Why We Need to Look Past 'The Perfect Family' on Instagram
Social media is not real life. That’s the truth and it bears repeating. Why? Because again and again, research is linking the increase of mental illness and social media. And the dangerous reality is that this same technology that allows us to stay connected with friends, family, and random twice-removed strangers from grade school is also giving everyone a false sense of insecurity.
So why do we still compare our seemingly dull lives with the mom on Instagram who seems to be up on her Elf on the Shelf game every single year? I know I don’t have that kind of time. I'm not even ready for dinner tonight, let alone prepared to come up with creative ways to trick my children into thinking a miniature elf is constantly watching their every move and reporting back to Santa. (Hello! Add some money to the therapy jar, please.)
An example of one such mom: Stephanie Hanrahan. Head on over to her Instagram and you just might pick up an extra gallon of ice cream on the way home from soccer practice tonight. She has a picture-perfect Instagram life. The Hanrahans are a lovely couple with two beautiful children and all that’s missing is a white picket fence. But that's not why Hanrahan went viral. She went viral for saying this: "I just got sick of pretending."
“I think we live in a culture where we are kind of conditioned to 'post our pretty' and conceal our cracks,” she told me on HLN’s On the Story. “That's how I lived the majority of my life and there was just one pivotal moment where I posted our most recent family photos and all the comments poured in, your family is so gorgeous and so perfect. That one comment about perfection gutted me because they had no idea what I was really going through.”
The family’s struggle is impossible to capture in a photograph. Stephanie revealed to her readers that she has a history of sexual abuse, which led her into a life of anxiety and depression. To make matters worse, her husband Shawn has a rare heart disorder called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which prevents blood from properly circulating in his body. He’s flat-lined twice.
The terrifying genetic condition could be inherited by her daughter and son. Her kids, who pose in so many playful posts, also have autism, leading to a host of special needs. But Stephanie says, you don’t see any of this in her photos.
Her aha moment was met with a collective sigh of relief from the internet. Thousands of people reached out to Hanrahan to thank her for her honesty, humility, and vulnerability.
“I think I'm able to hopefully help people now because I'm speaking from my scars versus my open wounds,” she says.
Here’s the simple truth: I can relate to the imperfections that hide behind perfect photos. That’s why I started something recently on my own Instagram. You may have seen my post about “Real Life versus Instagram Life," or my hashtag posts #HonestInstagram and #socialmediaisnotreallife. It's a small attempt to prove these pictures we post on social media only tell a sliver of our stories.
Case in point, we recently had family photos taken. First, why has this become such a commonplace tradition? We spend hundreds of dollars for professional photos that we then spend more money to have made into holiday cards that we can customize on a website. But our picture-perfect family photos only look this way because our photographer is so talented. Here’s real life:
I actually forgot we had family photos that day. Our photographer Chris Bartelski texted me as I raced from work to pick up my son from school asking for my address and I nearly blacked out. I quickly called my husband apologizing that I was about to ruin his afternoon because he needed to hurry home from his busy workday to take pictures. When I finally got home to wrangle two babies into outfits that I obviously hadn't planned out. Ryder’s sweet jumper got pulled out of the basement storage container filled with his big brother’s hand-me-downs prior to trying to dress my “threenager,” who, of course, protested and ended up insisting on wearing a plaid shirt instead of the red sweater that would have so perfectly matched. What you can’t see well in the picture is that it was from two summers ago, and so skintight that his sleeves were halfway up his arm. Then, I bribed him for 30 minutes. It worked, but later he deteriorated into a night of meltdowns from so much activity.
It’s not just family photos; this is everyone’s life. Whether it's because of babies, or work, or tragedy, or whatever, life is messy, and no one picks up the camera phone when things are ugly. We post the highlight reel. Real life with littles is busy, hard, and messy but at the same time, so darn beautiful. That’s a little complicated to capture in photos.
My mother always says contentment is ruined by comparison. Don’t put all your eggs in the Instagram basket.
Lynn Smith is the host of HLN's On The Story, which airs 12-2pm ET.