Anna Polumbo-Levy: Social media validation

By Anna Polumbo-Levy, Columnist
Published June 24, 2015

With summer well underway, pool parties, sandy beaches and sunny skies appear splashed all over social media. Three weeks ago, my friend confessed to me that after changing her profile picture, she was constantly checking Facebook to see how many “likes” it received.

Then last weekend, I was spending time with two friends who had both posted photos on Instagram. One of my friends turned to the other, after being disappointed by the low number of “likes” her post acquired and said it was probably because she had posted it at a bad time of day.

I don’t only hear these kinds of concerns amongst my friends, but I hear them as I sit in lecture halls and from strangers chatting next to me on the train or in the airport. Best-selling author and social media strategist, Julie Spira, calls a recent trend of social media induced anxiety, Social Media Anxiety Disorder, which includes worrying about the “likes” on photos on Facebook, Instagram or otherwise. Although it’s not part of the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, SMAD describes a very real and current response to one of the challenges we face in the digital age.

There are many things I really enjoy about social media outlets, such as Instagram and Facebook. On Instagram, I enjoyed the pictures of cute baby animals, delicious food, monuments, nature hikes and important moments in people’s lives. On Facebook, I always laugh when I see the silly photos friends post of each other for their birthdays, and there are some great articles and videos about current events circulating on the site. I like being able to keep up with friends that are far away — as a student attending college out of state, social media can be a great way to stay connected. But what worries me about these social media sites is that they produce a situation in which users are constantly checking Facebook for "likes" on their recently updated profile picture or how many followers they have on Instagram. Should “likes” on posts really become the focal point of Facebook and Instagram? It seems to me that more and more, social media is making it harder for individuals to be satisfied with self-validation.

I’m not criticizing social media users who keep checking back for likes on their photos, because that’s something many people do. That behavior is the result of the format of the website, and these designs play on our human desire for social acceptance. However, it is important to highlight that using social media outlets can be more stressful than enjoyable at times. When usage of these sites becomes stressful, it’s a good idea to reevaluate the time and energy spent on capturing that perfect sunset or the profile picture without a hair out of place, because one day you may realize you aren’t doing it for yourself.

People always ask me why I don’t have an Instagram. For a while, I did. I posted, checked for "likes" and followers and noticed when people unfollowed me. After a while, I realized I was no longer really having fun. When I first got Instagram, I thought it would be a cool way to share moments in my life with friends and family. It didn’t cross my mind at the time that it could also leave me feeling like “likes” were validation. I realized after some time on Instagram, that when I posted something, I wasn’t posting photos because I was excited to share something in my life, or for my own enjoyment. Rather, I was posting photos for the followers that I had. “Likes” began to carry too much weight for me to be comfortable with. That’s when I knew it was time for a change.

Going off of Instagram isn’t a solution for everyone, of course, but I do think it's time that we step back and take a moment to think about why we are on Instagram and Facebook. Who are we on there for? I believe the only way that Instagram and Facebook can stay enjoyable, and not become places of competition and anxiety, is if we are posting for ourselves, because we are excited to share our graduation or the birth of our child, and we aren’t worried about approval from others through “likes.” It’s time we talk ourselves down from the place where “likes” are indicative of the people in our lives who like us. Since Instagram and Facebook are not going away anytime soon, it’s important we remember that our value isn’t the number of “likes” we have on our profile pictures or the number of Instagram followers we have. We are all worth so much more than our online profiles.

Anna Polumbo-Levy can be reached at annapl@umich.edu.