The Price of Validation

University of South Carolina students comment on the idea of cheap validation within social media, dating apps and academic success.

by Alexandra Adler / Garnet & Black

In the age of social media, and with the internet at our fingertips, we spend more time on an endless scroll than we ever have before. Aimlessly scrolling through the "For You Page" and Tinder profiles searching for something. What exactly though are we searching for? 

We’re searching for validation through anxiously refreshing to see the number of likes and comments a TikTok or Instagram post got or thumbing through people on Hinge or Tinder—instant gratification has become a mainstay within the internet now, and it has effects on us as a generation. 

Kristin Cavaleri, a University of South Carolina student, has seen the effects of this kind of cheap validation herself. 

“It impacts me a little less now, but I know growing up, I had a really hard time with the whole social media, ‘oh, am I getting enough likes?’ ‘oh, my phone's not blowing up with notifications right now, so maybe everyone hates me secretly and I have no friends.’ It was a big self-esteem thing for me, especially when I was younger,” Cavaleri said. 

The idea that worth is based on the success of a social media algorithm creates an interesting dichotomy. USC student Ethney Dosenbach has also seen the impacts of social media and how it plays into validation. 

“I think social media is so interesting because you can post a picture, and then you can get 15 comments within 30 minutes or even sometimes less time than that,” Dosenbach said.

Instagram is not the only app to create an instant satisfaction cycle. Apps such as Tiktok feed into this as well. The infinite scrolling through the "For You Page" brings a new perspective to never-ending content. 

“Well, with TikTok, the trends go so quickly. They come and go, literally. I feel like there's probably a cycle of three days where I see the same videos and then they switch and then there's a different set of an algorithm,” Dosenbach said.

Because of this quick-trend cycle, there is more of a drive now than ever to continually stay connected and in the loop. Creators such as Alix Earle and Charli D’Amelio play a factor in this ideal. 

“I think, honestly, TikTok kind of scares me because people blow up out of nowhere. Charli D’Amelio was literally just some private school girl in Connecticut, and all of a sudden, she's like, [crazy] in LA. Or Alix Earl blew up really fast just a couple of months ago, and it kind of came out of nowhere,"  Cavaleri said. "I think a lot of people what to do that and experience that. They think, like, oh, Charli D’Amilio was just some girl, so I can do that now. There's a lot of pressure to go from nothing to something overnight.”

Due to this hyper-validation cycle that apps such as Instagram or TikTok have created, there are people like  Kat Favre, another USC student, who choose to stay out of it altogether. 

“I intentionally stay away from a lot of social media because I know that I would become hyper-fixated, but I definitely think apps like TikTok and Twitter with a massive userbase and lots of interaction result in a lot of instant gratification,” Favre said. 

Regardless, Favre still experiences setbacks from being disconnected. 

“Personally, I don't have TikTok and other major social media apps downloaded, with the exception of Instagram. But that is a deliberate choice because I know that having them would provide too much of a challenge to my productivity. Not having them actually makes it harder to exist as part of a larger world because I'm always a step behind in understanding what the people around me are talking about,” Favre said. “I've had to choose between fully understanding or interacting with my peers, and keeping myself accountable to work and school goals.” 

Dating apps, such as Tinder, Grindr, Bumble and Hinge also create an added layer to instant gratification. 

“You could totally be messaging someone that you'll never see in person and you very much can curate. And the same with social media; you choose what people see. You look your best on a dating profile. You're not going to look bad, or you're putting things about yourself in a description that you think people would like,” Dosenbach said. “So you're kind of like going into it for validation of ‘oh, people are going to want to ‘treat’ or ‘swipe’' on you or what have you.” 

The exposure provided on dating apps is so large that there is now an extra ideal for individuals to meet. 

“You're exposed to so many people [on dating apps] to the extent where I think more specifically to guys- but I'm sure it goes both ways- are seeing all these pretty girls, and I think their view of women is maybe skewed a little bit from it,” Cavaleri said. “And I’ve seen a lot of girls talk about how they think the average girl is no longer seen as an average-looking girl, as opposed to calling some super sexy hot supermodel more average because of the volume of those people that you're seeing.” 

Instant gratification and self-worth can also be based on something entirely separate from social media. Academic success is something that individuals struggle with to help define their worth too. 

“I've always been very externally motivated, so yes, grades play a big factor. Part of that is because I plan to go to grad school, and I want to keep a high GPA so I can apply for lots of scholarships and fellowships, but part is also that I want a physical thing I can point to and say, ‘look, I did objectively well at something,’” Favre said. 

Academic validation can also be seen as a fine line between something healthy and something harmful. 

“Grades are interesting because I think they're a little different because you put in the work to get them. When you put in the effort and you reap the benefits of it by getting a good grade, it's kind of like, ‘oh, it was worth it. I worked hard.’ And so that validation, I think, is better. But granted, if you hold onto it too much or are dependent on that, then it gets a little detrimental,” Dosenbach said. 

When it comes to the generation as a whole, there is a multitude of ways all of this information can affect us and what we as individuals look for. 

“I won't do something if I know that it won't impact me immediately. I don't care to do things that don't immediately impact me,” Cavaleri said. “So, I think for me, that form of cheap validation is what gets me to do things as opposed to in high school. I was never like, ‘okay, I'm going to do well on this test, and then that's going to happen, and then I'm going to get into a good college, etc.’ I can't think long-term like that. I really only think short-term, and I think that's probably common to the whole generation.” 

We also have a certain image that we want to uphold as Gen-Z and how we want to be perceived.

“We want people to think we're funny too, I don't think it's all look-based. Just speaking for me and my friend group, I know when we post, it's more so I want people to think I'm funny, even people who don't know me,” Dosenbach said. 

In conjunction with how we as a generation are affected by it, there is the larger idea of how it affects our entire society as a whole. 

“There's a lot of talk about how our generation has no attention span and how growing up with the internet and smartphones has atrophied our brains and our ability to sit still and do a task. But in a weird way, I feel like the fact that we're all so hyper-aware of the general chaos and overwhelming information on the internet means we're more mindful about it,” Favre said. “People our age are in no way the only ones who have to be careful about how they spend their time and what information they listen to online, which I think often gets lost in the generational debate.”

All in all, cheap validation through social media, dating apps and academic success has taken a toll on individuals, and using them as a way to gain instant gratification creates an impossible-to-reach standard that we set for each other. There is a healthy balance, and finding that will create a much more stable outlook on life. 

“Instant gratification and cheap validation run a lot of risks, especially if we become too focused on them and make them the absolute priority. But, I hope people can work to find a healthy balance with their social media because online interaction can also be really good for us,” Favre said. “If you're going to post things online to get engagement, don't listen just to the people who love it or the idiots who are being hateful. Look for those people who have genuine thoughts and questions, and try to grow by inviting yourself to see from another perspective.”