By Brooklyn Levine, PhD, MSW
“Everyone else’s life is perfect and mine is a disaster ….” This sentiment is echoed in my private clinical office frequently. Oftentimes the ellipses is followed by something surprisingly extreme, such as “I wish I were dead.” When I inquire with a client about how everyone else’s life can be perfect and how they can know about this private information and believe it to be true, the justifying answer from my clients is always the same: “Just look at their Facebook page.”
Social media is a hot topic in the therapist office these days. Clients bring in their phones and show me, their therapist, their own Facebook accounts, but they also want to share the profiles of their love interests, their friends, their nemeses. My clients are from all age cohorts, socioeconomic backgrounds, racial groups, genders, and sexual orientations. They come into my office feeling inadequate as they compare their own lives with their perception of everyone else’s lives.
“Look at her! She just had a kid and her body is flawless. What’s my excuse?” “Her husband is so in love with her, I want that.” “Their house is never a mess…why can’t my life be organized like that?” “He is doing so well at work and I just can’t get a promotion. I am a failure.” What strikes me is that my clients read every picture as absolute truth and objective evidence. When I suggest that perhaps the picture of the friend’s perfect post-baby body was photo-shopped, or that the house had just been cleaned for the picture but was a mess an hour before and an hour after the picture was made, or that just because a couple looks to be in love in a picture does not mean anything about the actual relationship, my clients look at me like I am speaking another language.
Perhaps I am speaking another language, the language of critical thinking. My clients are lacking in the ability to engage in a critical assessment of the image-saturated pages they are viewing. They are not media literate. And I see this resulting in serious mental illness problems, from depression and anxiety to suicidal ideation.
My greatest concern is for the younger generations of children who are coming into the world with a camera in their face, an Instagram hashtag of their full name, and a digital footprint to replace the bronze shoe molds of the 1950s. As a therapist, I am on the front lines dealing with the emotional and mental casualties of social media illiteracy. The call for programs to equip our youth with the skills to critically view and filter the plethora of messages they are receiving daily has never been more urgent.