Social media: the great illusion

5 March is University Mental Health Day and here Psychology lecturer Dr Rebecca Owens discusses the impact social media can have on young people.

Recent events have highlighted the devastating effects of trolling and negative comments on those already in a vulnerable state of mind.

But how do we educate the next generation to understand that what is on the screen should not dictate how they feel about themselves?

“There is always attention on social media and the role it plays in aspects of mental health and wellbeing.

Our first thoughts when we think of this are usually negative – that social media exasperates negative comparisons and pushes us to make unobtainable comparisons with fake images, and set ourselves unrealistic goals.

A lot of this is true. But this is only one perspective.

We are a very social species – in fact, this is a key part of humanity. It is central to how we evolved. The majority of human evolution occurred in small scale hunter-gatherer tribes. We were very dependent on cooperative living.

With that comes the need to monitor one another within the group – to monitor social relationships, to monitor who is contributing to the group and potentially who is not cooperating.

It is built within us at a very deep level to look at others around us, to model ourselves on those who are successful, because if they are successful then that is a way that we can potentially be successful.

This can provide an explanation as to why many of us are so captivated by aspects of celebrity. These people are seemingly successful – they garner a lot of attention and praise just for being themselves.

This is something we want too…we want to be rich and famous and be emulated by millions.

So we look at celebrities online and what we see makes us want it even more – we want to be on a private island in the sunshine on a random Tuesday in March too. We want to have no worries and no cares, we don’t want to work awful shift patterns for minimum wage and drag ourselves out of bed on a cold miserable day. So let’s look at these guys and see how they got there – maybe we can do that and get there too.

This probably isn’t something many of us think consciously, but it is a cognitive bias – the prestige bias – that motivates us to pay attention to successful people within our environment and to be influenced by them, even at a subconscious level.

The advent of the internet has made this much more accessible. For a long time there have been celebrities who many of us emulate – for example, Marilyn Monroe, Ginger Rogers, Clark Gable, Gene Kelly.

But the media at the time didn’t allow us to really know these people. An air of mystery surrounding people like these only serves to increase their apparent prestige.

Fast forward to the advent of the internet – very quickly we have so much information we don’t know what to do with it. We have so many ‘celebrities’ that there are many questions about what some of these people do to warrant their fame.

We have an influx of seemingly prestigious people who we pay attention to and now we have the means to see behind the scenes of every aspect of their lives.

Once Twitter began, we saw celebrities take control of their own channels of communication – kids no longer had to find a postal address for a fan club to contact their favourite band – you could actually Tweet your favourite celebrity directly.  

In this sense, the internet and social media has done wonders for tearing down barriers to ‘how the other half live’. We can see every single movement of so many people now.

However – this is still managed to a very high degree. People show you what they want to see. People filter and crop these pictures to make it seem as though they are prestigious – you often don’t know what is going on behind closed doors.

You might think you do – but you don’t.

They want you to see a perfect life full of glitz and glamour and adoration – something you would pay and invest in to achieve. Not the sad empty reality that unfortunately lies behind so many of these filtered and cropped photos and heavily edited lifestyles.

One thread which has always been prominent in our attention towards celebrity is body image. What is ‘right’? What is ‘wrong’? How should we be? What is acceptable? What do we have to do in order to look like that in order to achieve this level of success?

We see body image trends come and go relevant to different historical and cultural contexts. Thousands of years ago, shapely figures were celebrated in women.

To be very curvaceous indicated wealth. This curvaceous ideal was an indicator of what it took at that time to be successful – to achieve wealth and status. We see similar evidence looking at famous artwork throughout history – in times of economic hardship female shapely figures are aspired to. In environments that are more plentiful, or in times of plenty, thinner female body shapes are idealised.

For example, flappers in the 1920s were very slender, and the cut of their clothes emphasised the lack of curves on the female body, something which came around again in the 1990s with the ‘heroin chic’ androgynous look.

Currently, we see the message ‘strong is beautiful’ portrayed a lot. Active wear is fashionable. Women are encouraged to be strong – something which has never really been seen, where women were always seen to be passive and silent, there to please others, not themselves.

This all seems very empowering – body positivity, self-acceptance, loving your body no matter what the shape.

When we strip it all back, we have a fundamental desire to be accepted, but how we go about achieving that changes quite often.

When I was young, ‘heroin chic’ was fashionable – and it was something that I would never be able to attain. No matter what crazy detox diets were promoted to me in teenage magazines, it would never add another five inches to my height, or reshape my bone structure to fit with what was socially acceptable and craved at the time.

Adolescence is a time when we are particularly sensitive to such messages – there is a particular need to integrate yourself with the crowd, to be accepted, to avoid being outed as ‘different’ or against the grain in anyway.

If your body type, shape, and build is not what is acceptable… what can we do? We can’t fit in, we can’t be accepted, and we perceive this to mean we can’t be successful. It negatively impacts our self-esteem, our self-worth, and can ultimately lead us to being in more vulnerable positions.

It leads to us wanting to change our bodies in order to fit in – whatever the cost. But as we change our bodies, and we mature psychologically, and the messages portrayed in the media about what is fashionable and acceptable change… where does this leave us?

As an example, take Meghan Trainor’s song All About That Bass, with lyrics like ‘You know I won't be no stick figure silicone Barbie doll’ and ‘I'm bringing booty back, Go 'head and tell them skinny bitches that’. The song can be – and was – seen as very empowering to many women when it was released, however that empowerment comes at the expense of those with a body type which was previously in vogue.

So really, it isn’t very empowering.

Empowerment surely shouldn’t have to come at the expense of someone else? Do we need to make someone else feel bad just to make ourselves feel better, or validated?

Adolescence seems to be a particularly vulnerable time for a lot of people in terms of their receptivity to such messages and images online and how emulating these images can ultimately lead to their social acceptance.

Adolescence is a funny time psychologically. Adolescents think they know it all. But actually, our brains aren’t fully developed until we are in our 20s.

The last part of the brain to fully develop is the frontal lobe. This is responsible for rational decision making, curbing impulsive tendencies, long-term planning, and delaying gratification. In other words, we are particularly short-sighted during adolescence and we can’t fully appreciate that the immediate future is not everything – that there is a longer term future to consider.

This can exasperate the lengths adolescents will go to in order to achieve what they see online. Even though they know logically that images are edited and filtered to portray an image rather than a reality, it doesn’t stop them wanting that image.

As parents, this can all be particularly frustrating.

How don’t they understand that they don’t need to resort to wild measures in order to fit in? That they are wonderful as they are. That in a couple of years none of this will matter to them anymore?

They can’t understand it because they can’t see that far ahead.

All we can logically do as parents is to do the broken record thing… you are wonderful, maybe you don’t fit this image…but you are healthy and happy, and that is what matters.

We often forget though, that celebrities are people too. They aren’t just an image of perfection – they may show this image, but this isn’t what it is like to walk in their shoes and deal with whatever issues they are faced with.

As the internet and social media has torn down the barriers between us and celebrities – between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – it has made them more accessible to us and also more vulnerable.

Celebrities are now also more accessible to trolls as well. And unfortunately there is quite a market for online trolling.

Some people take great pleasure in tearing others down and I don’t think this is something which has only happened because of the internet. I think competition in society has always been around – we compete for resources and unfortunately resources are finite.

Trolling people online says more about the troll than it does about anyone else – if you need to tear someone down, and if you have nothing to gain from this other than to make yourself feel better at pulling someone else down, then it stands to reason that your own self-confidence must be sorely lacking.

What does it achieve? You don’t like the way they raise their kids… so? You don’t like the clothes they wear…so? If it is something you fundamentally don’t agree with, there are forums for appropriate, healthy debates – and this is important. But when it is directed to someone personally, about them, their appearance, or their lifestyle, when it is of no threat to anyone else – what does it achieve?

Nothing – other than a little ‘one-up’ for a bully. You never know what battles someone else has going on, and I do think it is important to treat people with kindness – Caroline Flack’s quote, ‘In a world where you can be anything – be kind’ rings particularly true here.

This leads us on to some of the more positive aspects of the internet and social media. In increasing our social circle the way it has, this also increases the opportunity for more positive interactions and forms of support too.

We have access to so much more information now, and we can access it much more quickly too. For previously marginalised groups, or vulnerable groups, this can provide important sources of social support.

Ultimately, we have created social media – we created the internet, we created these interactions, we are responsible for the messages on there, the scope, we are responsible as well for what we look at online, for barriers we put in place for ourselves, and how we use it.

There is always someone somewhere who wants to bring other people down. Social media and the internet has made this easier – it has expanded our social circle so much and made links and communication possible and easier than it ever was before. This is fantastic – but it has also amplified the negative aspects.”