By Emily Reynolds

It’s become somewhat of a truism that you shouldn’t believe everything you see on social media. Where someone’s life looks perfect, we’re often reminded, there are probably a handful of problems silently situated away from the camera. Nobody’s life is as shiny, flawless, or enviable as it might appear in their carefully curated feed.

But presenting ourselves more authentically on social media — ditching those things we want to believe are true about ourselves in favour of those that are — could be good for our wellbeing, according to a new paper in Nature Communications by Erica R. Bailey from Columbia University and colleagues.

In the first study, the team looked at the data of 10,560 Facebook users who had completed both personality and life satisfaction assessments through the myPersonality app (the data was originally collected between 2007 and 2012 and made available for approved researchers to study, though the app has since been banned by Facebook for improper data protection). These assessments were then compared to predictions of personality from Facebook likes and from status updates, to give a measure of how “authentically” the users presented themselves on the platform.

There was a positive correlation between life satisfaction and authenticity — but no indication, however, of the direction of causality. In other words, it wasn’t clear whether authenticity led to greater wellbeing or vice-versa.

To further examine the direction of cause-and-effect, the team asked 90 participants to spend two weeks posting on social media in a particular manner. For one week, they were asked to post in an authentic way, and for the other in a self-idealised way — i.e. posting in the way they would like to be seen rather than the way they really are. At the end of each week, participants recorded their subjective wellbeing, life satisfaction, mood, and positive and negative affect.

After the week of authentically posting, participants reported significantly higher levels of wellbeing, mood, and positive affect. There was also a marginally significant impact on negative affect, though overall life satisfaction was not affected. This suggests that authentic posting might actually lead to higher levels of wellbeing than self-idealised posting.

But why people behave the way they do on social media should be considered in further research. People may have different motivations for self-idealising online, which could affect how they feel while doing so. If you’re not self-aware and feel you’re simply sharing things that really do authentically reflect who you are, does that have the same impact on wellbeing as actively deviating from your real self-view? It’s also unclear whether posting authentically is actually any better than not posting at all.

But for those of us who do post online, it might be a good reminder to resist the pressure to present a perfect life online. Seeing online friends or influencers as normal people, rather than unattainably idealistic, can be deeply reassuring — there’s a reason there’s been a rise, for example, in “skin-positive influencers”, who share pictures of acne and scars. And this study suggests that such authenticity doesn’t just benefit others — there’s a chance it might make you feel better, too.

– Authentic self-expression on social media is associated with greater subjective well-being

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest