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Imposter Syndrome on College Campuses


Joanna Dodd Massey Ph.D., MBA


Education and Schools

With over 25 years of experience in the media industry at companies, such as Conde Nast, Lionsgate, CBS, Viacom, Discovery and Hasbro, Joanna Dodd Massey, Ph.D., MBA is a C-level communications executive and Board Director. She has managed brand reputation, corporate turnaround, crisis communications and culture transformation. Currently, Dr. Massey is a communications consultant, as well as Founder & CEO of The Marketing Communications Think Tank. She is a corporate speaker and trainer, as well as author of the books, "Communicating During a Crisis," and "Culture Shock: Surviving Five Generations in One Workplace" (TVG Publishing, 2020).

Imposter Syndrome is another side-effect of digital connectedness, because college students do not have the life experience and perspective to know that what they see on social media isn’t real. In my upcoming book, “Culture Shock: Surviving Five Generations in One Workplace,” I talk about the fact that when people share on social media, they post about their joy and success, and their loss and sorrow. But there is a line that people rarely cross on social media—I know that is hard to believe. With very few exceptions, people rarely share the ugly side of life in the moment.

In the book I use the example of a college girl, who secretly suffers from alcoholism, but always posts pictures while out drinking and having a fabulous time. #WishYouWereHere. You—as a college kid—assume she has an incredible life with a lot of friends and so you compare and despair. “Why is she always out socializing, while am I always at home alone?” A month later, that same friend posts that she has stopped drinking and she “feels great about it.” It turns out that all of the fun was actually masking your friend’s alcoholism, she got kicked out of her sorority and she almost got kicked out of school. Interestingly, that part of the story did not make it into her social feed.


I call this digital compare-and-despair syndrome, but it is real, and it is causing real problems, like Imposter Syndrome.


Gen Z (roughly between the ages of 10 and 24 right now) is the first digital native generation—they have never known a world without an iPhone—and they are more comfortable talking via text than having an in-person conversation. We are just starting to see the mental and emotional repercussions of being digitally connected.

A 2017 study of 18-to-25-year olds saw a rise in suicide (jumped from 7% to 10.3%), depression is up from 8% to 13.2%. That’s a huge jump.


Another study of 18-34-year-olds found that 68% identified as having FOMO, which has become a real cause of depression and anxiety


In addition, being digitally connected means that Gen Z is more connected to news and information starting at a young age than any other generation before them. More importantly, they don’t have to go looking for the news, the news finds them. From Snapchat and TikTok to Instagram and YouTube, there are innumerable of ways for these young people to see others succeeding and feel like they don’t measure up.


Gen Z is fighting back against the idyllic portrayal of life as depicted on social media. When Instagram first started, i.e., before it had 1 billion monthly users, Millennials and Gen Z gravitated to it for the picture-perfect shot. For social media influencers of all ages (mostly in their teens and twenties) that meant a heavily planned and edited photo, similar to what you would see in a magazine spread, except shot on an iPhone with filters instead of with a million-dollars of equipment, location fees and stylists. I have been telling my PR clients recently that perfect appears to be losing its attraction and real-and-raw are in. The influencers who appeal to Gen Z are actually doctoring the photos to make themselves and the images look worse. 

This shift is very similar to what older generations saw in the early days of television. Perfect families in shows like “Leave It to Beaver” and “Ozzie and Harriet” in the 1950s ruled the airwaves until the social climate changed and we started to see “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Laverne & Shirley” and “The Odd Couple,” all about single and/or divorced women and men.


Solution: It is vital for parents, teachers and school counselors to provide the life perspective that these young people need. We have to do better as a society at recognizing that Gen Z is using social media as a way of measuring their own worth and it is not real life… not by a long shot.

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