It’s no secret that the transition to college is difficult. But for today’s college freshmen, social media adds a whole new layer to this transition, making an already difficult adjustment exponentially more difficult. If you don’t know what I mean, think about your social media feed. The photos of parties on Instagram; the Snapchat stories of friends who seem like they are always spending time with large groups of people; the Facebook notifications indicating the events people plan to attend. It’s already hard enough to focus on our own lives during the first few months of college. Social media now encourages us to focus on the lives of others, forcing us into the dangerous habit of comparing ourselves to others during a vulnerable transitional period.
Two weeks ago, this problem revealed itself to me in real time. After having an hour-long conversation on the phone with a friend from home, during which she explained how the transition to college was much harder than she expected it to be, I went on Instagram. To my surprise, I discovered that she had posted a series of photos with a group of smiling girls. And the catch? She had posted the photos only five minutes after we spoke. Although she undoubtedly posted the pictures with tears in her eyes, nobody who saw those photos would know that. All they would see was her smiling face and her new “college friends,” and they would have no reason to suspect that college wasn’t going well for her. At first, I accepted this. Even if the mood of the photos didn’t reflect what she was feeling at the moment she hit “post,” if posting those photos made my friend feel a bit better, what was so wrong with that?
While I was pondering this, I received a text message from another friend. In a mass of texts, she also vented about her struggle to adjust to college. And to my shock, she cited my first friend’s Instagram post as proof for the idea that she was the only one who was not having an amazing time at college. That’s when the danger of social media hit me.
While updating her Instagram may have made my friend feel less lonely, her post had a detrimental effect on other college freshmen who were feeling alone in their struggle to adjust.
For our generation, social media has become an omnipresent force; we are constantly surrounded by content to which we compare ourselves. And during the college transition — when we already feel insecure about the “newness” of everything — social media can make it seem like everyone else is having more fun, being more social and adjusting more easily to college than we are. On the Yale campus, this problem manifests itself in a few particularly intense ways. The first is through feeling left out. It’s extremely difficult to be sitting alone in your dorm room while Snapchat stories show photos of Yale students spending time together. The transition to college is already marked by feelings of loneliness and exclusion, and social media only amplifies them. Furthermore, social media has the power to make us feel inadequate. Because our student body is filled with thousands of passionate humans, our peers are busy doing incredible things every day. So when we see Facebook posts of the different clubs people are promoting or when we view Instagram stories of the reading rooms people seem to spend all day studying in, it can make us feel guilty for skipping that club meeting or deciding not to study one night. On a campus like this, social media makes it easy to feel like we just don’t belong.
However, social media itself is not solely to blame; rather, it’s the carefully curated content on social media that is the culprit. Understandably, most people use their social media accounts to highlight their finest moments, sharing the images and content that makes them feel best about themselves. But especially for first-year students who are still dealing with the massive adjustment to college, those snapshots become dangerous when they are accepted as a full narrative of someone else’s life. Every first year has struggled with this college transition at some point, but social media seldom reflects it. And that’s the root of the problem.
While the solution isn’t deleting Instagram and Snapchat from our phones, I do believe our entire campus would benefit from a more open dialogue about the difficulty of the adjustment to college, both on social media and in the real world. These conversations validate our feelings and remind us that what we are seeing online is not the full picture — just because people don’t post about being unhappy, lonely or stressed, it doesn’t mean they don’t feel that way. Although we may not be able to alter the pernicious effects social media has on the college transition, perhaps we can counter them with a commitment to being more open about the challenges that come with finding our footing at school during this first year. It’s completely expected that Yale may not yet feel normal to us, and there should be no shame in talking about or even posting about this subject.
Although social media serves to create a more interconnected world, ironically, it has the ability to make us feel more alone. Comparing ourselves to the social media personas other people create is second nature, but we should be aware of its dangers. Smiles can be deceptive — we never truly know how someone is feeling on the other side of the screen.
Julia Bialek is a first year in Morse College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .