Picture-perfect: The worrying impact of social media

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The picture-perfect images and lives portrayed on social media are having a worrying impact on young people’s self-esteem and mental health, says Karen Sullivan

A recent wave of social media posts shouting “No filters!” got me thinking about the impact of the picture-perfect photographs, perfect lifestyles, perfect travels, perfect homes and meals and, most importantly, perfect bodies (hair, make-up, thigh gap, waist to hip ratio, peachy buttocks) on today’s adolescents – the Instagram generation.

It also reminded me that not only are cameras equipped with a multitude of filters to achieve perfection, but there are also countless apps that will take things one step further – erasing, adding and altering minute perceived imperfections to produce dangerously misleading “natural” shots.

I vividly remember cutting off the front pages of Seventeen magazine when I was in my early teens, taping them to the mirror and experimenting with layers of make-up to try to achieve that “perfect look”.

My dad’s stash of Instamatic camera film was decimated, as I took photo after photo to see whether my efforts were a success. In a nutshell, they were not. And I was absolutely unaware that air-brushing and a team of make-up artists were responsible for the seemingly effortlessly beauty of the cover models. My self-esteem took a dive. I would never live up.

Vanity? Most certainly. But it’s very important to remember that vanity is entirely natural during puberty, a period during which adolescents become extremely vulnerable as a result of the physiological changes and modifications to their bodies.

This period of rapid change encourages a level of self-focus that can border on obsession. However, it is a normal part of the transition from child to independent adult, a time when unique identity is formed. Coming to terms with this involves constant comparisons and self-criticism; it is a period when body image is defined and self-esteem developed.

Social media, selfies, sharing and instant enhancing is undoubtedly feeding modern adolescent narcissism, and while self-image has always been dependent to some extent upon peer approval, today’s very public showcasing of self has made that approval critical to self-esteem and, sadly, emotional health.

Even the backlash against Photoshopping by celebrities and other “influencers” has not diminished the idea that perfection can be attained if we only try a little harder.

And while my own attempts to achieve model looks were undertaken in the privacy of my bathroom and bedroom, today’s young people are on show, in very, very public forums, with much potential for widely shared humiliation. Today’s teenagers are forming identities on the basis of “likes” and comments, not self-appraisal or “in person” interactions with supportive peers and parents.

We are all aware of the fact that mentally ill young people are being encouraged to take their own lives via social media groups and I would propose that at least part of the scourge of mental illness among today’s youth is due to the very public way they are forced to live – and compare – themselves and their lives at a critical stage of development. There is good evidence to back this up.

The #StatusOfMind study, undertaken by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), surveyed nearly 1,500 young people between the ages of 14 and 24, to assess how social media platforms affected health and wellbeing, including anxiety, depression, self-identity and body image.

While YouTube was found to have the most positive impact, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter all had negative effects on mental health. For example, researchers reported that Instagram draws young women to “compare themselves against unrealistic, largely curated, filtered and Photoshopped versions of reality”.

At the time of the report in 2017, Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the RSPH, said: “Social media has been described as more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol and is now so entrenched in the lives of young people that it is no longer possible to ignore it when talking about young people’s mental health issues.

“It’s interesting to see Instagram and Snapchat ranking as the worst for mental health and wellbeing – both platforms are very image-focused and it appears they may be driving feelings of inadequacy and anxiety in young people.”

As a result, the RSPH called for social media platforms to take action in order to help combat young users’ feelings of inadequacy and anxiety by placing a warning on images that have been digitally manipulated.

But even if that happened, would it change anything? A study entitled Picture Perfect (Kleemans et al, 2016) looked at the direct effect of manipulated Instagram photos on body image in adolescent girls found that exposure to manipulated Instagram photos directly led to lower body image.

Girls with higher social comparison tendencies were especially negatively affected by exposure to the manipulated photos. Interestingly, even when evidence of doctoring was indicated, with before and after shots provided, the manipulated photos were rated more positively than the original photos.

What does this mean? Even if young people are aware of the steps taken to achieve what are effectively “fake” photographs, they still prefer and aspire to the images presented in the doctored pictures. And that’s a worry.
It is no surprise that several recent studies have shown that teenagers and young adults who spend the most time on Instagram and Facebook were found to have a substantially higher reported rate of depression (from 13 to 66 per cent) than those who spent the least time. And a lot of this is about the “likes”.

In another recent study, researchers at the UCLA Brain Mapping Centre used a scanner on the brains of 32 teenagers watching a bespoke social media app designed to resemble Instagram. They found that certain regions of the brain were activated by “likes”, including the brain’s reward centre. Researchers compared the effect to “winning money or seeing a loved one”.

And what happens when the likes don’t come or, worse, there is criticism? Levels of anxiety, depression, bullying and FOMO (fear of missing out) skyrocket.

Worse still, young people are subject to a very skewed image of what is normal, or beautiful, or even acceptable, which can have a catastrophic effect on their self and body image, their self-esteem and, most importantly, mental health.

While none of this will come as an absolute surprise, given the relative obsession that young people have with photo-uploading sites, it is starting to become increasingly clear that the impact goes far deeper than any of us imagined. What can we do to counter this, in an age of rampant technology? We’ll look at that in my next article.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email kesullivan@aol.com. Her next article is due to publish on May 9. To read her previous articles for SecEd, go to http://bit.ly/1SNgg00

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