Q&A with Donna Freitas

Q&A with Donna Freitas


Donna lectures at universities across the U.S. on her work about college students. Over the years she has written for national newspapers and magazines, including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post. She’s currently a non-resident research associate at the Center for Religion and Society at Notre Dame.

In 2008 Donna published Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance and Religion on America’s College Campuses. Her latest book, The Happiness Effect: How Social Media Is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect at Any Cost, is based on research from her new study about social media and how it affects the ways college students construct identity, make meaning in the world and navigate relationships.

Since happiness is the ultimate life goal for so many teens, researchers wanted to know what that means to them. Barna asked Gen Z what happiness “looks like,” using images and word labels. Just under half select the image of money paired with the word “success.” The theme of success also came up in our Q&A with Dr. Freitas.

Q: You write in The Happiness Effect about the pressure teens and young adults feel to appear happy online. What have you found in your research that contributes to the pressure? 01

Yes, the goal for their social media presence seems to be about appearing happy at every turn—with all profiles that are attached to their real names. Appearing successful, appearing positive, never showing that you’re vulnerable, never showing that you’ve failed at anything, never showing that you’re sad. There’s a kind of constant performance that’s expected on social media. The students I interviewed spoke of learning that the appearance of happiness is more important than actually being happy.

Part of the problem is that parents, teachers and career counselors, as early as middle school, are telling young adults and their kids that what they post on social media will follow them the rest of their lives; that it might come back to haunt them. These warnings are everywhere, and with good reason: College ad- missions officers and potential employers are checking young people’s social media presence, so being aware of that fact is not crazy. And what they post will follow them. But many of the students I speak with take awareness to the level of fear. “If I post one wrong thing, I may get turned down by my dream college. Just one picture could cost me a job in the future. ”

The result is a growing gap between who they are and what they post. Social media is less about interacting with people around them, and more about pleasing those in power, because those in power will go searching their names and finding those profiles. This generation is acutely aware of that fact. And I think they’re disappointed that a lot of social media isn’t about having fun, playing around and socializing, but about presenting themselves to people who have power over their future.

The success we’re teaching young people to post about on social media is achievement. Then, once it’s posted, it’s no longer about the achievement itself but about the “likes” that post gets. It’s a numbers game. If the algorithms work in your favor, you get the most likes, the most attention. Otherwise you’re invisible, right? You aren’t seen.

Students have shared with me specific, numbers-related goals for their social media presence—100 likes or 1,000 likes, or a certain number of “friends.” There is a pervasive sense that social media is a competition, and many students feel bad when they don’t win. Many seem to really believe they will finally feel fulfilled if they meet their numbers goals.

The sad thing is, they like social media when it helps them stay connected with people. But at the same time, they feel they’re competing with those same people.

Q: What can parents, teachers, community leaders and others do to help? Is there anything we could do to help bridge the gap between students’ online personas and their true selves? 02

That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? As a culture one thing we didn’t do well before social media started dominating every aspect of our lives is think about the ethics of how we use it. For instance, is it okay for college ad- missions officers or future bosses to use our social media pages as a proxy reference?

On one level, it makes sense why admissions people or interviewers do it. People don’t think about the ethics, they just want more in- formation about a job candidate or a potential on-campus RA. And now investigating social media has become the norm.

But could it be that we need to respect young people’s privacy? It’s as if we’re all parents who have found our kid’s diary lying open on the table and didn’t even stop to think whether we should read it—we just picked it up and started reading because it was there. As a culture, I think we need to ask if that is really okay.

On top of that, most people haven’t figured out how to have a healthy relationship with social media. Many people haven’t even asked the question about what a healthy relationship would look like, and before they know it, they find themselves feeling terrible about themselves or feeling compulsive and addict- ed. Or all of the above. It’s only then that they begin to ask—and many students I’ve spoken with have concluded they just don’t know.

I think we could start by going back to the social aspect of social media. Are these media really designed to help people connect, or are they designed to ramp up competition? I think we know the answer, and maybe the horse is already out of the gate and there’s no going back. But the questions are worth asking.

Q: Is there anything the faith community can do to help? 03

There are so many churches in the United States that are social-media obsessed. It’s a huge communication tool for many churches, especially younger churches, and for many faith groups on campus.

Many students feel trapped in every dimension of their lives to continue using social media, even though they don’t know how to have a healthy relationship with it. They can’t escape. Their teachers or bosses require them to use social media—and now many churches do, too. If you’re not on social media, you don’t know what’s happening. You’re not a part of the community. And I think faith communities should think long and hard about the ways we’ve made social media so pervasive, when what many students need is at least an hour a week when they are forced to unplug. They want space and time away from their devices, even if they say otherwise, because many have a hard time making that decision themselves. Do we have to make it harder for them?

Continue Reading
Back to the Study

01 The World According to Gen Z

Read Section