Toronto-based social media personality Ajeya Gonzalez, better known as Ajuki Webster, is one of the people behind the type of accounts many of us come across on those Friday nights we’re lying in bed with our phone, scrolling our lives away and yearning for a different reality.

But is that different reality even real?

Having an infatuation with the lifestyle of others is nothing new, but the problem lies with distinguishing what’s real life and what’s solely for the purpose of social media, as well as understanding the detrimental implications of being consumed in this virtual world.

Last month, social media celebrity Essena O’Neill tried to change her online presence and deleted almost all her accounts, launching a new site to promote her “social media is not real life” campaign. At the age of 18, she had acquired half a million followers on Instagram, and began to feel like social media was controlling her life. O’Neill’s situation is contrasted with Gonzalez’s, who agrees that social media is not always a reflection of real life, but notes that it doesn’t mean that social media only has negative implications.

The way we decide what goes on our social media pages typically winds down to one consideration: what we want people to know about us.

“(Social media) makes everyone’s lives seem really, really interesting all the time, and that’s fine…but with social media, you’re being really selective of what you post so I’m gonna post when I’m at a party, having fun, with a million drinks in my hand. I’m not really gonna post me laying on the couch watching Netflix,” says Gonzalez.

Anyone who’s come across her accounts is cognizant of the allure of her unapologetic confidence and knack for racy photos, but what tends to get misread is the motivation behind her posts. Due to her following, friends and strangers refuse to believe that she simply uses social media as a creative outlet to entertain herself, attributing her social media personality to a need for attention.

“I’ll post what I feel like posting. If I’m sad one day maybe I’ll post something like a little poem, if I’m feeling amazing about myself maybe I’ll post a picture in a bikini. It has nothing to do with attention, it’s literally me expressing myself and how I feel.” (Courtesy Patrick Moore)

Gonzalez started using social networking sites (SNS) around the age of 13. Now at 20, she has gained more than 16,000 followers on Instagram, 7,000 on Twitter, 29,000 on Tumblr and has posted Snapchats that have almost 2,000 views. 

Along with being the obvious platform to showcase their lives, the “escape factor” of social media plays a big role in keeping adolescents glued to their phones. In 2009, a study called “Social Media and Mobile Internet Use Among Teens and Young Adults” found that young adults aged 18 to 29, along with teens, are the largest demographic online. Seventy-two per cent of those use SNS like Facebook and Instagram.

“Social media is heavily used by young people, and everyone has a tendency to present an idealized image of themselves online,” says Michelle Dionne, a professor in Ryerson’s department of psychology. “For example, we post about all the interesting things we’re doing, but not the mundane things … All of this creates a social media world that is too good to be true — in fact it is literally not true because it is so overly choreographed.”

Gonzalez prides herself on her authenticity, saying that her personality and actions are consistent on and off social media. But, she also recognizes that like most people, “doing it for the gram” has become a social norm and she doesn’t hesitate to play into it.

“I try to play along with being sarcastic but then also being what people think that I would be like in person. Obviously I get a lot of ‘You’re an Instagram ho,’ and, ‘You’re an Instagram honey,’ and then when people meet me in person they realize that I’m a real person and I just using social media as entertainment for myself.”

Although it’s normal to only portray a certain image of yourself on social media, it’s also imperative to understand the implications of it as well as those that may arise from looking into the lives others portray.

According to multiple reports, there are detrimental effects on mental health for SNS users.

A 2012 study called “They Are Happier and Having Better Lives than I Am: The Impact of Using Facebook on Perceptions of Others’ Lives” looked at the impact Facebook has on how we perceive other people’s lives. “Looking at happy pictures of others on Facebook gives people an impression that others are ‘always’ happy and having good lives … in contrast to their own experiences of life events, which are not always positive,” the study concluded.

Gonzalez’s experiences with social media have shown her some truth behind the image our generation has been branded with — the insatiable need to be known and recognized for everything we do while portraying a perfect image of ourselves that makes people want to know more about us, or want to be us.

She feels that the effects of social media attention and how people react to it vary based on the person. While some, like herself, who use it solely as a form of expression and entertainment are typically unfazed by it, she feels that those who use it to fill a void of self-confidence will become obsessed with how people perceive them. She also believes it’s important to have a life outside of social media to avoid becoming consumed with it, citing the fact that she’s always had a job since she was 18 and will even be going back to school next year.

“I try to post more pictures of me, like selfies, showing this is what I look like rather than all these photoshoots because I don’t think I’m a model at all to be honest. I think I just take pictures because I have a following and (to help out my friends).” A friend of Gonzalez, Claudia Tavares, taking shots of her. (Michelle-Andrea Girouard/Ryersonian staff)

“It’ll get to you if you’re in it for the wrong reasons. If you have a purpose for social media that has nothing to do with boosting your confidence, I know it sounds bad, then I think it’s not gonna turn out as terrible as it did for (Essena O’Neill),” says Gonzalez.

In a video, O’Neill talked about how miserable her social media life had made her, saying that because social media communities are based on likes, followers and views, it can cause invalidation and insecurity.

She has since deleted her Instagram account, but not before editing various Instagram captions to show the reality she felt was behind each post.

“It’s crazy how much of my life isn’t ‘real’ life” and “took over 50 shots until I got one I thought you might like, then I edited this one selfie for ages on several apps — just so I could feel some social approval from you,” were among the rewritten captions. Although many commend her for speaking out about the harms of social media, some are raising the question of authenticity in her actions, saying it was all a publicity stunt.

“If we don’t remind ourselves that this (online) world (is) artificial, we’ll feel like we aren’t good enough if we are less than what we see online … But social media is everywhere all the time and represents a comparison group, people like us, people we know, that is harder to escape” says Dionne.

Gonzalez agrees, saying things are rarely as they seem on social media and seeing people at parties and “FOMO-ing” (fear of missing out) shouldn’t be negatively affecting your life because it’s definitely something you can get over.

“Nobody cares if you’re not there, only you care … once you’re at the party you realize, ‘Okay, this is shit.’ Literally people just take out their phones and they’re snapchatting for a bit and you (realize) the party’s not that great and I don’t know why I’m having such bad FOMO all the time.”

There’s no problem in documenting a killer outfit, or the amazing party you went to last night, but just be aware of what happens behind the scenes and remember that you’re publicizing these things for a reason, just like everybody else.

This is a different version of the article published in the print edition of The Ryersonian on Nov. 25, 2015.

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