Reading: How Much Do You Lie On Social Media?

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How Much Do You Lie On Social Media?

A CoveyClub survey reveals that women 40+ may be as inauthentic as teens

By Stacey Levenberg Abrahams

Photo by Pan Xiaozhen for Unsplash

We live in a world of inauthenticity. The second we dab on makeup, dye our hair, squeeze into tummy-tightening hosiery or padded bras, we are no longer being our authentic selves.

But I believe social media has given more than just looks-obsessed teenagers an extended opportunity to fake it 24/7. While I have read stories that drove me to tears on social media — of other women’s struggles with hardships such as divorce, financial problems, illness (both physical and mental), death, difficult children (healthy or otherwise) — I have also found that after just a few minutes of scrolling, I can easily find myself feeling bad about myself because there is so much perfection out there. I often end up wondering about an unusual dichotomy: How does a woman with a dying parent post so many flawlessly lit photos of herself? How does a woman struggling through a nasty divorce offer up images of her booming business which was apparently not hit by The Great Recession? How does a family with three teenagers travel so blissfully (and petty-fight-free) on safari? I’ve gotten to the point where I have asked myself out loud, multiple times, “Why does every other mother have brilliant and well-adjusted children while I struggle with my own?”

It dawned on me: If these superwomen make me feel bad about myself, could my posts be doing the same to others? Could I be contributing in some way to this inauthentic history of 21st century women?

I checked in with a 41-year-old friend who told me that her buddies use social media as a therapeutic tool. “Somehow posting seemingly perfect pictures of their kids and families — that is, projecting a certain image of their lives to the outside world — seems to help get them through the day,” she said.

Ok. I get it. It’s social media as therapy, fake perfection as ego-booster.

And faking it is so easy! For $1.99 at the App Store you can pull down an instant wrinkle remover, insta-eye-brightener, instant sunshine-in-the-background-adder. (Ok, just Google “perfection apps” and get the top-10 list if you must.)

While a report from the Telegraph in the UK suggests that 90% of teen girls retouch their photos before posting online, women 40+ appear to be retouching junkies, too. A 2015 study by the Renfrew Center indicates that 68% of adults edit their pictures before sharing on social media. What’s more, nearly 60% of parents with children under 18 edit their pictures before posting them on social networks. Even among respondents ages 55 – 64, more than a third (32%) are editing their self-images. And this past December, The New Yorker featured a story about how in China it is socially unacceptable, even taboo, to post a selfie with messy hair — no matter your age. The Chinese believe you owe it to your fellow countrymen to clean yourself up before that public outing! They’re trying to make the world a more beautiful place one Air Brush photo at a time.

Are Americans headed in the same direction? CoveyClub conducted an anonymous survey about social media habits to find out. We collected answers from 70 women, including three interviews, over the age of 40 during two days of May 2018 and surveyed three Facebook “friends” we’ve never met in person.

From the survey and the interviews, interesting patterns and surprising inconsistencies emerged. Most importantly, there were lots of discrepancies in what people believed to be true of themselves and what they perceived to be the authenticity — or lack of authenticity — of others.

The Authenticity Gap

Ninety-one percent of the women believed that their social media profiles/photos/stories represent them and their lives in an “authentic way.” Eighty-five percent said they never pretend to be richer, smarter, or more successful on social media. Eighty-three percent of Covey respondents said they had never used retouching apps or filters on their photos.

But interestingly enough, 68.2% said they believe that their “friends” do. Which begs the obvious: If the majority of the posters think they are authentic, but the majority of the viewers think they are not, what the heck is going on?

Let’s Play Make-Believe

Interestingly, women are split on whether or not social media profiles of other women contribute to unrealistic expectations — with 49% saying yes and 51% saying no. About a quarter of participants said that looking at another woman’s social media posts has made her feel insecure or bad about herself at one point or another. One woman said the pressure to be perfect has gotten to her. “I pretended to be … a civilian spouse. I wanted to be included. Being married to a military guy and in the military is a tough life.”

Another explained that it’s just natural to choose the good story over the bad. “It’s not that I set out to appear smarter or more successful, it’s that I only post the parts of my life that show my successes, not my failures. Even something as simple as difficult dogs isn’t something I post about. Instead, I post pictures of my beautiful dogs when they are sitting rather than driving me nuts! (Note: I love my dogs and do not harm them!)” And another admitted social media can make her feel bad about herself. “I’ve never pretended, but I’m guilty of coveting what someone may have, [a place they have] traveled to, [a] business success. The ugly head of self-doubt.” Said another who has pretended to be happier than she is: “Because at times people just simply don’t want to associate with others who are struggling. It makes them uncomfortable.”

Requiem for the Unattractive Selfie

Ninety-one percent of CoveyClub survey participants admitted they hesitate before posting a not-so-attractive photo. While a few bite the bullet and ultimately post the photo in the end, most hold off, explaining that it would make them feel “self-conscious” or “vulnerable.” One woman explained that she didn’t post a particular image because “it didn’t show my best side.” Another bottom-lined it by citing the digital time factor. “I didn’t want an unflattering picture of myself floating in space for all eternity.” My three interviewees, on the other hand, went against the grain. One of the women who is on a weight-loss program admitted she ultimately posted a seemingly unflattering picture “because I wanted to inspire others like me.”

We Share the Hard Stuff

Sixty-seven percent of those who responded to the question about whether they shared the real stories/images about their lives said they had indeed included posts about deaths (18%), mental/physical illness, injury, and addiction (27%), divorce and relationship troubles (5%) and job layoffs or dissatisfaction (3%). Fourteen percent of the respondents reported that they had posted about everything from episodes of loneliness and hardship to bouts of exasperation. Happier life events such as family gatherings and kids make up 22% of our posts. Only 11% of respondents said they do not share anything intimate on social media.

Mean Girls and Bullies Abound

Forty percent of the survey respondents said they have been bullied on social media. Many stated that they have witnessed an increase in politically motivated bullying since the 2016 election and have been bullied themselves because of their political outlook. Others have experienced online bullying from family members or groups with which they were involved. One participant reported that she was actually “shamed by a church group.” Another participant said she was ridiculed with abusive language and called names for “being overly positive” and one simply wrote, “mansplained.” One woman we interviewed admitted to having “a lot of haters,” something she’s faced a lot in her off-line life. “People tell me that they are jealous of me or that they don’t like me… When this happens on social media, I don’t let the digs and inappropriate name-calling get to me… I just delete the comment.” Eighty-six percent of the participants said the impersonal nature of social media, a perceived anonymity, is to blame for online bullying. One participant concluded: “It’s too easy to hide and not be brave enough to talk things out.”

We Look Better to Others Than We Do to Ourselves

When asked for three words that a stranger would use to describe them based on their social media posts, respondents focused on the positives. Approximately 61% used words such as “passion,” “travel,” “funny,” “family,” “love,” “dogs,” while 39% wrote “political,” “private,” “honest,” or “I don’t know what others think of me.” One interviewee, who runs her own company, admitted that “others think I’m egotistical because I post a lot of selfies,” and another, a model, said viewers would probably describe her as “flawless, a bitch and eccentric.” Meanwhile, another interviewee with a special needs child chose “honest, open and brave.” One survey respondent added: “I think they would think everything is perfect. Unfortunately, social media is a moment in time. No moment can reflect the nuances of life 24/7. As adults, we should know this.” And indeed we do; 90% of respondents said they know that social media is not reality.

We Follow “Great People”

Prompted to describe three women they follow regularly, respondents answered with lots of positive adjectives and nouns: “inspiring,” “like-minded,” “thought-provoking,” “health-conscious,” “talented,” “integrity,” “smart,” “leaders,” “informed,” “funny.” As for my interviewees, the business owner enjoys following “women who are intelligent, career-oriented, and creative.” The model agrees. She’s drawn to “women who are business-savvy, have it together, but don’t always have it figured out.” She said she likes to learn from “all types of women.” The mother with a special needs child seeks out moms with kids with Down syndrome, “women facing similar challenges to mine and those being honest with their lives.”

  1. Tara

    Congratulations Stacey. Thank you for sharing this well written and informative piece.
    We can all learn something here.

  2. Annie

    This just inspired me so much! As a 39 Year old mom of 4, i think and feel that i am in this period of my life where i feel 20 but i dont look it but i dont Feel like a 39 Year old either..I dont post pictures mostly because i dont want To be critizise. What if they think i am fat! Old Or whatever…I just dont! Learning To love and be yourself is so much more gratifiying…but as a woman we forget it too often. Thank You Stacey❤

  3. Ellen B

    I come from a LONG line of picky editors of photos. 😉 Choosing ones that you feel are flattering is nothing new. But it’s so interesting to read your article. Thank you Stacey. I like how people can find like-minded groups that share similar experiences on social media. Hopefully that helps more than hurts!

  4. Sonja

    We forget that we are all the same at heart…and soul…no matter what we look like on the outside. People need to focus more on what is most important…our character…besides taking care of our physical in a healthy, natural way.

  5. Tammy Pennington

    Try as I might, I cannot take an attractive selfie. My arms must not be long enough, or I haven’t found the correct angle. So I won’t be posting selfies on FaceBook. My FB page is one place where I get to choose what goes out to my friends, and having an awful pic on there just isn’t on my list. But I haven’t tried to photoshop or edit. I’ll keep the pics to images of my dogs, the sunset, or my travel spots until I figure out the selfie dilemma. Is it authentic? I don’t manufacture my photos, or purposefully travel to places or events just for the photo ops, so I think it gives an authentic, albeit slightly filtered, “picture” of my life.

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