College vlogs, 5 am morning routines, “five-hour study with me.” From a quick glance at my YouTube recommendations, it is quite apparent I watch productivity videos. Like thousands of other students, my YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and even Pinterest feeds are filled with ‘perfect’ college students who are taking a full schedule, have a job or an internship, work out every day, and sleep normal hours. This appealing lifestyle of aesthetic notes, straight-As, and maximizing output in school is known as productivity culture. While this content feels motivational on the surface, does it promote a harmful mindset and lifestyle?
Since my freshman year of high school, I lived for academia. Every summer I waited for the back-to-school content from YouTubers: school supply shopping, morning routines, and college “days in my life.” I was fixated on the idea of attending a prestigious university and those years being the best of my life. I overloaded myself with Advanced Placement (AP) courses, extracurricular activities, and volunteer hours so I could get into the college of my dreams and live out the vlogs I watched on YouTube. Not only did this create a false reality of college life, but also caused me to struggle with my transition to college as a student and as a young adult.
My first semester of college was completely foreign. In addition to attending a university, thousands of miles from home, the classes were challenging and professors were tough. Between endless study sessions and assignments, college content was my escape from reality. I watched vlogs and saw students getting As on all of their exams and hanging out with friends on their first day of classes. My Pinterest feed was saturated with aesthetic notes from lectures. Amazed with five-hour study time lapses, I admired the stamina and focus of students online. My academic life was very different. I did not get As on every paper or homework assignment. It took months to find a community at my school. I barely had enough time to talk to my family. I developed anxiety. On top of all of this, I constantly compared my struggles to the student with 300,000 subscribers on YouTube who showcased the assignments they finished and their balanced healthy meals. This “escape from reality” became another way to criticize my own life.
This content, although incredibly motivating as a younger student, caused unhealthy comparisons and a distorted view of college. I wanted to live vicariously through the college students I watched on YouTube the moment I arrived at my campus. In doing so, however, I was living someone else’s life rather than my own. My student experience did not look the same as the screenshots from my Pinterest feed. I stayed up until 4 am working on statistics assignments, had to rewrite citations for my papers, and rewatched lectures in order to achieve the same success as other students on social media.
So, what changed?
One of the biggest changes to my understanding of productivity culture was documenting my own experience. I made a ‘Studygram’, the combination of studying content and an Instagram page, to track my academic life. I tried to be as authentic as possible, showing my habits: staying up late, finishing political science readings, or forgetting to take notes on a lecture. With the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to showcase that everyone was struggling. I posted about my classes, grades, and overall lifestyle. Now a part of the Studygram community myself, I was able to connect with other students documenting their college lives.
Another shift I also noticed was the acceptance of struggling. Although my feeds were still filled with beautiful lecture notes and study time lapses, I also started to see Studygram accounts post a bad grade here and there. Even an Instagram story of someone studying for a chemistry exam at 3 am made me feel like others were going through the same difficulties as me. My YouTube feed slowly shifted from “My Six-hour Studying Routine” to “A Stressful Day in My Life” and “What College is Really Like.” The titles themselves started to recognize how a fixation on productivity and output was unhealthy.
This gradual alteration to the world of productivity culture has helped my perception of social media and college life. Fellow classmates have noted similar positive changes to the world of productivity. Comments express how “inspirational” and “relatable” the content is instead of “unachievable” and “stress-inducing.” Having content creators that students can relate to is incredibly important, and the recent shift to showcasing reality over toxicity will hopefully continue to spread among all social media platforms.
In the meantime, there are several college vloggers and ‘Studygram’ influencers who promote realistic academic and personal life. Some fantastic creators on YouTube are Hannah Elise, Anastasia Perrault, Paige Kaiser, and Riley Rehl. Check them out and make your own shift to promoting reality over toxicity.
All photos are from Anna’s Instagram (@_annasstudies) and should not be used without Anna’s permission.