Over the past two decades, technology has integrated itself within our daily lives. And while it seems like technology has generally made the world a better and more accessible place, we have seen a surge in mental illness- especially among teenagers. So, does excessive social media usage really impact our mental health? Is it really as bad or good as everyone makes it out to be?
Body dysmorphia is a mental health condition which causes a person to spend a lot of their time obsessing over different flaws they find in their physical appearance. This disorder affects both men and women but is especially common among teenagers and young adults.
Studies have shown that there is a link between excessive social media use and body dysmorphia; we see a lot of lack of representation in the media, and when you're a hormonal teenager still trying to figure out their identity and how their body works, consistently seeing picture-perfect models with excessive editing and plastic surgery leads these teenagers to suffer from insecurity and depression- which can ultimately lead to body dysmorphia. And the issue is- a lot of teenagers are struggling with this. 93% of youth is on the internet with 89% of 18-29 year olds using social media. That's a lot of people constantly consuming content that is toxic for them.
In 2019, Rankin launched a project called "Selfie Harm". In this project, 15 portraits were taken of teenagers and the teenagers were asked to edit their pictures so that they could post them.
Every single teenager edited their picture- so much so to the point where the product was unrecognizable to the original portrait.
It's no news that the media impacts way we see our bodies. But I don't think we talk about how severe that impact is- 80% of women say that the images of women in TV shows, movies and the media in general make them feel insecure, and 42% of young girls want to be skinnier.
In addition to all of that, we see a rise in filters. A lot of men and women nowadays cannot take pictures of theirselves without editing them or using a filter- there is this constant pressure to look good all the time and adhere to the picture-perfect social media presence. But can body dysmorphia be dangerous?
The reality is yes, body dysmorphia can be dangerous. In 2019 alone, 18.1 million cosmetic procedures were performed in the United States. That's a lot of plastic surgery, and more than 1 million of those procedures were performed on people aged 13-29. It often comes with depression and anxiety, and in some cases, it can even lead to the development of eating disorders.
There are 4 main types of eating disorders; anorexia nervosa which is categorized through the desire to weigh as little as possible, bulimia which is categorized through the fear of putting on weight and an abnormal obsession with dieting, binge-eating disorder which is categorized by overeating in order to cope with low self esteem and pica (usually found in children age 1-6) which is categorized through people eating things they're not supposed to eat.
A study conducted on women ages 18-25 by the National Eating Disorder Association found that there is a link between Instagram and an increase in self objectification and negative body image. Another study conducted showed that increased Instagram usage was actually correlated with orthorexia nervosa symptoms.
Social media consistently causes us to compare ourselves to unrealistic ideals of life and beauty. People choose a certain side of their lives to portray on social media, this side happens to be the often "perfect" lifestyle that features an unrealistic beauty standard that can only be achieved through plastic surgery and editing, for someone with an eating disorder- this is so toxic and extremely triggering. It causes them to compare their body to pictures that they see on social media, and they are often unaware that these pictures are edited or taken at certain angles to make the body look 'ideal'
A study that was published in 2004 (coincidentally the same year Facebook was launched) came to a conclusion that the media played an extremely significant role in developing eating disorders. The media glorifies skinny bodies and place huge emphasis on beauty. This constant pressure to be thin is what leads people to develop eating disorders.
Alongside the glorification of certain body types on social media, there is a much more dangerous factor that contributes to the development of eating disorders; pro-Ana.
Pro-Ana was a tag on Tumblr that in short, romanticized anorexia. Pro-Ana posts were often very aesthetic and showed off people's weight loss and how little they would eat in a day. And you did not have to be a part of these communities to consume this type of content- it was everywhere. And while on Tumblr, the Pro-Ana communities have died down, these communities have now spread to all social media platforms- specifically TikTok.
Pro-Ana taught you how to have an eating disorder- it was (and still is) very dangerous and triggering. Dark humor about eating disorders have also contributed to the triggering of eating disorders- that's not to mention the weight loss advice, diet tips and calorie restriction that can be found pretty much everywhere on the internet. Whether you want to see it or not, it's there.
Social media itself does not cause eating disorders- but it can help trigger already underlying symptoms.
Depression is diagnosed when a person feels down and loses all pleasure in life for a period longer than two weeks. Its symptoms make daily tasks difficult to deal with as it results in low moon, irritability, low motivation and difficulty concentrating.
Several studies have found a link between depression and excessive social media use. Teenagers and young adults who spend more time on social media reported higher rates (13-16%) of depression than people who spent less time.
A study conducted in 2017 on 500,000 12 graders found that the percentage of teenagers exhibiting symptoms of depression has increased 33% between 2010 and 2015, and the suicide rate for girls in that same exact age group increased by 65%.
The issue is that now we spend less time interaction with our friends in person, and we interact with them online instead and while it is nice that we are able to reach out to our loved ones easily at any given point in time, experts say that online connections are less emotionally satisfying which leaves us feeling socially isolated.
Social media also reduces the amount of time we spend doing healthy and productive activity, this has led to a decrease in physical activity. This reduces the production of endorphins in the body which are a chemical responsible for emotional well being. This reduction in productive activity has also led to a decrease in learning and academic performance which leads to a lot of stress and then eventually leads to sleep deprivation.
Sleep deprivation directly impacts mood and wellbeing. Studies show that 60% of teenagers look at their phones during the last 2 hours before sleep, these teens end up getting an hour less sleep than people who don't use their devices before bed. This is due to blue light interference.
Social media apps like Instagram also serve as a slot machine- the outcome is predictable, and people will repeat it. When you post something online, you don't know what the outcome will be like and that's what makes posting so addictive. It's all about desired outcome.
Over the years, social media has allowed us to communicate with our friends, family and even strangers regardless of where they are in the world. It has increased the connection between people globally and helped us connect with people who share similar interests as us even if they're not near.
It's allowed for the growth of social movements such as the #MeToo Movement and the Black Lives Matter Movement.
Furthermore, it provides us with an outlet for self-expression and creativity and we are constantly learning about new things due to social media because we're constantly connecting with other people. It encourages us to take action and find our voice, and it's an outlet- people share their thoughts and feelings all the time. Social media begins to become a problem when it decreases the amount of productive activities we do .
60% of students in the UK said they used social media to talk to their friends and colleagues about homework, and 50% of students only use social media to talk about homework.
Like most social movements, the body positivity movement has had its positives and its negatives. It focuses more on loving the way our bodies look rather than loving the way our bodies function- which is far more important.