There’s a night-time scene in the classic movie Home Alone, where the camera pans across the vast, twinkling, treasure box of the McCallister house. All the windows are aglow, fairy lights stud the door frames, and a wreath hangs resplendent on the door. Even as a seven-year-old, I remember wondering, vaguely, how Kevin McCallister’s parents could afford such a palace (“they’re just rich,” my mum said.)
Less vaguely, I remember thinking that this palatial house, with its carefully curated, red, gold and green decorations, populated by a big, sprawling, too-many-relatives-to-count family, was the absolute embodiment of Christmas. ‘This is what it’s meant to look like,’ I thought, with a little envy. ‘This is the proper way to celebrate.’
Fast forward 23 years and, for a comparable hit of envy (or inspiration, depending on how you look at it), we no longer need to switch on a TV. In the age of social media, decadent Christmases are just a thumb-swipe away.
Even if you don’t actively cruise the ‘Christmas’ hashtags, your social feeds over the festive period will likely become devoted to smiling, tipsy people wearing Santa hats at parties, crisply-wrapped presents, and stylish trees, heaving with decorations. You may even scroll past houses so extravagantly primped and twinkly that they put even the McCallisters to shame.
It’s enough to make anyone feel like their version of 'festive' is somehow lacking. Not enough cheer, not enough twinkle, certainly not enough presents.
But I’m no Scrooge - personally I think social media can be a lot of fun. Like most people, I post about achievements I’m proud of or things I find funny. And around this time, I love peeking into the Christmases of friends and celebrities - it’s always interesting to get a glimpse of other people’s festive traditions.
Every week new headlines seem to surface about how social media - and Instagram particularly - is ruining everything, from our friendships to our summer holidays, and even our weddings. I’m wary of joining them because, used responsibly and with enough self-awareness, I believe all social media can be fine. More than fine, it can be a place where we find connection, inspiration, and where we share in the joys of others.
There’s just one glaring ‘but’: shopping. Not only is social media changing the way we capture our Christmases, it’s impacting the way we shop for them. For a medium that is notorious for fostering feelings of insecurity, jealousy and ‘missing out’, being able to buy goods in just a few clicks is - to me, at least - somewhat troubling.
According to one US-based survey, this Christmas season, those in the 17-22 age group are expected to shop more through Instagram and Snapchat than through any other digital platform. Perhaps unsurprising when you consider that both platforms have worked hard to make the experience as quick and seamless as possible.
In June this year, Instagram began allowing users to shop directly from Stories (the moreish part of Instagram where users post in-the-moment videos and pictures which disappear after 24 hours) by clicking on tagged items. And in November, they announced further updates which would make it infinitely easier to find and shop for new items (“three new ways to discover new products, shop from your favourite brands, and keep track of all your shopping inspiration in one place on Instagram. Just in time for the holidays.” Merry Christmas, you filthy animals.)
Tech website Mashable has even theorised that Instagram might even be positioning itself to take on shopping behemoth Amazon. Which isn't outside the realms of possibility when you consider that, according to the company (which has 1 billion active users), more than 90 million people around the world click on the shopping tags every month.
I’ve certainly found myself making rash purchases on Instagram and Facebook (which has long been known for its efficiency in collecting data about our search histories to show us highly targeted ads) - usually just small things, a hat for £12, a pair of earrings for £25. I took some time off social media when I found myself coveting a £300 monogrammed scarf that every influencer I followed seemed to be wearing. “It’s an investment purchase,” I told my mum. “It’s half your rent,” she replied. “But waste your money however you want.” (I didn’t buy the scarf).
Snapchat, meanwhile, has taken a more 'if-you-can't-beat-them' approach; in September the company announced that it was testing a new shopping feature which would allow users to search for items on Amazon just by hovering their cameras over the physical item, or over a barcode. "Snapchat has always been the fastest way to communicate, and now it's the fastest way to shop!" they enthused when they announced this nifty new trick.
As Laura Saunter, retail editor at trends forecasting agency WGSN Insight, explains: “It’s not necessarily about luring people to spend more, but joining up the dots to make it easier for consumers to spend on the platform – to shorten the path from inspiration to checkout.” (Though, arguably, making it easier and more seamless will make us spend more.)
It’s not like Christmases before the internet were puritanical affairs where we gathered around a single roasted guinea fowl to exchange satsumas and meaningful glances. It’s just that - with the added element of FOMO and ‘doin-it-for-the-’gram’ competitiveness - the rampant consumerism of the festive season seems to have become even more, well, rampant.
According to the ONS, average weekly internet sales figures nearly tripled between November 2010 and 2017. As one friend recently commented when I canvassed for opinions: “I hate that IG makes me compare my Christmas to celebrity Christmases -- that’s an INSANE bar. Am I supposed to have eight trees now?”
Rationally, we all know that the answer to that question is ‘no’. But when the pictures are so pretty, and conveniently tagged so that you can click-through and buy the products featured in them in under a minute, it takes willpower to stick to that ‘no’. Especially when you add in the emotional stresses that social media puts on us, but more on this later.
“Before, a catalogue would come through your letterbox,” says influencer and author of a book on social media, Katherine Ormerod. “You’d flick through and maybe find one or two things you liked," she says. "Now, though, you have a catalogue on an endless scroll on your phone. For some of us, our social media feeds are the first thing we see in the morning and the last thing we look at at night. That’s a lot of time to be exposed to products and images that are, in many instances, designed to make you buy something.”
A survey of 1,000 people conducted earlier this year found that, after scrolling through social media, 38% of millennial respondents said they were more likely to make a purchase, and 41% admitted to having made a purchase to feel better about their own lives. Another US-based study found that 57% of the 3,000 millennials surveyed had spent money when they hadn’t planned to because of what they saw on social media.
Laura Saunter points out that “people are inspired to shop as it feels like an authentic way of buying into an aspirational lifestyle.” At Christmas, when more people report feeling lonely and out-of-step with their peers than at any other time, the lure of pretty pictures and the 'one-click-feel-good' factor of buying something which makes you feel like you belong to a tribe can be overwhelming. “It’s easy to see an item in a lovely lifestyle picture and feel like, by buying the item, you’re buying into that lifestyle,” agrees Katherine.
Amelia Perrin currently has 10,000 followers on Instagram and is actively growing her presence.
As she told me: “I think social media, especially Instagram, encourages and glorifies excess. And I do think people - and particularly younger people - can end up feeling dissatisfied with what they have because of what they see on social. I try to be transparent when I post about new purchases - for instance, I recently put up a story about how many beauty products I'd been buying this month. I was poking fun at the excess. But then I made sure to clarify that I'd paid for it all with credits that I'd earned through referrals - i.e. it wasn't with my own money and I could never personally afford to spend that much outright. I didn't want to normalise that level of excess."
Beyond 'normalising excess', making the goods look appealing and then allowing us to buy them in a few quick clicks, social media can also have a profound impact on our moods and minds, which might influence our spending habits.
Growing up, my Christmases did not look like the McCallisters’. They were cosy. There was food (my mum is a truly talented cook, and she’d make more food than three people - myself and my parents, I am an only child - could ever hope to eat). There were presents and a nice small tree (always real) with mismatched baubles and a bald fairy that I’d made out of card, aged six. But they were quiet Christmases, where we watched films and shuttled back-and-forth to the fridge, to restock our plates with cheeses, puddings, mince pies and clotted cream.
And then my dad died, and they became quieter still.
It was always odd to see how loud the Christmases on TV and in films, were. Not just decibels loud, but existentially loud, excessive. Food for 50, presents for 60, parties for hundreds - people, people, people, money, money, money - but it was all worth it, because it was done in the name of togetherness (or so the heartwarming message went). Watching all those people, with all those presents, I often felt a chafing sense of inadequacy in comparison. At least, though, I understood that those on TV were not real people. That those Christmases were a fantasy.
Part of the emotional sleight-of-hand of platforms like Instagram and Facebook is that, as Katherine points out, “when we look at the pictures of others we can’t help but think that what we’re seeing is their reality. In fact it’s just the best 1% of someone’s Christmas. I don’t want to say that it’s all fiction, but the pictures are a heavily stylised version of reality.” Unlike films and TV, though, there’s no reality-check; there are no end credits to remind you that what you’ve seen was a show, with actors and set design.
For this reason, numerous studies and papers published in recent years, point out that social media can leave us feeling anxious, sad, lonely and envious.
Recently, a new study by researchers at York University, Toronto showed how using social media, even just for five minutes, led to an increase in negative body image for women in their late teens and early 20s. In a blog post about the findings, the researchers point out that, “social media can blur the lines on what’s real and what’s fantasy,” while Dr Jennifer S Mills, one of the study’s co-authors, explains how, “when we compare ourselves to other people, that has the potential to affect the valuation of ourselves.” In a similar vein, the University of Pittsburgh found that spending too much time on social media can “elicit feelings of envy and the distorted belief that others lead happier and more successful lives”.
Of course it's not all bad - Carmel Glassbrook is a helpline practitioner for the UK Safer Internet Centre. She points out that social media can be a force for good in all of our lives. “You can find your tribe online - you can find stories of people who have gone through similar things to you and become incredibly successful - which can be very encouraging, particularly for young people who're maybe lacking a role model," she says. Her advice? Be wary of the extra free time around Christmas. "We end up sitting and scrolling for hours because we have the time to. Just be sure that you’re having dedicated breaks."
Perhaps it’s because of my own experiences that I’m wary. Christmas is traditionally a time when many of us feel vulnerable; and that’s not because of social media. It’s because, at the end of the year, we huddle together in our little family groups and take a moment to reflect on our lives and achievements. And to think - whether consciously or subconsciously - about the people who aren’t there, the people we’ve lost, all the ways things have changed, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Which is pretty intense for anyone.
To me, social media offers a glimpse into a ‘perfect’ world, where the people are beautiful and happy. Where the presents are big and expensive, where we’re surrounded by family who love us (rather than annoy us), and friends who’ve always got our backs. It’s a deeply alluring fakery, which can have a very real impact on us. Even those of us who have iron willpower, under the influence of heightened emotions - and desperate to recreate some of the magic we see on our phone screens - could end up making some poor choices.
These platforms facilitate those choices with the fewest possible impediments. Just a few clicks, and that perfect Christmas? It’s all yours.