Posted on 12 January 2019
I have been tweeting recently (@fionanicolson3) about the increasing research on how social media is damaging the mental health of young people, especially girls. The constant competition, the chasing of shares and likes of posts and pictures and the exposure to other people’s seemingly perfect lives are causing harm.
And it seems that even those who make a living on social media are suffering. I was interested to hear a report by Stephanie Hegarty on Radio 4’s Today programme on social media influencers. That is those people who post their perfect lives online, especially on YouTube and Instagram, and sometimes get millions of followers, for which advertisers pay them handsomely.
It seems that even those social media influencers are becoming depressed, anxious and finding it almost impossible to cope. Several of the most successful have left their social media platforms because of its effects on their mental health.
You may be asking why we should be worrying about a set of kids making a fortune who will eventually move onto something else. We should because their problems are often an exaggerated version of the issues we all face when we use social media. What is happening to these influencers is also happening to the rest of us, who have never made a penny out of our social media presence and never expect to.
Problems seem to be greatest amongst young people, but that may be just because they are more exposed to social media. They spend longer on it and use it to build social relationships.
But I know from my own cognitive hypnotherapy for anxiety clinics that many adult women, for example, are made to feel anxious and inadequate by the constant stream of perfect mummy and perfect homemaker videos. One of my clients put it like this: “It’s bad enough the kids are quarrelling and I am too exhausted to make dinner. Then I take a break to relax with the computer and am bombarded with beautiful women telling me how to tidy my sock drawer and clean the kitchen with vinegar. And they make it look effortless. It makes me angry and I feel useless.”
Social influencers: the canary in the coal mine
Social media can be a very exposing place. If you put yourself out there you open yourself up to criticism, to comment, to comparisons. This has been one of the pressures on social media influencers, but you may recognise it in yourself.
One young male blogger who has a following in the millions, opened up about his mental health issues online last year. It didn’t work out well for him as he then reported that his followers were constantly commenting on his mental health. Everything he said was analysed and discussed in terms of whether he was getting worse or better, or how his latest pictures and videos reflected his mental wellbeing. He found this a huge problem, which he summed it up brilliantly: “Ten thousand comments on everything you do is not good for you,” he said. Very true, for most of us it is more likely to be ten comments on what we do. But it may be that this is not very healthy either.
I believe these influencers are the canary in the coal mine. They are more exposed to the psychological effects of social media, but the way they interact online is in many ways just an exaggerated version of what the rest of us do.
The interaction can be relentless; constantly posting and constantly trying to keep ahead of the curve. Then our happiness and self-esteem can become tied up with on how many likes and shares the last video or picture we posted gets.
The special nature of social media
Some people say social media is just a new technology enabling us to communicate, no different in essence from the telephone or the typewriter. But many experts who have studied the area say this is not actually true. They are discovering that our current version of social media encourages us to relate to each other in a way which is not healthy. Olivia Remes, a researcher from Cambridge University has noticed an alarming pattern in social media behaviour. She says that the superficial acquiring of friends and collecting of likes does not mirror the real-world behaviour of psychologically healthy individuals. It mirrors the behaviour of those with narcissistic personalities.
Because social media is so new, we are all guinea pigs in a huge global experiment, a huge social game where we have had no say in determining the rules. None of us know how profoundly this exposure is affecting our mental health, but we do have enough evidence now to be able to say that it is not wholly good.
Making existing issues worse
We will not all be affected to the same extent. A career professional in her thirties, with a family, good friends and a loving partner has a lot of other reference points to give her self-esteem. A fifteen-year-old who is still trying to work out who she is, does not.
Even so, I know of so many successful professionals who worry if their last Facebook post didn’t get any likes. I see this in a lot of clients who come to my Harley Street hypnotherapy clinic for anxiety. Social media use is not often the issue which brings the client through the door, but it is in the mix. And if the client is feeling down, anxious and with low self-esteem then social media can sometimes do harm. What people then see on social media can make them feel worthless compared with the perfect lives on display.
It does affect us all, but it affects young people the most. My concern is that as the younger generation grows up their reliance on social media will come with them. So, unless we begin to understand better how social media affects us, we are not going to be able to look after ourselves and others. We need to understand more and work out protective strategies or the problem is likely to get worse.
Social relationships with rules we do not understand
Many clients I see who mention social media as a problem, usually mention feeling a lack of control. Here again I find the experience of the social media influencers instructive.
It is interesting that even influencers suffer from that perception of a lack of control. One would imagine that, as they see the workings of the system, they would develop a worldly, even cynical attitude, which would protect them. Perhaps it does for some, but it is becoming more and more obvious that for many they are putting their mental health at risk. So, what is happening here?
The unseen algorithm
There is an irony in the experience of the social media influencers. Many go into this business as they imagine it will give them complete control over their work life and their creative process. And it can initially seem like that - working the hours you want, where you want, doing what you love. What could be better? But scratch the surface and the reality is very different. The system the social media influencers are actually working under can make a factory production line look kind.
Here is how it works: to make money the influencers need to get maximum views of their videos on their YouTube and constantly increasing numbers of likes on their Instagram feed. To achieve this, they need to post at length and very frequently. They know that this is necessary for success, but it is often not enough. And the influencers, like the rest of us, do not know the exact rules which get your post and pictures to the top.
All the big social media companies constantly change the rules, the algorithms, by which they evaluate posts and pictures. They regard these algorithms as their most valuable intellectual property and they guard exactly how they determine them with everything they can muster. This means when you post anything, whether you are an influencer with millions of followers or you or me, you are subject to the strict rules of the algorithms but you do not know what they are.
In short, everyone is chasing a success based on a matrix which they are not allowed to know. Think about how this would be in the real world. Here are some scenarios. Your manager tells you may get a promotion, but he will not tell you what you need to do to make that more likely. You encourage your child to do well at school, but you refuse to help them understand the steps they must take to achieve this. You want to develop your favourite hobby, but the experts in the field refuse to show you the instruction manual.
Just writing these little thought experiments makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. I would not put up with living like that in the real world but, like everyone else, it is the world I am exposed to when I go onto social media.
For people who make their living online this can be mentally toxic, but it is bad for us all.
These algorithms apply to us all. If you are a casual user of social media with healthy and fulfilled relationships it probably doesn’t matter that much. But if your sense of self-worth is tied up with the success of your social media, and for many young people it is, you can quickly run into problems.
Constant exposure to seemingly perfect lives: a recipe for misery
It’s no accident that in survey after survey Instagram comes out as the most damaging social media platform. The airbrushed images of seemingly perfect lives are visceral. There is no logic wall of words here. The image goes straight to the emotional centres of the brain. And, especially for the young who are still developing their ideas and their personalities, and for those with low self-esteem a primitive message is being shouted by the most advanced technology. You are not as good as this person in the picture. You are not good enough.
This might be bad for our mental health, but there is a lot of money to be made here. It has been described as bottling envy and then selling it There is no balance, everything is perfect and everything is constantly moving. There always has to be something newer and better. Discontent is not just built into the system - it is the driver of the system. And discontent is not an emotion to be encouraged.
The muddling up of work and personal life: a recipe for disaster
The other noticeable factor which is causing stress amongst the social media influencers is a lack of work-life balance. Actually, that is not the correct way of putting it. It is better described as the disappearance of the work life distinction. Social media influencers are not well known because of a skill or a talent, but because of a lifestyle. And our lifestyle is personal. Isn’t it?
An ordinary lifestyle, includes downtime. And it includes difference, we have a certain persona for work and one for friends and family. We have a need for time alone. Instagram and YouTube life does not acknowledge this. Many influencers report feeling lost when they are not in their public persona. They also report feeling let down because they do not feel happy with their perfect lives.
Katrina Gay, national director for strategic partnerships at the National Alliance on Mental Illness told the Polygon website, which has covered this issue well: “When the careers of so many video personalities involve exposing their personal lives, striking a work/life balance is next to impossible.” https://www.polygon.com/2018/1/18/16899532/youtube-twitch-burnout-h3h3-pewdiepie-lirik
There has been quite a bit written about burnout in these influencers. I don’t think this term is very useful; we can all experience burnout in a challenging career. But what we are seeing with these people who are constantly exposed to the social media world is more than this. It is a loss of identity. Even worse, in the case of very young bloggers and vloggers they are being robbed of their chance to fully form their personality in the first place. No wonder they are miserable.
Sure, some of these pressures may be just those of a competitive profession. Young musicians, actors or journalists may find the same. But it is not just pace of work or knowing that others are up and coming and snapping at your heels. There is something more. Something toxic. That is being constantly exposed to judgement. Literally anyone who pops into your YouTube channel can have their say about any aspect of you. You may have no idea who they are or whether you should value their opinion, but they are still there. This is not healthy.
Is there a solution?
I use social media a lot. I use it for my work, that is what I am doing now, after all. And I use it to keep in contact with friends and family. I have even made relationships online with people I never see face to face.
Social media is not going away and it can be wonderful. I have concentrated on the negatives in this post, but there are many positives. Building community, breaking down isolation and loneliness, increasing access to information and knowledge to name just a few. But as we have seen there are big problems.
A good change may be on the way though. It is heartening to see that some of the best brains around in the online world are beginning to address these issues and talking about how to build a kinder, more human-friendly social media.
Positive Platform, a development by a small organisation called Studio Output caught my eye. It is working to enable social media to “help rather than harm”.
They have come up with ideas after their teams looked at the problems social media is causing young people. It looked at research from organisations including the Royal Society for Public Health, and the charity Young Minds and Microsoft.
The work aims to build on the positive aspects of social media. Those which give emotional support, build communities and help self-expression.
Studio Output’s concepts have been designed to alleviate the negative issues and harness benefits.
A feed which prioritises posts from a close friend network.
A snooze function, so you can stop notifications
An app which suggests constructive activities as you scroll
A mechanism which allows you to select only the profiles you want to see.
This initiative is at an early stage, but it is a start.
I hope that over the next few years we see developments in social media which actively work to protect our mental health and promote our wellbeing.
Best wishes and do let me know what you think over at my Facebook page.
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