Researching social media’s impact on self-presentation on campus

Quincy University cafeteria with students.

Social media plays a part in most students’ lives at Quincy University. In some cases, social media can help shape an individual’s self-presentation. Self-presentation is how people try to present themselves to other individuals in order to control how they are perceived. This effect that social media can have was the research topic I took on for my senior thesis.

I started with the hypothesis that social media affects individuals to cultivate an unrealistic self presentation not only on social media platforms but in reality.

I think that this hypothesis focuses on the negative effects of social media as I wanted to explore if the consumption of social media creates false self presentation in reality like Cultivation Theory proves with television?

Cultivation theory was created by George Gerbner and was meant to explore the influence that television had specifically. Gerbner found that people who watched television tended to adopt the reality portrayed on television. As his studies found, people tended to believe what they saw on television to some extent. This theory has been built upon in other ways, but most still kept the research to television and its effects.

I think that television, cable specifically, is dying out as means of entertainment for my generation. Hence why I turned to social media platforms where videos and images could be continuously shared and streamed (like a television left on).

But each social media platform has a different effect, so I did not want to try and do all of them at once. I chose Instagram because that is where people are most likely to see edited photos. Instagram serves as a Facebook like platform where milestones are posted, but at the same time Instagram does have less filler posts like inspirational quotes. 

I originally set out to create two surveys that pertained to Instagram and the survey participants’ experience with the platform. The first survey was to say that the results would be anonymous. However, the second survey was to make it seem as though I had made a mistake and that the results of the survey would be posted with names. In fact I would not be posting the information, as that is against research guidelines, but I thought it would have an effect on answers.

However, after releasing my digital first survey I found that many did not want to complete the survey. Those that did even opted out to answering all of the questions listed. 

I believe that the nature of my questions caused people to feel uncomfortable about the subject. I used scales to have people rate how they felt about themselves in real life versus how they portrayed themselves on Instagram. The answers I received contradicted themselves frequently. But some did take the time to write out how they truly felt at the optional open answer bottom portion. 

“I think my presentation on social media is not necessarily different from who I am, but much more superficial. Sure I put filters on my photos but I’ve stopped editing my body. I post times in my life that I genuinely enjoyed and had fun doing and want to share that with others. I think where I am still superficial is in the aspect of I highlight happy moments, but do not acknowledge some of the deeper things that I’m going through or how the experience that I posted about maybe wasn’t as fulfilling and joyful as I made it seem.” 

– Digital Survey Participant

(From the free response portion at the bottom of the survey).

After receiving what little results I got from the digital survey I decided I did not have enough people who had the will to complete the first survey, yet alone two. So I printed out the survey, went around campus with them and some pencils, and then got a decent standard amount of results. 

Graph of results
Results for the survey question: do you try to uphold your social media image in real life?

After getting enough results I decided to do a focus group to try to get more of those free responses that were valuable to me in the surveys. I thought that a focus group could also answer my questions as to why people did not want to answer my survey. 

The focus group I had was a small one that had more male participants than female. Food was the incentive, they all had to talk about the subject. 

They all admitted that people should be hesitant to talk about this subject as people ‘don’t want to look bad on social media’. Some also said that the survey made them think too much so they just started answering with the intention of trying to not actually think too much. This makes sense because the results I received on the digital version were very reflective of that mindset. 

Reflecting on both methods, the focus group was more suited to this experience because once one admitted the truth the others did the same. I think the survey was something that people do with active mindlessness in order to avoid self reflection. 

I think my paper copy surveys repeat more serious results because when I gave them to a group, people saw others taking it seriously and also did the same.

Ultimately, I tried to study the effects of peer pressure and it was peer pressure that ended up saving my research. 

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