As Instagram continues to trial invisible ‘likes’ across select countries such as Australia, Japan, Ireland and Brazil, digital companies are scrutinising the negative effects of online behaviour on mental health and self-esteem more closely than ever—and rightly so. Since the ‘like’ button was first introduced by Vimeo in 2005, with Facebook propelling it into common usage in 2009, reports show that children are now linking self-worth to the number of ‘likes’ a social-media post gets.
There is still a way to go for Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms in terms of publicly addressing their responsibilities towards their users’ emotional wellbeing, which is why writer and editor Sarah Raphael and model, writer and campaigner Naomi Shimada have taken the issue into their own hands. In September, the pair published Mixed Feelings: Exploring the Emotional Impact of our Digital Habits, a collection of personal essays and honest conversations about how the internet is really making women feel, penned by international digital experts, creatives, activists and NHS doctors who all have one thing in common when it comes to social media: they love it, they hate it, they can’t get off it.
Ahead of World Mental Health Day (10 October), Raphael and Shimada share five ways to break out of the digital bubble and rewire some unhelpful online habits, without turning your back on social media completely.
1. Judge, and be judged
When Instagram began in 2010, the platform was used to post still-life photographs of art, food and scenic holidays that followers would simply ‘like’, or not. Nine years on, it has evolved to become a personal branding platform—now it’s people’s faces, bodies, political opinions and professional achievements that are deemed likeable or not. The birth of influencer culture in 2014 intensified this act of judgment by establishing a hierarchy between the insta-famous and the insta-layman. How many times have we internally labelled someone as vain or privileged based on the online content they post?
As philosopher Eckhart Tolle said in Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations podcast: “What we most strongly condemn in others is usually something we also have—a trait that we are unconscious of in ourselves.” Tolle says that every time we feel either superior or inferior, it’s our ego. Take a moment to self-reflect and think about what’s driving your reactions as you scroll.
2. You don’t actually look like that
According to research by plastic surgeons, a photograph taken at arm’s length can make your nose look up to 29 per cent bigger. Meanwhile, photo-editing tools such as Facetune, Apple’s most popular paid app in 2017, offer users the opportunity to narrow their nose. Your selfies—and others that you might be comparing yourself to—are about as representative as a distorted mirror.
Consider how the act of taking a selfie actually makes you feel. If it feels like a positive tool to document your experience and express yourself, then continue. If, however, selfies exacerbate your anxieties or incite new ones, remember: you don’t have to take them. Taking selfies has become almost instinctual for the digital generation—the average millennial will take 25,000 in their lifetime—but it’s not too late to rewire that instinct. You might find that your self-confidence improves when you stop scrutinising yourself on your phone.
3. Let’s travel consciously
Instagram has transformed the way we travel, from finding tourist-free beaches to under-the-radar hotels. While this influx of tourism can have a positive impact on the economy and employment rates, it’s also led to overcrowding, environmental degradation and dangerous stunts, with several deaths by social-media selfie widely reported, showing the lengths people are prepared to go for that shot. “A lot of people are still very ego-driven; they want to portray that they’re living some kind of perfect life,” photographer Trey Ratcliff told National Geographic.
Travelling more mindfully is key. Stop to reflect on the ethics of the frame and how you’re portraying the place and the people in the shot. This can also help with staying present and lessening that pressure to compete with others online. Ask yourself: “If I couldn’t take a picture, would I still be here?”—if the answer is no, reconsider your trip.
4. Your romantic interests won’t live up to their dating profiles, and neither will you
The use of dating apps in pursuit of modern romance isn’t going anywhere, with Hinge reporting a 400 per cent increase of new users since 2016, and Bumble surpassing 55 million registered users in 2019. And chances are, if you’ve used a dating app, you’ve searched for your match via social media either pre- or post-date.
It’s a hard game to resist, but how often has online stalking yielded positive results? More often than not, it leads to those same feelings of inferiority or superiority. After years of putting our ‘best selves’ forward online, it’s easy to fall for the Instagram grid as reality, rather than the carefully curated world that it is. When starting a relationship via digital communication, remember: what you see on their social media profiles is, at best, a half-truth. The other half is who you’ll be in a relationship with.
5. The positive effects on mental health are underreported and undervalued
Bad news sells, especially when it comes to social media. Many articles have focused on the negative effects that Instagram has on sleep, anxiety, depression and physical wellbeing, particularly in light of dangerous hashtags being used to promote self-harm. There are, however, many Instagram communities that promote healing, self-worth and positive mental wellbeing. Fill your feed with these accounts—they will transform your experience.
Big White Wall is a safe, anonymous online support network with trained professionals. From live Q&A sessions between clinicians to sharing helpful tips on how to manage stress, the account’s regular posts are inclusive and thoughtful. The Blurt Foundation is dedicated to offering 24-hour multimedia support for those with depression, while The Holistic Psychologist posts handy bite-size information on healing in a form we can all relate to: memes.
Mixed Feelings: Exploring the Emotional Impact of our Digital Habits by Naomi Shimada and Sarah Raphael was published on 19 September by Quadrille