In a society that has aggressively and rapidly normalized technology and social media, it’s heavily debated whether or not these newfound habits will have detrimental side effects on our mental health and sense of self. As we slowly accumulate facts and understand societal changes in behavior—the hours spent online, emotional reactions to content, pressures to be involved within inherently isolating platforms—the implications appear grim.
Take yourself for example. How many minutes (hours!) a day do you spend essentially living through the lens of someone else’s life? A 2015 Pew Research Center study finds that 92 percent of teens ages 13 to 17 use the internet every day, with 24 percent reporting they go online “almost constantly.” The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) reports that 91 percent of 16 to 24-year-olds use the internet for social media. About the rise in social media platforms and access to internet-centric technology, Shirley Cramer, chief executive of RSPH, stated: “Social media has been described as more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol, and is now so entrenched in the lives of young people that it is no longer possible to ignore it when talking about young people’s mental health issues.”
This excessive time online sparks risk for more than subconscious infatuation—it destroys the attention span, negatively affects our ability to measure self-worth, and increases levels of anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders. The more time we spend on social platforms, the more we take away from the activities in life that keep us mentally healthy and physically active; we narrow the window of potential time furthering our passions, education, and self-development.
Through endless advertisements that blur the distinction between organic and sponsored posts, selfies, five-star vacations, romantic relationships, new jobs, and expensive, materialistic things that we constantly flip through, the media has put us under a spell. Society is shifting into a reality less present with our interaction between friends, family, and significant others; these are conversations and connections becoming more and more interrupted by scrolling, recording, posting.
The most striking contrast in platform users is girls and boys. According to Pew, teenage girls use social media—particularly visually oriented sites—for sharing more than boys do. Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat provide a vast opportunity for advertising organizations to directly influence the population, which affects social standards. Unrealistic body image standards, thinness and fitness ideals, and hyper-sexualized women have been prevalent in movies, television, and magazines for the past century and these pressures have seamlessly crept into the social universe accessible at our fingertips.
This constant stream of images and videos portraying a preconstructed ideal of beauty starts to become the expected norm for appearances and behaviors, a damaging pattern that occurs with enough influence to pit what’s real against the distorted, objectified women the media has created. Young girls who are exposed to cunning marketing tactics begin to internalize these images and set unrealistic expectations for themselves.
When apps like “Retouch Me: Body & Face Editor,” “Body Plastic Surgery,” and “Facetune” remain popular across all age groups, it’s no wonder we’re falling into an age of body image disorders. While the media is trying to expand representation of women of all shapes, sizes and colors, there’s no denying the pressures that continue to exist for both men and women to conform to specific body types. It is imperative that we filter the content we view online into realistic standards of the human body. Not only must we control our media consumption, we must also stray from portraying ourselves online as something that we’re not, physically or emotionally.
A study conducted by Florida State University found that a group of women who were asked to browse Facebook for 20 minutes experienced drastically greater body dissatisfaction than those who spent 20 minutes researching rainforest cats online. As award-winning expert on body image Claire Mysko explains in relation to the study, “While social media is not the cause of low self-esteem, it has all the right elements to contribute to it. Social media creates an environment where disordered thoughts and behaviors really thrive.” Mysko also warns that, while social media gives young people, especially girls, the feedback and validation they crave, it can also “serve as a catalyst for more insecurity.’’
Society has become trapped in harmful comparisons to others without any accurate method of measuring our peers’ capabilities beyond a perfectly lit, deceptively angled selfie. These comparisons can lead to unhealthy levels of jealousy and lowered self-esteem and self-worth. They also tend to drag users into portraying their lives as better than they really are in attempt to one-up perceived “competitors.” This mentality has become a catalyst for a post-more-feel-better-about-yourself behavior, where one seeks gratification in the instant and short-lived, endorphin-igniting surge of notifications from digital followers. Social media has become an entirely unnatural environment in which we envelop ourselves in these glorified lifestyles that slowly normalize the idea that they represent real life.
I think we’d all like to believe that we don’t experience insecurity related to the seemingly never-ending party happening on our phones; that this distorted view into celebrities’ and peers’ lives doesn’t make us feel like we’re missing out on something someone else appears to have. But while we waste away hours longing for these digitized lifestyles full of success, glamour, vacations, sex, partying, relationships, and friendships, we forget to remember how brief these bursts of perfection are compared to the monotony of the average human’s daily reality.
So why are our lives so deeply integrated with this culture that publicizes only our best features and accomplishments?
Maybe because the origin of its intention is really not so sinister. The ability to connect, to keep contact, to share pieces of yourself with the world—these are powerful and useful digital tools that keep humanity connected and informed. Unfortunately, the reality is that the influx of unrestrained time spent on our phones has carried much discontentment along with its benefits and increased our feeling of social isolation. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine suggests that adults in the U.S. who use social media more than their peers experience higher levels of social isolation. Of the surveyed adults, those who reported spending more than two hours per day on social media had twice the odds of experiencing social isolation than their peers who only spent a half hour per day on social media.
Between an underlying addiction to cell phones and social platforms that are proving to be anything but social, we have lost the value of face-to-face interaction and have, to some extent, replaced or supplemented this socialization with digital communication. This substitution offers an illusion of companionship between friends, peers, and family members without actually nurturing these relationships and can leave them in a state of ingenuity. This behavior creates room for loneliness that develops when the value of physical relationships is compared to their digital presence in our lives.
If we can avoid the use of social platforms as a means of quelling an insatiable, existential boredom or a search for personal fulfillment, we will ease the burden of a lot of unnecessary negative emotion about our own lives and lessen comparison between ourselves and others. We will likely find ourselves more present within our own reality and relationships, which is something that must be treasured to a higher degree than menial, temporary online connections. Only you control the content you choose to consume on a daily basis. Why not build that into an outlet that uplifts, educates, and inspires without taking from and skewing the reality you exist in?
There may not be an escape route in sight for the deep integration of humankind and the internet. So in the meantime, we must find a way to enjoy this connection in careful moderation. Because through conscientious interaction, uplifting intentions, and the disposal of unnecessary divisiveness, there is opportunity to share positivity and there is potential for beneficial and healthy interaction online.