Social media platforms are failing us and protective legislation is struggling to keep up – so how can you look after yourself?
“She first started saying her face was asymmetrical. She tried to cut her mole off on the side of her nose to amend this. Her teeth had gaps, she hated this, she didn’t have perfect teeth like other people.”
Rachel* is the mother of 16-year-old Megan*, who has been in a specialist hospital for anorexia for ten months now. Rachel believes that her daughter’s use of social media platforms like TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram was responsible for her developing anorexia. “She thought she had certain syndromes, as when she felt something she would type it into Google. She typed in anorexia and then all the algorithms kept sending her more and more stuff about anorexia. I think that fear is generated in young minds from the things they’re shown on social media.”
Not only are Rachel’s suspicions concerning, but they’re also correct. Evidence leaked by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen in 2021 found that Instagram directed young users to eating disorder content, making them use the app more, while fuelling a rise of eating disorders in the process. 17 per cent of teenage girls said the app made their eating disorders worse.
This type of content is classified as “legal but harmful” and is something that the UK government’s Online Safety Bill aims to address. In 2022, for the first time ever, a coroner’s inquest ruled that social media platforms contributed to the suicide of 14-year-old Molly Russell. This monumental decision shone a light on the insidious and immense impact that digital content has on our mental health, particularly on young and vulnerable people. However, in December, the bill was watered down in calls to protect ‘free speech’, meaning that content relating to eating disorders would not have to be removed, but would just need to be behind an age restriction.
It’s clear that the constant viewing and consumption of unrealistic digital content is a health risk, and one that social media platforms are not only failing to address, but whose algorithms are designed to reinforce. A study conducted by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate found that when they set up new accounts with the age set to 13 years old, and briefly paused on videos about mental health, within eight minutes, TikTok showed content related to eating disorders. Standard teen users were shown videos about body image every 39 seconds.
In the social media age, our appearance has become synonymous with our value. Bodies are marketed, sold and consumed as commodities online, leaving our self-confidence dependent on the abstract views and likes of today’s timeline. While the medium might be new, the beauty standards are age-old and result in feeds and FYPs that are Eurocentric, fatphobic and ableist. “People were posting edited pictures of me next to ‘IG baddies’ and pointing out what was wrong with me,” says Erin, a 21-year-old student whose curvy figure made her the target of bullying on social media. “This led to extreme body dysmorphia and a troubling relationship with food.”
The constant comparisons that are pushed on us by social media algorithms often manifest as internalised pressure, which becomes highly competitive. Collectively, the online sphere pits us against each other, with follower counts, likes and comments being constant digital reminders of how we are ranked. For Kelsey, a 26-year-old from Hampshire, this constant source of negative comparison led to her developing an eating disorder, but praise from other people on social media would fuel this toxic cycle of restriction. “When I’d post pictures on Instagram people would comment things like ‘omg your waist is so small’. I’d feel such a sense of achievement, like I was one of those girls that could be envied,” she says. “But when I look back on those pictures now I feel sad for the girl who tried to never let herself eat.”
That social media platforms are failing us is clear to see, and protective legislation is struggling to keep up. This has meant that it’s been left to individuals to right the wrongs of social media platforms, creating safe spaces online to uplift each other and build communities where young people feel accepted.
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One person trying to help us build a healthy and accepting relationship with our bodies is Oli, also known as @wellwitholi, who struggled with anorexia for six years, before going through therapy and training as a personal trainer. Now, she creates content that aims to help other people unlearn the toxic body standards that permeate the digital world. “I started my platform because despite the body positivity movement originating from fat and Black people, unsurprisingly, online, this space has become co-opted and it tends to be slim, white women who are at the forefront of it,” she says. “Mental health is a huge stigma still in the Black community and so I want to share my experiences to remind other Black people that they’re not alone.”
Luna is a new app exclusively for teenagers, and was created as an antidote to the dangerous content found on social media. Teenagers can submit questions anonymously, answered by Luna’s panel of experts made up of GPs, psychiatrists and therapists. “As teens use social platforms like TikTok as their primary search engine, they’re misdiagnosing themselves using inaccurate information, and following suggestions which are incredibly dangerous. This is why we launched Luna, so that teenagers can head to a place where they (and their parents) can be sure that any advice they receive is medically-approved and expert-led,” says founder Jas Schembri.
When it comes to practical action that we can take to help mitigate the negative effects of social media, Dr Mary McGill, media studies researcher and author of The Visibility Trap, believes that taking a break can have transformative results. “Research shows that taking a break from social media can help us be more mindful of how we use these technologies. This break should be at least three weeks long, the length of time it takes to establish a new habit,” she says.
Not only this, but being more conscious of the content we consume as being a form of consumption itself can change how we view the images we see online. “When it comes to internalised beliefs, it is also worth considering if we are letting social media exacerbate our insecurities by accepting the world as it is presented to us by algorithms. These algorithms often employ the oldest trick in the advertiser’s playbook, flooding our eyeballs with aspirational, heavily edited imagery designed to separate consumers from their cash,” she says. “Consuming social media more critically, saying ‘I’m not buying that’, and taking back our attention can all be empowering acts.”
*Names have been changed