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Where do I belong?

A thought provoking exploration into how the media and social media have affected people’s self-esteem and sense of belonging. Molly Catterall asks 'Where do I belong?'.

BY Molly Catterall

In a society which is built on a judging nature, social media has completely shaped the way we communicate. Constantly bombarded by choices and decisions we as a result are under flak from other people’s personal opinions, social media has impacted upon on how we view others and ourselves. This article will look in depth the effects social media has had upon our society and if it’s possible to reverse the adversity it has caused.

Since the development of web 2.0, social media was launched in 1997 as a platform which has changed the way in which we communicate. Users can construct and share their own media whilst giving them more opportunities to represent themselves and decide how they want to present their identity to the world.

As humans we have a fundamental need to belong, feel love and wanted. Social media allows us to connect to a vast amount of people. Despite diversity within culture, creeds and walks in life, we are totally under flak from people’s opinions, pressures from society and media institutions. 

The media theory developed by Antonio Gramsci (Adamson, 1983) of cultural hegemony, draws upon the idea of domination or rule achieved through ideological and cultural means. Gramsci explores how dominant ideologies have influence over the majority. The media is like a mirror, reflecting the dominant ideologies, portrayed as norm through society by people with status and power.

“whoever controls the media controls the mind.”

Jim Morrison

It was Jim Morrison who stated “whoever controls the media controls the mind.” In this case, dominant ideologies are controlled by the mass media system of communication.  Social media is used by society but also corporate powerhouses and media institutions. Using the manipulation of social norms which they construct themselves, these organisations can influence people and their behaviour. This can have an effect on people’s perception of what is normal resulting in low self-esteem and no sense of belonging.

The media is the manipulative instrument of change. Ideologies are circulated by institutions to help construct ideas, dictating what is right and what is wrong until we believe these ideologies. This is demonstrated through adverts and posts by friends on social media. We learn from the media what is perceived to be right. These unrealistic expectations cause a constant feeling of inadequacy which everybody strives to overcome, even though this is unrealistic. When we see girls wearing loads of makeup, receiving more likes on social media or girls who appear thin online, we believe this is how we should look to be accepted and feel normal within society.

By projecting these ideas into our own media we are reinforcing the concept that within the media we are subjects that are categorised, losing our individuality. We shape our identity from what we want people to see and what we are told is beautiful or “normal”, resulting in pre-defined ideas about gender, class and sexuality, reinforcing negative and discriminating stereotypes.

Younger people are consuming more media compared to the older generations. At a younger age we are more self-critical towards ourselves and vulnerable to knocks in confidence and self-esteem. Social media teaches your identity is in beauty. When we like and post online this gives us the emotional support we rely on as a source our integrity. A study by Nesi & Prinstein, 2015 explored how “Girls tend to show more social comparison online which are self-relevant and can be threating to their self-worth, which can lead to higher levels of depression and lower levels of self-esteem” (Hanna Rún Ingólfsdóttir). This highlights the major issue social media is having upon the esteem and mental health of not only younger generations but a society as a whole. There is a constant ‘battle of the likes’ to build our confidence based on others. 

Grace Kirk, a previously active social media user explained to me how social media has affected her self-esteem. Kirk states: “I was conscious about likes, comments and what people would think about what I put on there.” Kirk removed herself from social media due to the pressures of feeling she had to post positive things all the time. Kirk believes social media is a huge contributor to mental health problems as it puts unnecessary pressure on people who are subject to enough pressure during daily life.

“Social media promotes judgmental behaviour and falsified images of people which is always going to have a negative effect on mental health.”

Grace Kirk

Kirk voiced: “social media promotes judgmental behaviour and falsified images of people which is always going to have a negative effect on mental health.” She explained how people feel rejected in society mainly because of the insane beauty standards, largely deemed by the media. She states: “It’s too much pressure, no wonder people get stressed”.  

Our social media sites are shaped around what we like. It was Tim Berners-Lee who stated the internet allows users to be writers of the web. We are free to perpetrate a version of ourselves online and we freely have the ability to select what we want to represent. Our online choices reflect our personal, political and ideological values and views. According to David Gauntlett, we take attitudes, behaviour and lifestyle from media figures to steer our own personal routes through life. This communicates just how we feel we have to represent ourselves from what we are told is normal to feel accepted within society.

Photo by @kepreston

Analysing social media websites shows there is a trend in posts being overly positive in comparison to displaying real issues. People select and present what they show of their lives on social media to portray their life as perfect, however all this creates is pressure for those to feel happy and overly self-conscious if they don’t post happy content. Alan Martin states how people congregate with likeminded individuals, causing divide and reinforcing existing prejudice. If your friends post selfies with makeup on, post cheerful and positive content or post a newsfeed or timeline full of positivity, you will feel drawn to those people as you’re aware this is what attracts the most attention and likes which will help you receive the emotional support your self-esteem desires. We are more likely to be ourselves online when surrounded by people of similar views. So, if surrounded by people with heaps of followers and likes then we will strive until we achieve what they are succeeding.

The internet bestows onto us the ability to interact, comment and make opinions on a widespread platform. The social media platform Facebook expanded on this when they released the option to react to images back in 2016, which sparked a lot of discussion. This allows users to either like, love, sad, angry or laugh react to images. This gave people the option to react harshly to people which increased worry and low self-esteem. People are seeking affirmation from “love” reactions for them to have confidence in their identity.

Photo by @kevcostello

Social interaction is an essential part of human life. Connecting with others is what helps our minds psychologically and physically develop. There is a sense of interaction and communication which is formed when using social media that many feel the need to use and check regularly for a sense of inclusivity and to feel integrated within society. But social media has caused a false sense of connection between individuals and altered how we socialise and views others within society. Sherry Turkle believes the use of social media draws fake connections, visibly seen, when a collective of people have friends on social media platforms such as Facebook. A study conducted by Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University, found that there was very little correlation between the quantity of friends on social networks and the quality of these friends. Many feel socially alienated within society because of social media, despite being connected to vast amounts of people. In some cases, resulting in emotional problems and loneliness.    

As we are constantly bombarded by choices, decisions and people’s personal opinions, has social media contributed to our society being more judgmental? The reality of the world we live in is there are false ideas of what defines people, which can have a negative effect on humanities perception of reality. The ability to fit in is a concept which is often found difficult. Stigma is something people often battle with when discovering their own way in life. According to Goffman, “stigma arises during a social interaction when an individual’s actual social identity does not meet society’s normative expectations of the attributes the individual should possess.” Goffman believes society expects people’s identity to conform to what is communicated to be normal. Social stigma is the disapproval of a person based on social characteristics and how they are perceived and distinguished from other members of society. This is seen throughout social media by comparing and categorising people based on what we are told is correct.

The World Wide Web is a wonderful tool, and has become ingrained as a part of our lives. But social media can be used for all the wrong reasons, resulting in the increase in judgmental behaviour. This leaves us wondering, despite the increased focus on social media, will there be a way of going back from the adversity it has had upon some people’s way of life?