This post was updated on Nov 15 at 9:56 p.m.
The Wednesday evening of fifth week, I was soaking in as much information as I could while studying in the Hugh and Hazel Darling Law Library, fueled by endless caffeine and desperation. With a sense of resignation, I pulled out my phone, loaded my friends’ endless Snapchat stories and began doubting my ability to have a social life as snaps of parties and outings flashed in front of me.
If you have spent your Friday night alone in your room, being anti-social for an entire week to get those As on your midterms, and then felt unhappy about your failure to socialize, you are definitely not alone. In fact, this is the reality of being a college student for many. Although I’ve had a blast at UCLA so far as a transfer student, I’ve been let down while comparing my unspectacular reality to the exciting, unforgettable college experiences portrayed in popular culture.
For many, especially international students, first impressions of college life are filtered through the lens of Hollywood movies: “Legally Blonde,” “Pitch Perfect” and the “American Pie” movies. These movies have painted an image of college as a place with freedom to do what one wants and a nonstop party scene. The power of Hollywood movies is that their content selectively reflects and exaggerates certain societal norms (i.e. sex), which make the content relatable, but inaccurate. In this envisage, college is a place where students can easily find their way to succeed or pursue their dream. Even if students in real life come away with a good college experience, it hardly lives up to the unrealistic and widespread idea of college as “the best four years of your life.”
The “best four years of your life” myth suggested by fictional Hollywood movies pressure students to strive for the media-constructed “ideal” lifestyle, which does not include cramming for a midterm or eating alone at a dining hall. Though aware of the exaggerations present on the silver screen, I still find myself staring sadly at my papers in the law library wondering why my college experience can’t measure up to what the media depicts.
Additionally, the depiction of college culture as conducive to partying and hooking up may actually foster social competition and a need for students to one-up each other in sexual conquests or drinking. A University of Wisconsin–Madison study suggests that college students’ perception of sexual norms are skewed by the media, which in turn creates pressure for students to engage in sexual activity in order to fit into this exaggerated culture.
This hyperbolic picture the media has drawn is often even less accurate than already assumed. In actuality, many college students lie when asked about their sexual activity in order to fit into the media-constructed social norm. The easy hook-up scenario that movies often paint is not as realistic as viewers might think. This, in turn, propagates student dissatisfaction as they compare their own lives to those of characters in movies.
In addition to the pretty picture of college life that Hollywood movies depict as the norm, many of us unintentionally help construct a false depiction of the college experience through how we use social media. Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat aid us in promoting this false image of college life, since most Facebook posts and Snapchat stories people create scream, “Look at my awesome (social) life.”
Even if one is neither a fan of mainstream movies nor a social media addict, they can still be subjected to disillusionment with the college experience. As one actively seeks information about college in general and their future school through brochures, university websites or college forums, one can surprisingly be more disillusioned than those who haven’t acquired as much information.
A San Diego State University study found that students who acquired more pre-matriculation information (i.e. school characteristics, resources, fun facts, social scene and activities available) about four-year universities tend to have unrealistic expectations, since the information on the internet is often generalized and thus cannot describe everyone’s individualized college experience.
It makes sense that people would mostly post about the fun parts of their lives without spending much time on the mundane or tragic. As a result, we often fail to realize that what we see on social media is hardly representative of the downsides of (college) life. As social media becomes an integral part of society, college students constantly engage in an upward social comparison, and consequently may feel incompetent about their life in college.
So if you are sitting alone right now in your room, scrolling through Facebook and seeing the exciting life your peers are having while wondering why your college life isn’t the same, it is important to understand that social media is not real life. Don’t feel pressured to make every moment of your college life memorable.