The Fallacy of a Picture-Perfect Social Media Life – and Its Effects on Education… or Us All

About Jake Miller

Mr. Jake Miller teaches middle school history near Harrisburg, PA. He is the 2016 National History Day Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year and a 2017 NEA Foundation Teacher of Excellence. His articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, WeAreTeachers, and several other periodicals, but Miller has called TER home since 2012.

I don’t remember the first time I heard the apocryphal story about Kyle, the nerdy 9th grader who evolved into the handsome, hunky senior who shares a moving story in his valedictorian address. Here he admitted that just 3 years ago he planned on taking his life because, well, he had enough with bullying of his tormentors who knocked over his books time and again. That was until he met the narrator who, with simple kindness and friendship, saved his life that day and each moving forward.

Though this valedictorian’s narrative isn’t necessarily valid, the lesson is. We, as both educators and as people, have no idea what is going on deep beneath the surface. And social media often further obfuscates that.

Why? Because there’s an unwritten social media pact that we are only able to share our best selves with the world. Whether it’s sharing a photo of vacation or kids running and laughing, or a post where we try to prove our intellectual (and/or political) superiority, we’re often only telling a smidgen of the story. We’re often only succumbing to that compact to show our best self.

Test Subject #1

I took a gander at my Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages and, if I’m being completely honest, nearly 90% of my posts are intended to bring a smile, either with an article I’d written, a picture of my two boys, or something to try and help others laugh. The other 10% is me flexing my self-perceived mental acuity. I allow my community – filled with colleagues, neighbors, parents (I live in the district where I teach), and, at least for Instagram, students – to see only this. This is how I portray myself. This is how we portray ourselves.

Whether we admit or not, we chase the clicks. Each thumbs up, heart, retweet, and video view gives our brain a tiny injection of dopamine, and, in a sense, making us addicted. We’re judged by the social currency of our followers, and, much like the girl in 8th grade.

 

This Is What Kids See

The people most impacted by these social-media-based alterations to our brain structure are our children. We all know the difficulties of comparing ourselves to others while we were growing up. The girl who sat in front of me for most of the school (we had a small graduating class of 120) was both brilliant and brilliantly gorgeous. The big guy on our wrestling team was funny, handsome, pretty bright himself and so much more athletically gifted in all the sports we shared. The guy who became our valedictorian always seemed to do the right thing, and here I was, being an idiot. That doesn’t even factor in rise in online bullying, cyberstalking, threats of violence, and even just ignoring a student. I often tell my students that I don’t know how I would’ve grown up in a social media age – but admitting that does not absolve me from the responsibility of raising them in this new age.

I often tell my students that I don't know how I would've grown up in a social media age - but admitting that does not absolve me from the responsibility of raising them in this new age. Click To Tweet

It only heightens the importance of sharing my narratives with them.

 

Telling the Negative Stories

In the last 48 hours, I’ve sat back like the Michael Jackson eating popcorn gif as the chinks in my armor has become as apparent as unpopped kernels at the bottom of the bag. Two of my friends called me to tell me they’re going through a divorce, while another is watching his relationship on the lifeline. A family member was admitted to rehab for what seems to be the tenth time. I’m home sick with a baby who passed it back to me (pretty sure I passed it to him first); our stomachs are stomaches… and worse. This is while I ran into school this morning to set up my room for my absence, as I knew I’d have no substitute. That room, and the kids in it, by the way, is in more chaos than I can ever remember in my career. I’m going to miss one of my favorite parties of the year, and probably a crucial non-profit board meeting this weekend.

This negativity is hardly something I’d normally share online.

But all this is okay. All this is part of life. Most importantly, I’ve started to be more grateful for the people in it. This includes my students who, when down, will get snippets of these stories. Sometimes en masse. Sometimes one-on-one. Sometimes in a digital format. But only when I think they need it. Only when they need to see I’m human, too. And only when I’m able to start eating popcorn again.

 

Showing How You “Pay It Forward”

Like many other educators, the knights of my philosophical circle are the folks I share lunch with. One day we talked about how it’s taboo to post about the volunteering we do. That reminded me of an Instagram post where two of my favorite students suited up for a basketball camp for kids with disabilities. Kids don’t post too often on their “instas,” (instead preferring to use a “spam account” / “Finsta” – or fake Instagram) but they posted dozens of photos of them just having fun. The comparative 8th grader hulking below my indignant 36-year-old surface acknowledges that they had no athletic “business” being out there, but I said nothing of it. I was glad they were helping. Their friends and “followers”? Well, they enjoying bludgeoning them with them being fish out of the water. That is until the peer pressure was so great that they removed it. Which begs the question: Why do social media posts re: our good deeds – like serving at a soup kitchen, cleaning up highway trash, or helping kids with disabilities – seem to be the ones where we’re gloating?

Why do social media posts re: our good deeds - like serving at a soup kitchen, cleaning up highway trash, or helping kids with disabilities - seem to be the ones where we're gloating? Click To Tweet

 

Bridging the Narrative

To be completely honest, to post what’s actually on my mind would be unpopular if not a sign of social sickness. Sharing that, we feel, is what perpetuates stress and sorrow for others. We tell ourselves “we can’t pass our narrative onto them because they don’t need that in their lives.” But not sharing the bad with the good is doing more of that than we can even gather. Psychology Today reports the constant viewing of social media (which, on average, is 2 hours a day) an increase in stress and anxiety. It’s an American tendency of competitive balance to “keep up with the Jones,” and the problem has increased exponentially since we’ve tried to “keep up with the Digital Joneses.” More poignantly is a new social phenomenon: FOMO, or “fear of missing out.” Time reports an increase in the amount of people who, while on vacation, view social media and, thus, FOMO of things happening at home, is met with a sense of sadness. The only way to overcome FOMO? Start appreciating all those things – and PEOPLE – around us by limiting ourselves to 30 minutes of social media usage per day. And asking our students to engage in the limitations with us.

 

It Ain’t All Bad

As the BBC notes, there are certainly positive aspects of our social media usage. The teacher adage “a rising tide lifts all boats” is quite helpful. Namely, we’ve converted a generation of slacktivists into activists, transforming local social structures, electoral politics, or most specifically, electrifying a fundraiser for ALS’s ice bucket challenge by raising $115 million dollars.

 

Social media can be positive. It’s important to see pics of babies to put a smile on our face in one of our most divided, partisan, hyper-hate-filled times. But it is not the only answer, and it is often the culprit or exacerbation of our own problems. We can teach our kids to be better. We can teach our kids that the online personas that are presented are far from picture-perfect.

Behind every “Kyle” story, there’s a real-life narrative that rhymes with it. Those “Kyle’s” in our lives deserve to know we’re looking out for them, and we’re not going to do that while we – teachers, students, parents, community members – are buried in our phones and corresponding social media.

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By |2018-12-17T09:34:32+00:00December 17th, 2018|Instruction&Curriculum|0 Comments

About the Author:

Mr. Jake Miller teaches middle school history near Harrisburg, PA. He is the 2016 National History Day Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year and a 2017 NEA Foundation Teacher of Excellence. His articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, WeAreTeachers, and several other periodicals, but Miller has called TER home since 2012.

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