You’re lying on your bed procrastinating, scrolling through your endless feed on Instagram. After having spent the last half hour on your phone, you’re starting to feel kind of down about yourself… You begin to ask yourself why you aren’t as attractive as the people you see online.
If this story feels all too familiar to you, you’re not alone. In a survey of 1,500 people by Scope, half of participants aged 18 to 34 said social media made them feel unattractive. Another study by researchers at Penn State University found that viewing others’ selfies is correlated with lowered self-esteem. But social media networks don’t weigh in equally, as Instagram, in particular, has been found to be the most detrimental when it comes to mental health. In a survey of 1,500 teens by the Royal Society for Public Health in the UK, it was linked to high levels of anxiety and depression.
But despite these issues, the impact of social media platforms may not be all bad. The same survey done by the Royal Society for Public Health, as well as one by Pew Research Centre on teens, have reported some benefits. Namely, participants said it made them feel more connected to their friends, that it made them feel they had more emotional support, and that it allowed them to have more self-expression.
“Usually Instagram doesn’t make me feel bad because I use it to see what is happening in my friends’ lives, especially those who live in a different country. But sometimes I do end up scrolling through influencers and their theoretically perfect lives, which can be upsetting” -Saskia Vuijk
Nonetheless, the negative effects of Instagram and social media may have serious impacts, especially for girls. A study from the University of Essex and University College London found that the risk for depression from long hours on social media is more pronounced for girls. Moreover, a study done by universities in the UK and US on 881 female college students found a link between time spent on social media and negative body image. The more time they spent on social networks, the more they tended to compare their bodies to other women and feel negatively about their own appearance.
The number of women who compare their bodies to what they see on social media may be shockingly high. A large survey by The Florida House Experience, a mental health, and addiction treatment facility, revealed just how widespread it may be. 87% of the female participants admitted to comparing their bodies to what they see in the media, and women considered social media as the biggest factor for how they felt about their body image. What’s more, 79% of the women tended to compare their bodies negatively to images in the media.
Women comparing themselves to images online may not realize that even big influencers have been exposed for altering their bodies and photoshopping their pictures.
It’s not helpful either that the standards on social media are known for being unrealistic, and these unattainable standards may be especially high due to surgery and photo editing softwares. Women comparing themselves to images online may not realize that even big influencers have been exposed for altering their bodies and photoshopping their pictures. As a way to fight back, an online community has emerged which is dedicated to revealing the false beauty standards of their altered appearances. Instagram pages such as @celebface, @beauty.false, and @celebglowup2, and subreddits like r/Instagramreality, have been created to reveal influencer’s hidden alterations.
The problem with these unrealistic standards is that not everyone can tell what’s real or not. Girls may internalize these ideals and believe they need to look the same way to be accepted.
“When I’m on Instagram, it makes me feel that current beauty standards are so unrealistic… and I guess when I’m already in a sensitive mood about my body, seeing those pictures adds to my insecurity” -Cassandra Lundsgaard
“Some influencers admit they have had surgery, however, some do hide that they’ve gotten work done or their photos are edited to some extent. I personally think it’s ok if they don’t share if they’ve edited a pic or something, but people should know that not everything may be real and not hope to attain unreasonable standards of beauty.” – Tia Remedios
British fashion photographer John Rankin Waddell created a picture series titled “Selfie Harm”, which demonstrated how the norms set by social media have had a profound impact on beauty expectations. He took portraits of 15 teenagers and asked them to edit the pictures to make them more ‘social-media friendly’. Both girls and boys participated, but the girls’ edits resulted in much more dramatic and noticeable changes. The series was created as part of a project by Rankin, M&C Saatchi, and MT Art Agency called “Visual Diet”, examining how images can affect our mental health.
The biggest danger of exaggerated body ideals is that they may increase the risk of developing detrimental disorders. Along with being linked to higher levels of anxiety and depression, the low body-image and low self-esteem that can result from excessive social media use has been linked to increased eating disorder attitudes among young women. Furthermore, frequent social media usage may be a potential risk factor for the development of body dysmorphia, a disorder in which sufferers perceive their bodies in a negative and warped way.
So how do we solve these issues? You don’t have to delete Instagram entirely, especially if it has some positive benefits when it comes to social connections and self-expression. Instead, it’s important to mitigate the negative effects. A possible solution could be for Instagram to allow its users to report overly edited images, which can sometimes be spotted through suspiciously warped backgrounds. In the past, they’ve banned filters that depict or promote cosmetic surgery, amid concerns they may harm people’s mental health.
Another helpful tip is to fill your feed with body-positive influencers and different body types. Body-positive messaging has been found to increase peoples’ sense of self-worth, and decrease their reliance on others for approval and acceptance. Celebrate your body in the way that it is now, however that may be.
“It’s not mentally healthy to always compare yourself to someone else. There will ALWAYS be someone who is skinnier or prettier or richer than you.” -Sanya Lokur
In the end, it’s clear that Instagram and other social networking apps aren’t going away anytime soon. They’ve become a part of our everyday lives, and help us feel more connected to causes we care about and the people who matter to us. While we use these apps, we need to keep in mind that not everything may be real, and to take things with a grain of salt. Most of all, it’s important not to define our self-worth based on how we compare to the influencers that we see. Focus on being kind to yourself, and remember that your worth goes beyond your appearance.