.com/2011/mar/03/news/la-heb-facebook-self-esteem-20110303
Klotter, Julie. (2010). Technology affects brain and social relationships [Electronic version]. Townsend Letter. Retrieved December 16, 2011, from http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Technology+affects+brain+and+social+relationships.-a0215848328
Kramer, Nicole C. and Winter, Stephan. (2008). Impression Management 2.0: The Relationship of Self-Esteem, Extraversion, Self-Efficacy, and Self-Presentation Within Social Networking Sites. Journal of Media Psychology, 20(3), 106-116.
Roan Sherri. (2011). Social Networking ‘success’ doesn’t extend to offline relationships [Electronic version]. The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved December 16, 2011, from http://articles.latimes.com/2011/apr/26/news/la-heb-social-media-20110426
Rosenbloom, Stephanie. (2008). Putting Your Best Cyberface Forward [Electronic version]. The New York Times. Retrieved January 10, 2012, from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/03/fashion/03impression.html?pagewanted=all
Rubenstein, Paul. (n.d.) Why (and How) the Growth of Social Media has Created Opportunities for Market Research. Greenbook. Retrieved January 11, 2012, from http://www.greenbook.org/marketing-research.cfm/social-media-opportunities-for-market-research-37076
Stout, Hilary. (2010). Antisocial Networking? [Electronic version] The New York Times. Retrieved December 16, 2011, from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/02/fashion/02BEST.html?pagewanted=all
Svalavitz, Maia. (2011). Misery Has More Company Than You Think, Especially on Facebook [Electronic version]. Time magazine. Retrieved January 11, 2012, from http://healthland.time.com/2011/01/27/youre-not-alone-misery-has-more-company-than-you-think/