Recently, I ran into some friends who had sent us a Christmas card featuring their stunning family photo. "Your girls are gorgeous," I remarked. "How are they doing?" All doing well, they said, although they confided that their oldest daughter was "difficult, especially with her mother."
"Really?" I said. "She doesn't look difficult in the picture."
They laughed. It was true: the photograph showed a smiling couple with their beautiful daughters in matching dresses, all of them bathed in the warm glow of unconditional love. These were not difficult children. They were the children we think everyone else has, the ones we measure our own kids against: not just beautiful, but also unfailingly kind-hearted, loving, obedient, appreciative, respectful. In our imaginations, their parents kiss them goodnight, admiring the stacks of neatly-folded clothes in their drawers, and then retreat to the living room (which is free of toys, socks, unopened mail, and crumbs) for a little relaxing conversation before bed. These parents never fall asleep in their younger child's bed, wake up disoriented two hours later, trip over a plastic horse, and stumble into the living room to find the older child awake way past her bedtime, surfing YouTube and working her way through a sleeve of Thin Mints. Those things only happen at our house. (A lot.)
Come to think of it, around the holidays, our fridge is covered with the kinds of photos that made me feel just slightly insecure.
I was reflecting on this as a friend was telling me about the phenomenon of "Facebook depression" among young adults. In full disclosure, I'm a fan of Facebook. It adds depth and color to my relationships with a broad network of loose connections. But, like all those Christmas cards, my Facebook timeline is riddled with lies of omission. It's precisely those loose, but important, connections -- the ones that comprise the vast majority of Facebook relationships -- that make us cautious about what goes on our timelines. When our Facebook friends are our kids' teachers, or their friends' parents, or our employers, or potential future employers, or the people who can introduce us to those future employers -- well, it invites a more carefully-curated presence than, say, my ever-suffering wife gets to experience.
My Facebook persona is not clandestine about anything fundamentally defining in my character. Anyone who would reject me because I'm Jewish or gay or maybe a little extreme about water conservation has my blessing to get lost. But my persona is remarkably cheery. She's opinionated, but respectful. Her smart children are always funny and cute. She's a go-getter who's also patient and meditative. Her cats never hurl on the bedspread. Envious? I bet. She sounds amazing. Wish I knew her.
I don't look difficult in the picture. But, believe me, I am. Just ask my mother.
Of course, you already knew that. We all strike a pose when it comes to social media. We know it, and we know everyone else does it too. And yet, especially on a bad day, I still find the Voice of Judgment whispering in the back of my mind when I scroll through and see how happy everyone is, how capable and well-adjusted their children are, how much fun they have, how bravely they handle adversity. Look at what good parents they are. Look how successful they are. You're not that good. If I can feel those tremors as an adult -- one who is really fine with who I am, warts and all -- what is it like for a teenager? How does Facebook affect someone who doesn't have the life experience to extrapolate from a series of fun-filled Instagram dots to a realistic curve of life? Especially if their friends are contending with their own insecurities, and need to feel "liked" even more than we do as adults, you could see how Facebook leads to envy, jealousy, even depression.
Facebook is not without value. But it is not real life. To all the teens and young adults out there: When you are browsing your "news feed," remember that your friends have chosen to expose a very thin layer of their existence. In between those smiley photos and enthusiastic check-ins, everyone has times when she feels down, discouraged, embarrassed, insecure, confused, hurt or scared. Every one of your friends sometimes feels as if no one cares about him, or that he doesn't deserve to be loved. This isn't depression. It's just life. Those friends who constantly assault you with a public display of happiness are probably compensating for something. And some of your friends haven't yet learned that you can't really lift yourself up by pushing other people down. They're still trying to make that work.
If you can remember all this, you'll be able to take Facebook for what it is... and never compare yourself to the people in the picture.