Selfie-conscious? Challenging normative understandings of social media and mental health

In May 2017, The Royal Society for Public Health released a study which contended that Instagram is the “worst” social media platform when it comes to impact on young people’s mental health. The poll focused on issues relating to anxiety, depression, loneliness, bullying and body image, concluding that “social media may be fuelling a mental health crisis among young people” (BBC, 2017).


These negative perceptions of social media aren’t new. In recent years, social media has become a breeding ground for moral panic, with newspapers warning that everything from sexting to selfies is indicative of some kind of health epidemic or moral deterioration. Indeed, the Royal Society for Public Health report follows the recent trend in mainstream media to “blame” social media for various social ills and highlight social media use(s) as indicative of wider social “problems”. That “millennials” (usually understood to be a cohort of people born between 1980 and 2000) are uniquely narcissistic and entitled is a well-peddled myth in both academic and journalistic discourses. Dr. Jean Twenge, author of books such as “The Narcissism Epidemic” and “Generation Me”, is particularly prominent in this school of thought. Such criticisms are often closely related to social media and technology. Works such as these offer broad, reductive and methodologically flawed interpretations of “the millennial” by consistently ignoring the many intersectional issues which exist within all generations. Twenge constructs “millennials” as some kind of uniform monolith which, quite simply, does not exist. Despite this, the reputation has stuck (Twenge and Campbell, 2009).

Criticisms of social media often operate via a gendered lens. This can be explicit – for example, there is a tendency for newspapers to focus on the “risks” that social media poses to young women in particular. However, these gendered constructions can also be implicit – for example, there seems to be a widespread agreement that social media is a primary contributor to an alleged rise in “vanity”, “frivolity” or “narcissism”, traits which have historically been tied to the construction of femininity. When we consider that the predominant users of social media are young people (and young women in particular), these constructions come as little surprise. It has long been the case that pastimes that are considered “feminine” are constructed as frivolous, trivial or self-indulgent.

Consequently, teenagers and young adults are consistently framed as isolated, apathetic narcissists who are only concerned with receiving online gratification for their perfectly polished selfie. Many scholars – such as Lupton, Zimmer and Marwick – contend that social media is based upon an “obsessive documentation of self” in which users take part in an exhibitionist culture that acts as a performance space for one’s image; users become engaged in cyclical behaviours of carefully constructing their online profiles whilst surveying other’s accounts (Zimmer, 2011). Such “surveillance as pleasure” allegedly leads individuals to present only the “best versions of themselves”. In debates about body image, then, social media is often blamed as being the catalyst for intensification in eating disorders and body dysmorphia amongst women. Studies have suggested that high amounts of time spent on Facebook may lead to “body image insecurity, which can also lead to depression” (Bamford, 2015). However, as feminists have long argued, women’s bodies have long been subject to life-long disciplinary forces, with pervasive beauty standards demanding that women’s bodies be thin, tall, able-bodied and - usually - white. In 2015, the NHS noted that there had been a “stark rise” in the amount of women submitted to hospital for an eating disorder, with 90% of diagnosed anorexia sufferers being women (Campbell, 2015). Due to this recent rise, some scholars have argued that the presentation of a “perfect” self on social media makes idealized standards of femininity feel more achievable and comparatively more ubiquitous than such messages within traditional forms of media, such as magazines or billboards. Indeed, Marwick contends that users may fall victim to severe anxiety by worrying about who may be surveying their profiles. Such arguments suggest that body-shame can be intensified by a fear of how one appears in pictures.  For example, Liz Frost asserts that being watched or “looked at” has always been part of young women’s experiences (Frost, 2001).

Lupton furthers these arguments by looking at fitness tracking applications and how they may intensify body-shame. Fitness apps - such as MyFitnessPal or Strava - have become a popular way for users to track their calorie intake and improve their exercise levels.  Lupton suggests that discourses of control within the apps places “responsibility” on individuals to discipline their bodies. This is an important point, but one that seems to ignore the ways in which messages about individual responsibility are ever-present against a backdrop of post-feminism and neoliberalism. Through Lupton’s argument, women’s bodies are reduced down to the calories they consume, the types of food they eat - “good” or “bad” foods - and even their sodium levels. For women, the media already quantify and grade different parts of our bodies (e.g: the Kardashians are predominantly presented as “bums”) and so a readily-available quantification of the body is potentially damaging for women’s body image (Lupton, 2016).

It is important to note, then, that we recognize the changes that have occurred because of social media. In contrast to traditional forms of media, social media is now readily available at our fingertips 24/7 and is an interactive process. Likewise, we are no longer simply consumers of media but have the ability to produce our own identities and communities online. Thus, it is easy to see where fears surrounding “mental health and body issues” arise from. However, the argument that new technologies are at the heart of widespread mental health issues amongst young people seems, in many ways, to present faux-concern. Indeed, there is very little discussion in these pieces to wider political and economic structures that are perhaps far more likely to be contributing to poor mental health amongst young people. If one considers the political climate, it is hardly surprising that contemporary young people find themselves suffering with higher rates of anxiety and depression. If more focus were placed on cuts to education and other public services, rising student debt, removal of housing benefits for young adults and the closure of local youth centres, it might be easier to accept that there is a genuine concern for the mental health and wellbeing of young people, rather than an ideological desire to single out social media as the primary and (often) only “cause” worth examining.

It is overly-simplistic to position social media as a singularly “oppressive” force. As Foucault suggests, power works via a push and pull motion; whilst Instagram does present “filtered” bodies and #cleaneating diets as attainable, there are also positive aspects to social media which are largely ignored. Unlike traditional forms of media, social media can act as a space for women themselves to present alternative images of beauty. For women who fall outside of the constructed “beauty ideal”, social media provides a space to challenge their historic “invisbilisation” within popular culture. Popular hashtags such as #TransIsBeautiful is an example of this. Likewise, social media is often used as a tool to reject encoded messages about the fat female body. For example, “Fuck Yeah, Fat PhD!” is a community of fat women who archive images and biographies about fat women who have received PhDs, acting as a raised-middle-finger to the cultural stereotype that fat women are unintelligent and lazy (#transisbeautiful, 2017; FuckYeahFatPhDs, 2017).

Concern for women’s “body-confidence” also seemingly ignores the billion-dollar industries which consistently perpetuate idealized standards of femininity in a bid to sell us products to “improve” ourselves. In this sense, social media acts as an easy target for journalists; focusing the blame on neo-liberal and corporate perpetuations of beauty ideals would force people to look at the core of societal constructions of the body. Indeed, body anxieties amongst women have been consistent throughout Western history; it is simply the tools to measure one’s body which have changed. For example, throughout the 1960’s, images of models such as Twiggy – nicknamed for her “boyish” thinness – were plastered throughout magazines and billboards. Likewise, prior to fitness applications, women could use a treadmill or a pedometer to quantify their exercise levels. However, these products are not viewed as the central reason why women are suffering from body anxiety. Consequently, one needs to question the reasons why women feel body-shame, rather than the tools that are used to measure and/or “improve” their bodies. These arguments offer focus disproportionately on the women who use these apps, rather than the societies and cultures in which they came to exist.   

In this sense, social media does not act as a singularly negative force which seeps into women’s sub-conscious and whispers “you’re ugly.” Unlike traditional forms of media, social media is a tool in which culture can be inscribed. Consequently, social media may have the potential to act as a space for resistance and community, elevating voices of women who are deemed to be outside the realm of normative beauty standards.  If journalists and academics truly wish to challenge beauty standards and support women’s mental health, perhaps they need to turn their attention to wider social, cultural and economic structures that organise and manage young people’s lives. Continuing to erase these wider “macro” structures ensures that responsibility is placed on women themselves to “disengage” from social media, rather than placing the onus on the wider culture to fundamentally change.

Too often, social media is discussed in binary terms – good/bad, oppressive/liberating, individualistic/collective. What if it is none of these things, or all of these things simultaneously?

Binary understandings of social media as either inherently “good” or “bad” do little to examine the nuances of social media as a site of both pleasure and pain. While it is important not to “romanticise” social media as some kind of utopian collective resistance (it isn’t), it is imperative that we stop presenting overly simplistic, easily-digestible narratives that do little to challenge wider social, cultural and political contexts.  Scholars who espouse “grand narratives of concern” look at the past whilst wearing “rose-tinted glasses” (Miller et al, 2016, p.182). They ignore the ways in which social media is a complex site of identity construction which cannot be reduced to snappy media headlines.

Milly Morris  is a second year PhD student at the University of Birmingham in the UK. Her thesis uses Foucault's theory of self-surveillance to explore representations of the fat/thin body, the dieting industry and fat activism. Milly's other research interests include reality TV, social media and discourses surrounding food. She is a regular contributor to the 'Feminist Academic Collective', a space for feminist rants and musings. When she isn't writing, she enjoys running, Game of Thrones and day-dreaming about owning a cat.

Frankie Rogan  is approaching the end of her PhD in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Birmingham, UK. Her research looks at the ways in which young British women use social media in the production of cultural and political identities against backdrops of neoliberalism and postfeminism. She has a particular interest in gendered analyses of both subculture and political activism. Other research projects include examining gendered narratives surrounding alcohol, “risk” and the night time economy, part of a larger project which was funded by the European Foundation for Alcohol Research. When not writing, she enjoys doing literally anything else.

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