My niece is 16 years old. She's smart and, like all the women in my family, she has a way with words. She's a digital native, completely fluent in everything from Snapchat to Facebook. She's also been able to stand back and really think about how social media affects her and her circle of friends. She wrote this piece for an essay contest and I thought it was important for all moms out there to read. — Cerentha Harris, Mom.me editor-in-chief
Social media has hijacked our avatars. It has morphed them into the something far from our genuine selves. For many Gen Y and Gen Z, it has left us unknowingly empty, isolated and alone. We used to be one with our avatars, part of the same body, our avatars being an online representation of ourselves. Now, we are separate, the distance growing larger with every post, like and comment.
Prior to the internet and age of social media, nobody had an online profile. Their avatars were so intimately connected with them that the overlap between who they were and who they appeared to be was maximal. Since, our engagement with this new phenomenon, our overlap is becoming slight. The distance between who we actually are—that is, our genuine self, and whom we are portraying, our avatar—has dramatically increased. The culprit: social media.
My generation feeds off this, the need for constant self-approval and praise, so much so that we begin to crave it, formulating pictures, captions and videos to perceive ourselves as a certain way. This idea can be referenced as the avatar distance index, measuring the distance between the authentic self and the public persona that we curate.
With Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat, social media is enabling this avatar distance to increase dramatically. An individual is able to control what is displayed, making it almost too easy to curate a perfect life. It is because of this that some people compare their own life to that of the depiction of others.
How is it fair to compare your life—the good the bad and the ugly—to someone’s seemingly perfect avatar? This comparison leads to the subsequent judging of self-worth based on the number of likes or comments you get. And because of this, teen depression, anxiety and the rate of body image issues have skyrocketed, hitting an all-time high. And this matters. A lot. The fate of my generation and generations to come lies in the thieving hands of social media. We must stop and acknowledge the damage the loss of our avatars is having.
It is vital that we change our avatar distance from a large gap to a small one, but how can we manage this? Investing in time alone. We need to take time out and spend it reflecting on who we actually are. It is this intense silence and time of stillness that is needed to rein our avatar back into ourselves, to create a maximal overlap again. Without the knowledge of who we are and what our authentic self stands for, we will yet again become victims of a stolen avatar, unable to see this theft in the first place.
There must be a restoration of physical engagement. We need to interact in face-to-face genuine communication again, instead of it being filtered by a screen. In doing this, we are able to emotionally connect with each other, expose vulnerability and ignite empathy. This tears down the false persona of online profiles, taking off the masks.
Our avatars have been stolen, taken out to "socialize" in an online arena. They are far from whom we authentically are, addicted to self-gratification and fed by likes and comments. It is time we take them back, unplug from the online facade and reconnect in a genuine way, as our authentic selves—for the best kind of "like" comes from yourself.
Photo: Top - Twenty20, bottom - Saskia Shirley