Fictional Selves: Social Media and Mental Health


Is social media getting you down? Charlotte looks at the facts and fictions of what we put online, and how it affects us.

There are lots of benefits to using social media (connecting and keeping up with friends, engaging in events, joining groups and finding people with similar interests, finding new content), but let’s stop for a moment and take a look at the impact social media can have on our mental health. It’s currently a bit of a hot topic.

Last year, in 2017, it was recorded that 43% of the global population now has access to the internet. 71% of these internet users were recorded as also being active on social media networks.  It’s hardly surprising (with so many users) that the impact of social media is being discussed. It is something that now affects us all and for many of us, is part of our daily lives and routines. It’s not just about sharing our private photos with friends, it’s about worldwide connection.

One of the issues that is currently being talked about is the impact of social media on the wellbeing of children and teenagers. Many teachers and parents have spoken out, requesting that social media awareness sessions are taught in schools, to counteract bullying, peer pressure and body dissatisfaction, and increase understanding of how social media presents life, as well as teaching them how to be safe on the internet. While some teenagers may be aware of the dangers and the unrealistic expectations presented across social media, others may find it hard to distinguish between organic and promotional content, particularly when it comes to body image.

The negative impact of social media is not only limited to children and teenagers. It can affect us all, regardless of our age or awareness. Especially for those of us who might be classed as ‘social media addicts’, who spend most of every day attached to our mobile phones.

In light of this, here are some things to remember when using social media, to keep you in the right headspace and help you from feeling overwhelmed:

Social media is fiction

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, Snapchat… They all exhibit a selection of carefully curated images and stories about us, that we choose to display for a particular purpose. While they may look like windows into our lives, they’re not really. They’re illusions.

Every social media account is a content platform, sharing information with the world in an attempt to convey a message of some kind. For organisations, this could be something like ‘look at all the fun we’re having here, you should join us,’ or ‘look at how great our products look, you should buy them,’ or ‘look at us saving the world, you should donate.’ For personal pages, it could be anything from ‘look at how fun I am,’ to ‘look at how professional I am.’ Either way (and whether intentional or not), there’s something that the owner of the account wants you to see. There are not many accounts that provide a warts-and-all collection of posts. And for those that do, that’s what their message is. It might sound cynical, but it could be argued that social media has turned us all into brands. We’re not people when we’re online, we’re shows; our hundreds of ‘friends’ aren’t really friends, they’re our audience. And this is partly where the trouble lies.

The most popular public social media accounts are the ones that have the clearest, strongest brands. You know what they’re promoting, what they believe in, what image they’re going for, what tone they use in their photos or tweets, and most importantly, they know it, too.

It’s not a competition

When we think of ourselves in this way - as organisations, brands, displays - it can lead us to feeling like we’re up against competition, even if we’re not naturally competitive people. It’s hard to get away from the fact that some people seem to be ‘more successful,’ or ‘looking better,’ or ‘feeling happier’ than we are. It’s important to remember that it’s not a race, and if it is, it isn’t a fair one. While you may be feeling down, hiding from the world, looking at someone’s latest post of their skiing holiday and wishing you had their life, they might be looking at the family picture you took yesterday, feeling exactly the same. This is because social media only presents the best of us.

We rarely post when we’re feeling sorrowful or depressed. It’s too personal and it’s not something we want the world to know. And as harsh as it sounds (and I’m not saying it’s right), it’s not really what the world has signed up for either. Through the use of social media, many of us are consciously editing our life stories to remove the content that we deem as ‘not fit for the spotlight’.

While messenger apps and groups are connecting us in some ways, our personal pages, arguably have the potential to inhibit us from revealing our full selves, and from seeing the full selves of the people we follow. Some influencers, particularly on Instagram, have started to change this by talking more honestly about their anxiety and depression, but the majority of accounts still focus on presenting only the best of the best. Trying to ‘compete’ with this is nigh-on impossible.

Your eyes can fool you

When looking at body image, social media has the potential to be particularly damaging. While it might inspire people to get fit, it can have a huge impact on self-esteem. It’s important to note that not only have the photos been ‘approved’ by the people who post them, but that many of them have also been edited. The use of editing apps on platforms such as Instagram - which already has in-built filters to choose from - is becoming increasingly popular. There are even free apps you can download that can ‘clear up your skin’ and ‘make you look thinner’. And those are just the free ones. A lot of people use Photoshop, too.

So, not only are some of the pictures we see just snapshots into a good day, some of them are as edited as the photos featured in lifestyle magazines, where curves and blemishes have been removed. While social media in theory could be promoting a healthy ‘real person’ body image, arguably it’s largely going in the opposite direction. ‘Beauty’ is becoming even more artificial. No wonder many of us are getting complexes and the rate of body dissatisfaction is rising.

According to the Education Policy Institute, 47.6% of 15 year olds in the UK (in 2015) started using the internet between seven and nine years old. At that age, we can assume that most of them are unaware of the level of editing on ‘real’ photos. This means that not only are children growing up with the unattainable image of celebrities to aspire to, now they have unattainable ‘real people’, too.

So, what can we do?

Should we all start sharing more moments of honesty, posting selfies of streaked mascara after a crying session? I can’t see that happening. I’m not going to do it. But what I am going to do, is remind myself that when I see a photo of a girl pulling a perfect yoga pose in a bikini I wouldn’t even dare to wear in private, that the photo I’m looking at may be edited. The smile on her face may be forced. I’m going to remind myself that my life is no better or worse than hers, that really, I know nothing about her and shouldn’t be comparing myself to her.

We need to help each other and ourselves, not make each other feel worse. So when you see a post showing someone calling for help or sharing a moment of sadness, don’t just put a sad emoji in the comment section, call them up or message them directly. We need to be kinder, more open, honest and forgiving with each other and ourselves. Strive for real happiness, wellness and connection, rather than the ‘perfect life’ and ‘perfect body’ that social media presents. We need to remind ourselves that social media is edited, and encourage and educate others (particularly children and teenagers) to do the same. That way, we can enjoy social media for what it is: the stories that we tell about ourselves, our personalised fictions.

If you're a Falmouth University student and struggling with your mental health, there are services that can help. Find out more here.