If you’re anything like me, yesterday might have looked like this. Your alarm went off, signifying a new day and a fresh batch of notifications. Mmm yes, tastier than poached eggs on rye – and yes I’m going to stand up on my chair whilst I take this photo of my breakfast. During class, you snapped your friends the can’t-be-missed premature bald-spot of your unfortunate classmate Stephen. Lunch was accompanied by another Instagram photo of a wildly #unsatisfying vegan kale juice. The burger-flavoured chips that you demolished the second after, did not get featured for some reason. Alas, the day continues. I checked Facebook four hundred and twenty-two times yesterday. And that was a slow day.
There are 2 billion active users on Facebook, 1.5 billion users on YouTube, 700 million on Instagram, 328 million on Twitter, and 255 million on Snapchat. You could say that social media is a permanent fixture in our lives. Don’t believe me? Just look at all of those people who announce their departure of Facebook via dramatic status update followed by the anticlimactic clicking of “deactivate your account”. They always make their way back (I don’t have facts to support that, only personal experience that I won’t delve into much further). What I’m getting at is that we can choose from a variety of platforms to represent ourselves, to socialise, to voice our ideas and in some way, form an identity. I mean, the internet might as well have its own flag, and we are all netizens. However, while we have more and more people flocking to the land of Facebook and Instagram every day, reports of users experiencing a perception of a distorted body image are also increasing. What we put out on social media paints itself as reality, but it can be a mask and far from it.
Am I hot, or not?
I’m an avid Instagram user. I post several times a week and post a photo on my story almost every hour. My most liked photos, if I’m being completely honest here, are ones where I’m dressed in my most expensive dresses, with more makeup than RuPaul’s drag-queens and a carefully selected filter that air brushes all the acne that poor dietary choices and genetics entails. Eighty likes never seems to be enough when a previous post has received more, and to my disappointment, I scan my news feed to see hundreds of highly contoured girls candidly poking at their salad and not sweating on breath-taking hikes. All of their photos rack up hundreds, if not thousands of likes.
And what goes on in my head is this:
I’m not good enough.
I’m not famous enough.
Am I even hipster?
My room is legit a tip and I haven’t showered.
I didn’t wear this outfit outside.
Its a pretty dire response, and I don’t believe I’m alone in thinking this.
When you uploaded a new profile picture, how many of you never checked your notifications? A survey was taken in Australia which collected data from 438 young teenage girls in their first years of high school and again, two years later. They were asked if they had a Facebook profile, how much time they spent on the site and how many friends they had to gauge their involvement. Survey participants also filled out a questionnaire about their body image and surveillance (how they look at their bodies) to check for their drive for thinness. It was found that the number of friends greatly affected the girls’ body image as they were able to make greater comparisons with more people against idealised images, including those they did not personally know in real life, but were friends with on Facebook.
If you walk down memory lane a couple of years back you would remember the controversy of how photo-shopping photos in magazines led girls to body ideals that were not only unhealthy, but impossible.
Instagram is the new fashion magazine. Only, the photos are self-selected and there are literally millions of accounts to follow, and photos uploaded Every. Single. Second. And instead of paying 4.99 for a magazine, you get it for free. Straight to your phone sitting in your butt pocket.
On top of this, it could be argued that by constructing an online persona with carefully selected photos, people (girls in particular, but men are not immune to the habit) are advertising their bodies as independent from themselves. They put aesthetically pleasing images of themselves for the purpose of others to like and critique. This coupled with high rates of body surveillance is a recipe for low self-esteem. It forges a culture of looking at our bodies from a viewer perspective, acting and behaving to fit into what we perceive as attractive to the eye.
Comparison with others who seem to have similar resources and lifestyles to users is common because it can seem that a peer’s lifestyle is more personally attainable . We begin to objectify others’ bodies, seeing them as images instead of their lives as a whole. Alarmingly, even the inspirational, age-defying, hugely popular women who post “fitspiration images” and assure us that fitness is purely for health, were associated with a drive for thinness, bulimia, muscularity and compulsive exercise. 17.5% of 101 “fitspo” account holders were at risk for being diagnosed with an eating disorder, because of the nature of their posting style they were driven to eat in a specific way to have results they could post. Extreme levels of exercise and diet can lead to injuries, social withdrawal and fatigue.
I mean, we could just go back to where it all started. Its October 2003 and Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg hacks into Harvard House websites to compile a series of photos of students that he uploads to a website that he’s created. The programming and algorithms are his main reason behind creating a rudimentary “Hot or Not” website where students can vote which student is hotter, just by the profile photos of his fellow students. The site is visited over 450 times in one day, racking up 22,000 votes. He called it Facemash, and it was the precursor to his much more successful development of Facebook later. But the controversy surrounding Facemash was not just about breach of privacy. It was the fact that students could vote on the level of attractiveness of each other.
And that’s the thing. Essentially, its the evaluation of physique that posting begs for. And if there are 2 billion Facebook users today, whose to know how many Facebook users there will be tomorrow? The harmful impact that social media has on body image is unprecedented, and most likely be proliferated through time. And whilst there are positive aspects to the fast-paced nature of social media such as spread of awareness and mobilization of social issues, only those with the social prowess will be able to beat the algorithm to spread their information.
So just like road signs aim to keep drivers and pedestrians safe, perhaps social media platforms need to form tools for users to use social media in ways that will be healthy. The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) in the United Kingdom conducted a UK-wide study called #StatusOfMind in 2017 which surveyed 1479 teens/young adults asking them about their feelings towards various social media platforms. Questions explored the impact these had on the individuals’ mental and physical health, body image, relationships with others and social life. They suggested that in order to help young people regulate their usage of social media and prevent negative mental health outcomes:
- a ‘pop-up’ notification could be presented to warn users of heavy and unhealthy usage of social media.
- social media platforms themselves could also screen their users by their posting style to find out who exhibits symptoms of depression and anxiety, and discretely notify health advocates and communities to support these users.
- social media platforms could also pledge to highlight when photos of people have been edited to help users realize that what they are seeing is not completely natural.
These tools could greatly improve the way young people approach social media and thus positively affect their mental health, self-esteem and image. But even so, just the way we regulate our own usage can go a long way.
I mean, yesterday night I used Facebook to contact friends I hadn’t seen in a long time. I used Youtube to link my friend a video about cute cats, which may or may not have changed her life but probably didn’t ruin it either. I used Instagram to raise awareness of a cause I am passionate for, after tapping through Instagram stories of my friends. And I went to sleep, having clocked 1000 visits to social media.
This post was originally my assignment for my BYU writing class. It was modified from a research paper. All views are my own personal opinions.