Why You Can't Believe Everything You See on Instagram

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We all do it. We curate our Facebook and Instagram accounts. We filter our photos and post images and musings that position our lives in the most flattering of lights—the new house, the vacation pics, the kids’ concert recitals, date night at the expensive restaurant wearing the hot new dress.

But how often have you uploaded a photo that captured an unretouched, perimenopausal pimple sprouting on your chin? Or remembered to mention to your friends the failing grade your son received on his math test? Or wrote a pithy update about a recent job loss?

Not so much.

Most Gen Xers are well aware that Facebook is part fantasy, part contrived narrative, with the harsher truths of life seriously diluted. We’ve learned to recognize Instagram posts as just one more bit of online embellishment.

But what about our kids, the first generation to grow up never knowing, or no longer remembering, a networked-free world? Are they savvy enough to discern fact from fiction? Or are they comparing their own inner worlds with the edited worlds their friends and families post online?

Last week this ESPN story went viral among so many parents of teens, serving as a sobering reminder about how deeply the disconnect can be between digital displays and real life.

It shares the tragic ending of 19-year-old University of Pennsylvania freshman Madison Holleran, who by all accounts—virtual and otherwise—seemed like one of the luckiest girls in the world. Beautiful by any standard, popular, athletic, successful, and in the Ivy League, plus she had parents who loved and supported her. She seemed to enjoy it all, and her Instagram and Facebook accounts were running threads of happy track-and-field shots with her doting dad. Group photos with her tight-knit gang of high school pals. And lots of smiling selfies, each one prettier than the last.

But Holleran was hiding something: crippling depression and suicidal thoughts. No one—not even her parents—knows exactly why she took her own life in January 2014 with a running leap from the top of a nine-story parking garage in downtown Philadelphia. Her parents knew she was struggling a little during her first year at college, but when they checked up on her online, they were reassured by the joyful images they found there. When they called her, she told them she was fine. They chalked it up to freshman year angst, something so many young adults experience, including Holleran’s older sister.

Depression is far too complex to blame on social networks. So is suicide. However, it can’t be denied that it’s all-to-easy to compare our lives to others—something human beings have never before been able to do so easily and with such frequency—and find we’re falling short.

And for kids like Holleran, who are perfectionists, who hate failing, and who self-scrutinize to a fault, this constant barrage may feed a deeper insecurity, and sometimes, a deadly mental illness.

Modern parents may find relief in the fact that they can track down their kids through GPS on their iPhones, that they can spy on their comings and goings by following them online. But it’s so important to remember that while technology offers incredible tools, the only insight it reveals is what its users want you to see.

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