Every day sitting on the bus, eating meals, and even “listening” in class, we scroll through carefully-crafted social media profiles featuring pictures and text that offer glimpses into the lives of people we know well or not at all. These profiles are choreographed to express our complex and varied personalities in a couple of images and short captions. Pressure to appear happy, attractive, and loved bears down on us as we sift through our camera rolls, selecting which picture will make the cut for Instagram. Creating a caption can be even more difficult—it has to be short enough to grab attention, clever enough to make us seem witty, and not too emoji-filled to seem annoying. The consumption and production of social media is an innocent pastime that allows us to edit and crop the aspects of our lives we want others to see. It’s almost intoxicating—the ability to snip and splice our days into Snapchat stories which only show loud music and writhing bodies and pictures that smooth over our insecurities.

Social media has another benefit: in addition to working on our own profiles, we get access to view other people’s as well. Everyone has stalked someone they saw from afar or meet briefly to see what story their social media had to tell. In three minutes, we feel like we have a grasp on the lives of others we may have never interacted with. 

Humans have a propensity to make snap judgments. It’s simply easier to look at someone, see something unfamiliar or unlikeable, and decide they should be labelled with one of the many slurs that go in and out of vogue. It takes conscious effort to empathize with other people when all we see is their visual appearance and the words they choose to share. 

This isn’t new—there are a million cliche adages advising us to think before we judge, and yet many judge regardless. The new problem is that social media magnifies our tendency to judge others without sound cause. People are already removed from each other in the sense that we can’t hear everything a person thinks or know everything they’ve experienced. Social media takes this removal and intensifies it to the point where we substitute a real person with the pictures they post. 

We are inundated with social media posts that tries to tell us they comprise the totality of someone’s existence, while they actually represent the smallest fraction of their lives. We are also relatively anonymous on social media, and this makes it exponentially easier to leave a nasty comment on a post than to say the same thing to someone’s face. A study done by Pew Research found that 80 percent of teens reported having seen a hurtful message on social media. 

An insidious aspect of social media is that it allows people to share the hateful comments they otherwise would have keep quiet. In some cases, these comments backfire on the commentator, who themselves can become the target for online hatred. Justine Sacco, a PR agent with a Twitter following of just 170, tweeted what she thought would be an innocent joke on her way from Heathrow Airport in London to Cape Town: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” By the time she arrived in South Africa, the tweet had blown up in a spiral of criticism and anger. Her tweet became the No. 1 trend on Twitter with hoards of users calling for her to be fired from her PR job, or worse. Sacco’s life was ruined because of a tweet she intended to be an acerbic joke shared with a handful of people and without much splash. While Sacco’s words are certainly condemnable, and hatred never deserves to be excused or encouraged, the sheer force of animosity she was with which she was met is worrisome. Sacco is a perfect representative of the lack of empathy promoted by social media because she bought into the anonymity that makes sharing negative messages “acceptable” and was also destroyed by the others with the same feeling. No one wants to be wrecked because of a single, misguided statement they thoughtlessly shared.

The truly concerning feature of social media with regard to empathy is that the trends seen online are bleeding into real life and allowing people to take the posts they’ve viewed on social media and apply them to real people. The levels of empathy among college students has declined since 1980, with a sharp drop since 2000 when technology really took root among the general population, according to a study by University of Michigan at Ann Arbor

Social media can portray a person as lovely or horrible, while they could be the complete opposite in reality. The person whose Snapchat story shows nothing but happiness, parties, and friends could be depressed out of their mind. While all of us can rationalize this, a lot of us fail to remember to empathize with others on social media and off. Empathy is fundamental to the human existence. Social media is not going to go away, and it will continue to become a bigger part of our lives. Realize that behind every picture, caption, post, or video there is a complete person with a complex life. 

Camille Wilder is a Trinity first-year. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays.