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A virtual life: How social media changes our perceptions

How social media is changing our perceptions of ourselves, others, and the world.

In social psychologist Kenneth Gergen’s 1991 book, The Saturated Self, he warned of an Orwellian world where technology might saturate human beings to the point of “multiphrenia,” a fragmented version of the self that is pulled in so many directions the individual would be lost. “I am linked, therefore I am,” he famously said, playing on Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am.” Little did Gergen know how dead-on his prediction would be.

Because as our society sits here more than 20 years later with our tablets and cell phones and electronic gadgets—seduced by the lure of the blue light glow—we have never been more linked, more connected, and more bound to a virtual reality that many of us can no longer live without.

“Tethered to technology, we are shaken when that world ‘unplugged’ does not signify, does not satisfy. We build a following on Facebook or MySpace and wonder to what degree our followers are friends. We re-create ourselves as online personae and give ourselves new bodies, homes, jobs, and romances.

A virtual life is shiny and bright. It’s where you post your prettiest pictures and tell all your best news.

Yet, suddenly, in the half-light of virtual community, we may feel utterly alone,” writes licensed clinical psychologist and MIT professor Sherry Turkle in her best-selling tome, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other. Founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, the book is the third in a series on the effects of technology on society and culminates 15 years of research on the digital terrain.

The long-term psychological impact of social media on individuals and their individual sense of “self” remains to be seen. But there is one thing we do know. Our daily lives have been digitized, tracked, and tied up in metrics. Our real selves have split into online avatars and profile pictures and status updates. And while social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are powerful tools that have the potential to build communities, connect relatives in far-flung places, leverage careers, and even elect presidents of the United States, they are also unleashing a myriad of complex psychological issues that have altered our collective sense of reality.

A virtual life is shiny and bright. It’s where you post your prettiest pictures and tell all your best news. “In games where we expect to play an avatar, we end up being ourselves in the most revealing ways; on social networking sites such as Facebook, we think we will be presenting ourselves, but our profile ends up as somebody else—often the fantasy of who we want to be,” Turkle writes. But is it real? More importantly, is it healthy?

The unreal world

Dr. Ali Jazayeri, associate professor of clinical psychology at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology’s L.A. Campus, thinks there are clear and present dangers that can’t be ignored.

“I definitely think that social media has had a very deep impact on our lives. The world that we see on Facebook and other social media sites is not a true and real world. It’s a creation of people,” Jazayeri explains. “Among other dangers that Facebook might possibly pose in our lives, such as lack of privacy, is this habit of always comparing ourselves to others. People, when they are happy, post a lot of happy things. But when I’m not happy I will consciously, or unconsciously, compare myself to others. As a result, I create a world that is not a true world because I imagine that everybody is happy in that world, except me.”

While each social media site has its own personality and purpose, the wildly popular Facebook and its estimated one billion active monthly users has gained the most attention from psychologists for the potential to distort an individual’s sense of self and sense of other people.

What concerns Jazayeri most, from a psychologist’s perspective, is the danger of slipping too far into a virtual world and losing a sense of real life, real self, and real priorities.

A 2011 clinical report on “The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents and Families,” published in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, was one of the first to raise the issue of “Facebook depression” among young people worried that they weren’t accumulating enough “friends” or “likes” to their status updates.

Around the same time, Dr. Cecilie Andraessen and her colleagues at the University of Bergen (UiB) in Norway published a piece about their work with the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale the journal Psychological Reports. And this all came on the heels of somewhat controversial news that the American Psychiatric Association was considering the addition of “Internet addiction” in an appendix to the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), slated for release later this year.

What concerns Jazayeri most, from a psychologist’s perspective, is the danger of slipping too far into a virtual world and losing a sense of real life, real self, and real priorities.

“Some people use this social media to create something that they are not,” he says, explaining that the virtual world can distract people so much from their real lives that they either forget who they are or become so involved in the reality they’ve created that they don’t want to work on their own issues.

“Instead of me trying to deal with things I don’t like about myself, I will go online and present myself in the way I’d like to be seen, without any changes to me. It’s dangerous, and very deceptive. If you look at the history of psychology, we’ve spent the last 100 years trying to help people know themselves better, deal with their shortcomings, deal with things they don’t want to have, so we have a very reality oriented atmosphere in our Western psychology.”

Jazayeri worries that an overreliance on this virtual world that we create online is undermining all the progress human beings have made in addressing real-life problems.

“As psychologists, we have theories based on the reality of patient’s lives. Our goal is to help people try to see themselves for the reality of what they are,” he continues. “But if we perceive that everyone else is perfect, then we push ourselves to become someone that we are not, and then we get frustrated, and then we get depressed.”

Like Turkle, and other experts, he is careful to also note the value of such sites for helping people do everything from reconnect with old friends and family members to rallying community members during times of national tragedy or disaster. However, he believes we need limits—that as a society we need to be vigilant about taking time to unplug, to disconnect, and to reconnect with ourselves and our real lives.

In a statement that echoes Gergen’s words from 1991, Jazayeri concludes by saying, “Someday, I hope we will appreciate that the computer is not a substitute for a real human being.”

Consciousness, collected

Dr. Eleazar Eusebio, an assistant professor in the department of school psychology at TCSPP’s Chicago Campus, has been fascinated with the concept of virtual worlds and social media since the early chat rooms of the 1990s.

“Something I like to talk about a lot in psychotherapy are the various dimensions of consciousness,” he says. “It can get really psychoanalytical if you’re going to look at what kind of behavior people are putting out there. I have been studying Jungian analysis, and I do find it interesting, especially when you look at personality types.”

Whether your inner nature tends toward paranoia, narcissism, manic, depressive, or even melodramatic behaviors, Eusebio says these things unconsciously manifest themselves, rather publicly, in an online setting.

As any Facebook user knows, there are “types” among almost anyone’s collection of “friends.”

“I don’t want to psychopathologize everybody who’s online, but I think it’s possible to take a quasi-diagnostic look at it when you examine what people write or how they interact online.”

Of all the social media sites, Facebook is a place where he says almost every personality type can be found, and analyzed. “This is the best modern example I’ve come across of what I’ve been calling the collective unconscious personified. How do we choose to present ourselves to this world? In addition, at what point do we stop?”

As any Facebook user knows, there are “types” among almost anyone’s collection of “friends.” Some use the site solely to promote their business or career. Others take the opportunity to share political opinions, while others post several status updates per day about events as banal as what they had for breakfast, or what’s on the dinner table. Some are a series of “check ins” at restaurants, clubs, museums, and airports. There are braggarts and complainers; cheerleaders and naysayers.

“Online groups tend to triangulate people. This environment will provide you the tool to display any kind of psycho-pathology,” Eusebio adds. “Cyberspace alone is a psychological extension of our own intrapsychic world. We all have various dimensions of our unconscious. And with social media, you can really dive into people’s lives. The danger is we throw our reputations out there, and we put avatars attached to who we are.”

While he says most adults have the foresight to screen their online behavior, to think twice about who’s viewing their status updates, photo albums and “check-ins,” the more compulsive types often do not—especially if the posts are made in the heat of the moment, late at night.

“One notion we might overlook is whether we would be saying the same things or sending the same messages if we were face-to-face in a coffee shop?” Eusebio wonders.

Or, even scarier, a job interview.

The professional fibber

John Fowler received an M.A. in psychology at TCSPP’s Chicago Campus in 2009, and for several years made his business teaching other professionals how to use social media to advance their careers. Three years have passed since he published his book, Graduate to LinkedIn: Jumpstart Your Career Support Network Now, and he says the social media of today is already vastly different.

“Professionally, you say that you want to brand yourself. But you can sometimes get so lost in branding yourself the way you want to be perceived, that what you present online isn’t who you really are. When potential employers meet you in person, they want you to be consistent,” cautions Fowler, who now works at Deloitte consulting and sometimes uses his social media background to help clients leverage their brands.

However, in a virtual world where it is understood that everyone exaggerates and reality is always slightly distorted, the temptation to lie or stretch the truth is more pervasive than ever.

It’s one thing to post your prettiest vacation photos on Facebook or to exaggerate how wonderful your life is (for the clear benefit of ex-boyfriends or college rivals), but when it comes to LinkedIn and other professional uses of social media, truth and ethics are just as important online as they are on your printed resume.

“One huge thing that’s gone on over time is the social media world isn’t always real. It isn’t reality. I think we need to keep that in mind,” Fowler says. “There’s a fine line between branding yourself well and straight up lying and misrepresenting your experience.”

Resumes have always been prone to exaggeration, despite the best advice to be ready to back up any degree or certification you might claim to have earned. However, in a virtual world where it is understood that everyone exaggerates and reality is always slightly distorted, the temptation to lie or stretch the truth is more pervasive than ever.

“And for the younger generations, people who were born into this age, there’s a danger there that they could possibly take this as the way the world is,” he continues. “I think some people want to hide. You go on Twitter and you have an avatar, and you want to hide behind that. But when that doesn’t match up to who you really are, especially professionally, that’s when it comes back to haunt you.”

That said, Fowler says he still believes in the professional power of social networking sites like LinkedIn, and more recently, Facebook pages being utilized by businesses and organizations. “Social media has its advantages and disadvantages. It’s a tool, and like any tool, you can use it the wrong way. There are great things that come out of it. Just recently, it was instrumental in raising money for people who were affected by Hurricane Sandy. And I think it’s going to evolve. The social aspect of these platforms is going to live on. What remains to be seen is how this will affect the way we conduct business.”

Love in the time of social media

In all of the incarnations and manifestations of social media in our lives, one aspect that can’t be ignored—particularly when it comes to how we present ourselves and perceive others—is how the always-on, must-be-perfect virtual world has changed our most intimate relationships.

Whether you’re a single 20-something looking for a Mr. or Mrs. Right or a newly divorced parent dipping your toes back into the dating scene, online sites such as,, and have revolutionized the idea of how we meet and connect with new people. The fairy tale endings are legendary, as are the tales of love, loss, and heartbreak.

But what is often overlooked is how the surreal world of social media affects people who are already in domestic partnerships, marriages, and other long-term partnerships.

Dr. Melody Bacon, a licensed clinical therapist, assistant dean of academic affairs and chair of the Marital and Family Therapy program at TCSPP’s L.A. Campus, says social media and the distractions of technology cause problems for couples because they provide another way to disconnect.

As far as affairs go, Bacon says if the will is there, people will always find a way.

Most people these days have heard stories about how Facebook and other social media sites that offer opportunities to chat or flirt online have wrecked marriages. But Bacon says we shouldn’t blame Facebook any more than we should blame our 24/7 dependence on cell phones or other digital technology.

“In terms of relationships, it’s just one more thing that keeps people from being able to connect and be together without fighting for attention. I know of young mothers with little kids. I see them at the park, the kids are playing or trying to get attention and Mom’s on Facebook or doing something on her phone. They think they’re engaged with the outside world but they’re not. Children are drowning with their Mom and Dad sitting there on their Smart phones. They have no idea how disconnected they are.”

As far as affairs go, Bacon says if the will is there, people will always find a way.

“If someone’s going to have an affair or cheat in some way, it’s just another opportunity,” she says. “I don’t think it’s causing a problem, but I think it does make it easier. I don’t think it necessarily starts relationships, but people become open, they start flirting, and over time it can become where they connect in person. If you have a partner who is unhappy in their marriage, they are more likely to be available to someone else online.”

The question is, how “real” is that virtual paramour? And if the relationship is based on a carefully groomed online persona, how “real” are you?

To disconnect, or not to disconnect

That disconnect that Bacon refers to is at the very heart of what Turkle is chronicling in Together Alone.

“As we instant message, email, text, and Twitter, technology redraws the boundaries between intimacy and solitude,” she writes. “We talk of getting ‘rid’ of our emails, as though these notes are so much excess baggage.

Teenagers avoid making telephone calls, fearful that they ‘reveal too much.’ They would rather text than talk. Adults, too, choose keyboards over the human voice.”

The irony of it all is that we can see it happening—to our kids, our friends, even ourselves. We know it’s a problem, but we don’t know how to stop it.

As Jazayeri says, social media is here to stay and is a new reality we have to contend with. The question is, how do we find balance?

“Sites like Facebook can be positive in connecting people. In my classes, we do family diagrams, and students are connecting with people across the country or across the world. Facebook is great for meeting up with people that way. It can be positive, but to a limited degree. Because once you’ve made that connection, unless you talk on the phone or have some verbal communication, you’re limited to verbal sound bites,” Bacon says.

Dr. Tom Barrett, department chair and an associate professor in the clinical psychology department at TCSPP’s Chicago Campus, shares many of the same concerns as his colleagues about people losing themselves in this new virtual world. But he also believes that the motivation for connecting online is the same as it’s always been—a human urge to belong, and to be accepted.

“It’s not that the ability to network this way is a problem. People have always experienced the range of emotions from the insecure to the confident,” he says. “I think we tend to think the technology is what is causing the problem but we just have a new way of expressing an old problem. It’s a long-standing reality that people struggle in relationships. This is new way to disconnect from your family, or partner, or loved one, but it’s just a new form of doing an old thing.”

As Jazayeri says, social media is here to stay and is a new reality we have to contend with. The question is, how do we find balance?

“I definitely do not want to discard the benefits of all this connectivity, but there has to be a limit to it,” he continues. “I hope people can begin to recognize that Facebook and social media can’t be a substitute for everything in their life. Instead of me sitting and reading other people’s posts on Facebook for two hours, I can go do some community work. Maybe I need to ask myself, ‘why do I always have to be so busy with someone who is not real?’”

As Gergen said more than two decades ago, “I am linked, therefore I am.”

Do we want this to be our future, our reality? What happens from here is up to us.

*This article, originally appearing in the Spring 2013 issue of INSIGHT magazine, was updated in October 2016.

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Sherry Thomas


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