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You Can Relate…but Is It Authentic?

By: Nicole R.H. Baker, PhD, LMFT

            Wake up. Scroll. Lunch break. Scroll. Home from work. Scroll. Before bed. Scroll.  Our phones provide us a plethora of information daily at our fingertips. From the news to social media platforms, we are constantly learning about other’s lives, sharing experiences and gaining knowledge. Or are we?

            Social media is an excellent way to connect to others, but are we really connecting? What messages does it send to us? As a scholar, following fellow scholars, students and researchers has so many benefits. For example, you can share resources, learn about others research, and expand ideas. When social media influencers share failed research or challenges in finding resources in their post, a fellow student can easily relate. On social media, we follow those who we relate to or have similar experiences, but are the people posting being authentic?

            If you open a student’s social media page what are some of the images you see posted? First, I often see a clean, aesthetically pleasing desk. I am talking the perfect desk set-up with the external keyboard that lights up, the dual monitor, matching pens and notebooks, the coffee cup warmer with a full cup of coffee on it, a full water bottle and candle burning. Now I don’t know about you, but this is where the influencers lose me. I can’t relate. I think back to working on my dissertation and my desk definitely did NOT look like that. I mean, sure, I had the dual monitor and external keyboard, but beyond that nothing was aesthetically pleasing. I had post-its all over my monitor, pens and half-scribbled on notepads all over the desk, several half-empty beverages, and snacks…oh the snacks. In speaking with many students over the years, that seems more like reality than the aesthetically pleasing desk. We can dream right? But let’s be real, even if you clean your desk to perfection, it is going to be a disaster the next day or two when you are a scholar. Those of you who can keep a clean desk – I am highly impressed.  

            Okay, so now we have the desk rant out of the way, lets discuss the stress level associated with going to school. No matter what degree you are working on right now, undergraduate or graduate, it is stressful. So where are the meltdowns, tears, anger…well any emotion minus happy and smiling in these social media posts? If anyone tells you they were never stressed when obtaining a degree, in my opinion, they are not being honest with themselves. Now, I can think about several occasions where I cruised through an assignment or even a whole class and felt competent and smart. Then I met doctoral level statistics. There may have been tears…and not the little tears that just drift down your face and you wipe away. I am talking full blown, snot-filled, sobbing tears. Why have I never seen these types of posts on social media? Because nobody wants to be authentic or be perceived as vulnerable on social media.

            My concern with the “perfect” social media posts is the additional undue stress and anxiety students are causing themselves because social media makes it look easy. It leaves no room for mistakes, emotions, messes, and failures. I mean, where is the post with the puffy, tear-filled eyes, red face and runny nose? There isn’t one? I don’t believe it. At some point in a student’s academic career there will come a point where there is stress. For some of us, we can feel it coming on. For others, it comes out of nowhere. Whether it is the really hard statistics class, the paper that is challenging to write, or a rejection from the IRB, the meltdown will hit you like a ton of bricks.  You realize that you were maybe not engaging in self-care, or you didn’t allow yourself enough time to research for your paper, but it will happen…and there is nothing wrong with the meltdown. Meltdowns, emotions, mistakes, and messes are authentic.

            Last rant on this – I promise. Why do all the scholar social media influencers dress so fancy just to work on their dissertation or write a paper? I see posts with them wearing unwrinkled, perfect dress shirts, or jackets and ties. I don’t know about you, but I can’t relate. When I sit down to work on a paper or project, I am wearing comfy pants and my favorite over-sized sweatshirt. Essentially, it does not matter what you wear, but if I got dressed up every day to write my dissertation, I will still be writing that dissertation. Reality is you write that dissertation every free minute you have whether you are wearing a towel right out of the shower or your evening gown you wore to fundraiser you attended earlier that evening. There is not perfect time or attire to learn. That is being authentic. 

            In my opinion, relatability and authenticity are so important as you navigate your higher education. We are seeking a community of peers with shared experiences. Social media can offer a piece of the community to students but view it as it is – only the best parts of the scholar experience. While some of the content is extremely relatable, it may not be authentic. Don’t strive to meet the standards of what you see on social media. If you try to reach those standards, you may find yourself more overwhelmed than need be and feel like you are falling short in your program. The community that will provide you the most support is one that is both relatable and authentic. Next time you are feeling burnt out, overwhelmed or alone while working through your academic program remember, you can do it in pajamas, without the matching notebooks and pens, and the three have empty beverages on your desk because, more than likely, that is real life. That is authentic and I believe we can all relate.

Also, like any good scholar, below is some evidenced-based research on the effects of social media on college students.

 

Drouin, M., Reining, L., Flanagan, M., Carpenter, M.,, & Toscos, T. (2018). College Students in

Distress: Can Social Media Be a Source of Social Support? College Student Journal, 52(4), 494–504.

 

Iwamoto, D., & Chun, H. (2020). The Emotional Impact of Social Media in Higher

Education. International Journal of Higher Education, 9(2), 239–247.

 

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