They looked so happy.
In every post Gabby Petito shared on Instagram during her cross-country trip with fiancé Brian Laundrie, they were smiling, playful, and affectionate. These weren’t just clips from #VanLife, a reference to their chosen method of transportation and accommodation, but snapshots of a young couple’s carefree adventures in beautiful natural locations.
Then, reality. In August, a witness told police he saw Laundrie slapping Petito. She was found dead in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park last month, and authorities have ruled her death a homicide. Laundrie, who returned to Florida weeks earlier without her, hasn’t been seen in about a month and is now wanted by the FBI.
Exactly what happened to Petito is still publicly unknown, but this is unassailable: What followers saw on Instagram during the last weeks of her life was not an accurate version of Petito and Laundrie’s relationship. It was a mirage, a crafted image buffed to an enviable shine for social media.
A recent Wall Street Journal investigation revealed that Facebook’s own research found that Instagram, owned by the social media behemoth, is harmful for teenage girls. “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” the researchers reportedly wrote. That’s because Instagram curates a steady diet of flawless physiques and lives. Click “like” for a few of those posts and Instagram will keep feeding you more of the same, and the cumulative impact can be devastating to impressionable teenagers.
Facebook knew this and did nothing to change it, Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager turned whistleblower, told Congress.
Yet it’s not just teenage girls who are affected. Every user is susceptible to Instagram’s subtle toxicity. (Full disclosure: I am a regular, if wary, user.) Spend too much time on the app, and you’re not just living vicariously through what you see. Those posts become yardsticks against which we measure our lives, and the reality can’t match up to the filtered perfection that scrolls by with the flick of a thumb. Everyone’s vacation, kids, dog, hair, car, home, clothes, and restaurant meal is better than yours, an endless infomercial for a never-ending Good Life well beyond your grasp.
It’s the old adage of “keeping up with the Joneses” turbocharged for the social media age.
This kind of sleight of hand existed before social media. Joseph P. Kennedy, patriarch of the dynastic Kennedy family, reportedly told his children “You must remember it’s not what you are that counts, but what people think you are.” When John F. Kennedy, then a senator from Massachusetts, began considering a presidential run, his father hired the best photographers to present the younger Kennedy, his wife Jackie, and their daughter Caroline as a devoted young family.
Of course with John F. Kennedy’s incessant philandering, facts were more complicated than the contrived portrayal, but that image was enormously appealing for many voters.
Life on social media is reduced to a carefully edited performance with better lighting. It’s catnip for both narcissists and voyeurs, but always with the added sting that everyone is in better shape and has a more loving relationship, their happiness weighed in likes and shares.
On Instagram, Shanann and Chris Watts looked like a picture-perfect couple. She would post photos of them with their two young daughters, thanking her husband for “put[ting] up with 3 impatient, demanding women in the house.” Then Shanann, pregnant with their third child, and her daughters disappeared; days later, Chris was charged with murdering his family. He pleaded guilty and is serving five life sentences without the possibility of parole.
A memorial page for Shanann Watts and her daughters remains on Instagram. There are no photos of the husband and father who killed them.
In part, what happened to Watts and Petito attracted national attention because of an amiable social media presence contrary to the violence that ended their lives. Perhaps these women were even trying to will their public happiness into private joy. Yet it also speaks to how easily we are enthralled by the facades that sustain Facebook, Instagram, and other social media sites. Through deception, they are designed to keep us wanting more content because accounts with large followings garner advertisers. And ultimately, that’s the point of Facebook’s empire, which Haugen says “chooses profits over safety.”
From humblebrags to over-the-top showboating, those perfectly curated lives on Instagram are as misleading as they are detrimental to self-esteem, mental health, and truth. We aren’t consumers. We’re being consumed.