I have no shame in saying that I've been mentally affected by using social media. I'm under absolutely no illusions and I'm perfectly aware of how it can make me feel; excluded, lonely and inadequate. I'll see an image of friends on holiday or in happy relationships and think 'why can't I have that?'
There have been a number of reports in the UK around the effect social media can have on our mental health, particularly those aged 16-24. Even though all of these reports are telling us how bad being online is for our self-esteem, we still go back for more. Why? Probably because there are lots of positive and amazing things to come out of social media as well!
I wanted to take a look at some of the facts and figures and try to come up with some solutions to our social media problems and obsessions. How can we stop these images and curated lives of strangers, affecting how we perceive ourselves and our own lives? And how can we take back social media and use it for positivity, connection and change?
The Rise of Social Media
Social media is now a part of our natural lives, it’s a part of nearly everything we do. Off for a meal with friends? Must check in on Facebook so people know I’m enjoying myself. On holiday with a boyfriend/girlfriend? Must pose together at sunset so everyone knows that we’re happy and loved up.
We have become the online curators of our own lives, creating this fantasy world that we can project to strangers far and wide. With the continued growth of social media, this idea that we have to ‘put our best selves forward’ only continues to get more extreme.
The culture of sharing has moved past a way for us to connect, and become a way for us to compete. We are often told that ‘comparison is the thief of joy’, but how can we stop ourselves comparing our own lives or physical appearance, when it is basically in our face 24/7?
The Growing Usage of Social
Some studies have associated the rise of social media usage, with the dramatic rise in those diagnosed with a mental illness. It may be just a coincidence, but as I said, we all know that we are affected emotionally when we look at social media, whether it’s positively or negatively.
In 2013, social media users on the top 3 social platforms looked a bit like this:
Facebook users – 1.4 Billion
Twitter users – 218 Million
Instagram users – 100 Million
These days, in 2017, the numbers are a little higher:
Facebook users – 1.9 Billion
Twitter users – 310 Million
Instagram – 500 Million
Instagram has by far seen the biggest rise in users and is often the biggest culprit for the curation of the perfect life. With a rise of 400 Million users over the last 4 years, it has had to deal with cyber bullies, ridiculous body shaming trends (why are we even still talking about the thigh gap or hip dip?) and birthing the term ‘Instagram worthy’. A recent UK Snapshot survey also revealed that the platform was the worst when it came to impacting the mental health of young people.
How Could Social Media Be Playing a Part In Our Poor Mental Health?
We are constantly bombarded with the idea of perfection, most of which is completely unattainable for normal human beings.
According to stats reported by The Mental Health Foundation in 2016, eating disorders in people under the age of 25 are double that of any other age in the UK. Bullying has also risen, with The Ditch the Label cyberbullying survey highlighting 6 in 10 young people reporting that they had been cyber bullied.
Social media has given us a way to highlight different versions of perfection, whether that is having ‘squad goals’, a thigh gap, no hip dip, washboard abs, a perfect diet or a ‘Pinterest worthy’ home. These perceptions have now managed to make, specifically younger people, feel like they have to take drastic action to ‘fit in’ and has given those that enjoy a good trolling, this idea that if someone doesn’t fit with that norm, they are a target, just asking to be abused.
This new way for us to express ourselves shouldn’t be something used to create more trends and stigmas however, the internet is open to anyone and everyone and it should reflect the diversity of its users!
The Positive Side of Social Media
Keeping all of this in mind, it’s important to also pay attention to how social media is helping to end the stigma behind mental health. It has given a platform for those who want to talk about their illnesses, such as myself, a way to connect with others who might be suffering themselves or been through something similar.
Social media has given individuals who may find it hard to socialise face-to-face, a way to connect with others and form relationships and friendships, through creating an online community. Unfortunately, the bad always over powers the good when it comes to headlines and media coverage and we very rarely here the positive impact that social media has on the fight against mental illness.
How Can We Manage the Negative Affect Social Media Has On Us?
It could be so easy to just say ‘hey, just don’t look at your social media!’, but for many of us, it’s the way we connect with friends, family, people with similar interests and even a place to get the latest news and goings on. So, I will say this, be more mindful of how often and when you use social media.
Many of us will mindlessly scroll through our Instagram feeds or Facebook feeds and not even pay attention to how the content is making us feel, we just take it all in subconsciously. By being more mindful of how we use our social media, how the content makes us feel and how often we check in, we can start to spot areas of improvement.
It may be that you notice a particular Instagram account that makes you feel insecure or inadequate, you can then cut them from your feed and remove that content from your life. For example, on Instagram, I won’t follow accounts that are purely selfies of someone with a six pack and a seemingly idyllic life, because it wouldn’t make me feel good about myself.
You have full control of what you see day to day on social media, thanks to privacy options and options to ‘opt out’ of certain feeds, give or take the odd sneaky post slipping through. Why not take some time out and do a little social audit? Getting rid of the bad content and keeping the more inspiring posts.
Seeing Shouldn’t Always Be Believing
Another way to stop your social media from making you feel crappy and down on yourself is to educate yourself in how these influencers create their posts. There are a lot of fitness bloggers highlighting how they get those washboard abs for their Instagram pictures and plenty of posts on how to create the ‘perfect’ Instagram image. All of these types of posts can help give you the tools to instantly notice the posts that are bullshit and those that have had a few minor tweaks.
Another area to watch out for is follower numbers. Follower numbers do not dictate how popular or well loved you are. At one point, back in my peak blogger days, I had around 400+ followers on Instagram. I would hazard a well-informed guess that around 80-85% of those were spam accounts. People will follow you so you follow them back. If you ignore these new followers, they will probably unfollow you almost immediately. I’ll go into this more at a later stage, but follower numbers do not a popular human make.
Many of us will live by the saying ‘seeing is believing’, but in the age of social media, that’s no longer the case. Only research and complete transparency can help us to tackle this curation of perfection.
Social media was created to entertain us, help us share our lives with friends and generally enjoy. It has since become a way for us to compare and compete and the only way we can get this ideal back, is to take back social media as a community. Educate each other, by all means, create a beautiful flat lay of your breakfast, but once in a while, drop a truth bomb into your social feed. There’s no shame in not having a perfect life or perfect body and the only way we’ll be able to eradicate this is if we all work together.
How Can We Use Social Media For Good?
Finding or creating a community around a passion you have, or a hobby, can help you to reach other like-minded people anywhere in the world! Platforms such as Tumblr (which has a number of different, amazing communities ticking away) Instagram or Twitter can make it easy to pull together your type of people. Create your own hashtag or start your own private group around your chosen subject and throw out a call to others who might be interested in joining your tribe!
Why not set yourself a challenge this month, try and post a positive, uplifting or complimentary comment on someones picture or post every single day. Don’t just stick an emoji in there and have done with it, really pay attention to their words or their image and create a meaningful response to send to that person. Don’t expect anything back, just feel comforted in the fact that your nice comment, in a world of trolls, may just make that person’s day!