The Mind Feature: The dichotomy between social media & mental health

Social media is a place where we can present exactly what we want to present. From Facebook to Tumblr, we curate our lives online, carefully selecting the best bits, generally leaving out the negative or mundane. Many social media accounts create an image of an ideal life; holiday snaps, selfies, numerous achievements and social events. It’s easy to feel like you’re missing out and that everyone else is leading much more exciting, happier lives than you, when scrolling through your Instagram feed. Artist and blogger Jemma Wade, who has over 68,000 Instagram followers, told Spindle, “I think everyone’s guilty of being slightly envious of someone else’s life that they’ve followed online, not knowing that in fact they lead completely normal lives just like themselves.”

Social media can severely affect our mental health, creating pressure to lead a picture-perfect life and to seek validation in the amount of ‘likes’ your posts get. Luanna Perez-Garreaud, who has over 2 million followers on Instagram and is the founder of style blog Le Happy, told us, “I totally feel social media affects our mental health more than anyone could imagine. We are now in this constant seek for approval through our social media platforms and curating our lives for everyone to see through a screen.” It can be easy to become obsessed with this number, or your follower count, or to spend ages taking the ‘perfect’ selfie or documenting every fun thing you do.

Of course we want to share the best parts of our lives. But “pictures are deceiving and it’s important to remember that what you see online is just snippets of someone’s world,” said Jemma. A problem occurs when we forget this, feel pressured to live up to the idealistic image that social media often creates. “Now more than ever we can see the virtual world as an extension to our reality,” said Luanna, “but at the same time I have to be mindful that what I see online is not necessarily real, or it is at least a distorted version of reality.” Indeed, some of the content on social media is extremely constructed, despite seeming authentic. Last year Essena O’Neill, who had a huge online following, decided to quit social media after she realised it was severely damaging her mental health. She renamed her Instagram account ‘Social Media Is Not Real Life’ and changed the captions of numerous photos to uncover the truth behind the image. She revealed numerous photos took hundreds of shots to achieve one she was happy with, in many she was paid to wear a piece of clothing, and she questioned her motives behind the images.

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However, social media can be a place of great self-expression for people who struggle with their mental health. “I really can’t stress enough how helpful social media has been not only for myself but for other people too,” Jemma told us, “It made me realise that so many other people suffer with mental health problems and that it’s completely okay to not be okay. I also feel like it’s been an amazing platform for me to get my voice heard and help people out.” This has to be one of the best aspects of the internet; the ability to connect with others from all over the world, who might be feeling the same. It’s that realisation that so many emotions are universal, and you are not alone. People have been able to gain the kind of support and comfort they may have been unable to find in real life. The internet and social media make this realisation easier than ever, and online communities can be extremely helpful and supportive.

But there is a dark side. Expressing yourself online has also resulted in very different kinds of online communities. Away from the accounts that try to help sufferers of mental illnesses, you can also find those that actually promote destructive behaviour, such as self-harm and eating disorders. Those ‘thinspo’ (thin inspiration) accounts that pop up may look they’re simply encouraging a ‘healthy weight’ (whatever that is), but actually they shame anyone who isn’t utterly skinny, suggest dangerous methods of weight loss, and encourage eating disorders. Gina, who runs the body positive Instagram account Nourish and Eat, aims to support people struggling with body image and eating disorders, and shared with us, “The first thing I did when I started recovery was eliminate the negative influences in my feed. It can be so hard to see past it all when it’s all you see every single day.” There are certainly online spaces that only inspire shame and guilt, and can have extremely dangerous affects on vulnerable people.

With this kind of damaging content on social media sites and apps, do these platforms have a responsibility to protect and help their users? It was recently announced that Instagram have introduced in a new feature (in the U.S, and soon globally) that allows people to anonymously flag up another user if they think they may be suffering with their mental health. This user will receive a message that reads, “Someone saw one of your posts and thinks you might be going through a difficult time. If you need support, we’d like to help,” and offers a variety of options for support, such as calling a friend, listing phone numbers for local support helplines, and info on how to seek advice on mental health. The same message will appear when users search for certain hashtags such as #selfharm and #depression.

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But how helpful will this feature be? Is it Instagram’s place to comment on their users’ mental health, or is it part of their responsibility as host to a lot of negative influences? Jemma said, “I absolutely love the new feature, it’s a massive platform so it’s important that we all look out for each other. It’s wonderful that we will have something to remind people that we care for them when they’re going through a tough time.” Gina liked the feature “as an idea,” but believes Instagram needs to do more, “What really needs to change is how accounts are looked at. We need crisis teams ready to read the things people are posting, and connect them with people who can help those who are struggling rather than simply brush them off with a canned ‘warning’ response.” Luanna highlighted that “the idea of reporting a potential mental health issue is delicate,” explaining that “perception plays a major role in virtual interaction and it is so easy to misread things, but also because in some cases people may be triggered by the notification that somebody in their circle considers them to be unstable.” However, she was more impressed with the new search feature, “Many who suffer search for peers through hashtags like #depression to see how others live with the same condition. So I think it will help when they search for similar terms and get notified, disrupting their thought process and letting them know that they need to look for help in the real world.”

Instagram have taken responsibility and made steps towards helping the users their content can seriously affect, and hopefully this new feature will help people. If you feel social media is negatively impacting your mental health, Gina, whose account is a perfect example of the positive, supportive side of social media, suggests, “Go through your feed and unfollow anyone who makes you feel shit about yourself. Surround yourself only with people who make you feel like you’re good just the way you are. Choose your influences.”

If you or anyone you know is suffering with their mental health, please visit the website of charity Mind, for advice and support.