People love to talk about how the internet has ruined the lives of Millennials and Gen-Zers. They’ll go on about how social media has lowered our self-esteem. They’re right in some ways, but for all the wrong reasons. I’ve always been extremely confident. I have never had any of the insecurities kids in my school would talk about, I simply didn’t care what others thought. Some might say I was too confident, but my family happily encouraged it. I know I’m privileged in that sense, so it hurts even more that I let myself fall apart like this.
I was 14-years-old when I really got involved with internet communities. I started out on fanfiction sites, and my time there was pretty tame compared to the stories I’ve heard. In fact, I would say the first nearly six years of my time on the internet were totally safe and friendly. When most people talk about social media and its effects on self-esteem they tend to imply it starts young, in your teenage years for example. But I was older and not new to social media or the internet when it impacted my self-esteem. So I felt as though I should have known better than to let internet standards manipulate me. And sometimes that thought hurts the most.
Things went downhill right before I turned 20 and by 22 years old I was in the worst place I had ever been in my entire life. It started on Discord with a group of friends who all gathered around a niche anime series. Most of these people weren’t bad people. In fact, I’m still friends with a handful of them and I’d even consider them my best friends. It started with small things: jokes, usually self-deprecating ones, everyone would toss around. It seemed odd at first but they were just jokes, right? I learned to play along with their humor, send knife emojis or jump in whenever someone was putting themselves down or jokingly call all my friends a bitch.
Then came the comparisons. There was one friend in the group that everyone looked up to. She and I were very similar; the same zodiac sign, Hogwarts house, and MBTI plus a handful of shared interests. That was all it took for everyone to start joking that we were the same person. And it was flattering until it wasn’t. She left the group for a while and I became her replacement. But I was never enough. No one ever treated me the same way they did her, with such joy and enthusiasm. I was ignored if I talked about a topic other than the same three we always discussed. I felt like I should be the one carrying the conversations the way she used to. But instead, I bored them all constantly. It hurt and I tried to compensate by adopting more of her personality and interests, or at least faking I did.
Between all this, I got on Instagram. I kept my following small, only classmates and family, but it soon became apparent no one was their real selves on the app. Everything on Instagram was through this rose-tinted view of life. I knew it was normal to fake things for social media, but my self-esteem still took the hit. I was left wondering if I was the only one so boring I never had anything to post about. Then I saw all my classmates graduate college in 2019, so hated myself because I knew it would take me another two years to graduate, and I was missing out on this moment. Adding insult to injury, several people who I thought of as friends didn’t even tell me they were graduating. I only found out because they posted it.
When Discord and Instagram got too stifling, I fled to Tumblr and Twitter. But those were worse in a way. Many people romanticized the idea of mental illness. It was treated as a quirky personality trait to talk about but not something many people ever encouraged each other to get help for. Instead, people on Twitter would often double down on bad behaviors and self-destructive habits, and I did the same. I threw myself into lots of drama and several of my friends encouraged it, gave me attention even. I think none of us realized the kind of damage we were doing by putting ourselves in such stressful situations when we could have easily walked away.
Eventually, my friend who had briefly left our group on Discord started coming back, but she was a different person. She would put others down for not agreeing with her, but she claimed it was because she knew better. She said she had fought her own battles with mental illnesses and came out better for it. That left me unable to speak up for a long time because if she was happier then what could I say? Besides, everyone else still loved her and supported her behavior, even if it was slightly problematic.
So I took to hiding my feelings about everything. To her face, I would agree with things and then backstab her anyways. I would rant constantly about her on a private account hidden away from others. My frustrations with her made me an ugly and twisted version of myself. I had other friends, people who knew nothing of this group, who constantly encouraged me to just walk out on her. But I kept justifying it by claiming she still saw me as a friend and I wanted to support her. In reality, I was terrified of losing all our mutual friends and thought I could keep up acting because she wasn’t around consistently.
Then she started lying, and I called her out on it once and I saw her true colors. She didn’t want friends, she wanted cheerleaders who never spoke against her. And finally, I put my foot down. I cut her out the next time she disappeared, and when she tried to come back I told my friends I refused to have her around, but they were free to do whatever. And in spite of all my fears, they agreed gracefully and several also drew away from her.
That was six months ago. For nearly three years I’ve been sinking in depression and swimming in self-doubt the likes which would leave me on edge for months. It was debilitating and I remember a point in which I couldn’t bring myself to leave my house, as if all these problems I faced online would start to haunt me in the real world as well. There are a lot of details that are still very fuzzy. It’s like my mind just decided I would be better off not remembering things. But I remember breaking down and thinking everyone I cared for hated me. I remember losing three different birthdays, first to internet drama and then to toxic friendships. I remember my mother coming to me when things were at their worst and telling me to eat because that’s her way of saying she’s worried.
It’s been three very tumultuous years on the internet. Three years of ripping my self-esteem apart to fit in on social media and not realizing that was what I was doing. I’m still trying to pick up the pieces of the girl I was before it happened. It’s slow work but every day I’m learning to love myself the way I used to.
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