Countless articles have been written on the effects of social media on the lives and social interactions of young people. I, personally, thought I had heard it all before. Then, in my senior year of high school, a close friend of mine was diagnosed with derealization disorder. This condition makes people feel like an outside observer to one’s own life, as if there is a glass wall that separates them from their surroundings as time passes at an abnormal rate.
While my friend’s condition was likely not related to social media, I couldn’t help but think about the similarities between the symptoms of derealization disorder and digital depersonalization — the losing of one’s self in reality as a result of the “self” that is created on social media. Digital depersonalization can be caused by excess social media use. And while it is important to recognize technology’s effect on how we interact with one another — a topic which many have already covered — this lesser-known effect of social media is equally consequential as it describes how technology impacts our relationship with ourselves.
When we post a carefully edited picture on Instagram, VSCO or Facebook, we create and perpetuate a sense of our self that is a fantasy — a representation of what we hope or aspire to be. Our real self, however, is the person we see in the mirror — the person who has to deal with hardships, stressors and disappointments. As described by the Russian psychoanalyst Elena Bezzubova, “dissociation between the factual ‘I’ in the bathroom mirror and the virtually-constructed ‘I’ in Instagram [creates a] disturbing sense of blurred identity or unreality.”
Think of depersonalization like it’s a state of intoxication. For the most part, people under the influence of alcohol or marijuana still know who they are. But when they look in the mirror, many experience a sensation of disconnect. Social media has similar effects on our sense of self. By unknowingly drugging ourselves with alternate worlds painted in C1 VSCO filters, we blur the lines between the real and the virtual.
Of course, for most people, feelings of digital depersonalization are temporary and rare. So why is this important? Well, the issue with losing track of one’s sense of self is that we turn to others to fill the void within. When we can’t quite figure out who we are anymore, we look to other people to make the judgment for us and start fixating and the number of likes and comments we receive online. This need for external validation perpetuates a feeling of unease and insecurity.
Diverse new online platforms that emerge so rapidly can only increase the risk that we may one day wake up unable to shake the horrifying sensation that we no longer know who we are. While there is no easy balance between reality and virtuality, we should constantly be mindful of the tensions between the two. Only then can we begin the hard work of reconciling our physical and virtual identities into one cohesive sense of self.