Has social media affected our mental health and self-esteem?

Has social media affected our mental health and self-esteem?

In 2007, Facebook was the first online stop for teenagers across the US. For a generation that had grown up on a diet of Gossip Girl, Teen Vogue, YA literature, and the occasional checkout line UsWeekly, we were Facebook’s unintentional target audience: young, self-conscious, and hungry to criticize ourselves. Facebook was more than happy to oblige. In hindsight, it’s easy to say “of course, this was bad for us,” but social media allowed for a generation of teenagers to feel both built up but just as easily torn down, when our expectations of appearance and acceptance didn’t measure up to those around us.

“You might expect that teens spend so much time in these [social media] spaces because it makes them happy, but most data suggest that it does not,” reports Jean Twenge for The Atlantic. “The results could not be clearer: Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy.” Further research from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) back this up as well, as they determined that those who used social media the most were about 2.7 times more likely to be depressed than participants who used social media the least.

Though Facebook may not still occupy the same space today as it did for us in 2007, other social networks move to take its position. Take Instagram for example, which allows users of all ages to subject themselves to scrutiny and meticulously edit out “flaws” that only they notice, with the addition of photo filters. With the rise of influencers, the pool of people to compare ourselves to just keeps getting bigger. 

According to Cosmopolitan magazine, in 2017, beauty company Dove published survey data which asserted that "over half (54%) of women globally agree that when it comes to how they look, they are their own worst beauty critic, which equates to a staggering 672 million women around the world.” To be honest, this isn’t a surprise. It’s like that scene in Mean Girls, where three members of The Plastics stand in front of the mirror and each perform their flaws for each other. “My pores are huge,” “my nail beds suck,” the women say to each other, while the fourth looks on, horrified. When she doesn’t immediately volunteer hers, they look at her expectantly. It is fiction, but could have been plucked verbatim from any bathroom conversation today.

Just take it from Features Beauty Editor Amanda Montell of WhoWhatWear, who admits to being one of those 672 million women, as a former addict of the photo editing app Facetune:  “You get addicted to the fantasy—to the person you could be with just a few little tweaks. But just like any other addiction, altering your appearance, even digitally, can quickly snowball. And until you have some sort of ‘aha’ moment that shakes you awake, you forget what a photo of yourself is even supposed to look like."

So how then, do we manage to feel good about our bodies, our appearances, and our thoughts, when social media seems to tell us otherwise? How do we manage to keep ourselves mentally healthy when we’re surrounded by all of this noise? It’s not about developing thicker skins, and it doesn’t seem like this culture is going away anytime soon. We could try to look at ourselves in the mirror each day and make a point to say one nice thing about ourselves to borrow strategies fromThe JED Foundation, or take note of each time we start to criticize ourselves. We could put down our phones, turn off our devices, and spend more time in the outside world than in our internal one. Though easier to say than to incorporate, changing the way we let social media impact us by being more honest with ourselves may seem small, but imagine how it would feel if each person sitting next to you on the subway every morning did it. It may not be the ultimate solution, but it’s a start.