Social media is a platform that fosters envy like none other. While previous generations had television, movies or simple people-watching as a basis for comparison and self scrutiny, social media exposes young people to a flood of images to judge themselves against — models with non-existent waistlines or celebrities sipping fad diet smoothies. But images on social media are hardly reflective of reality — any picture can be edited to exaggerate a thigh gap or deep, defined collar bones. So, for young people struggling with body insecurity, social media creates a toxic culture of unrealistic expectations and comparison that users and social media sites must work together to change.
Social media creates a constant window into a warped version of others’ realities and the pressure to keep up can take a toll on mental health. Eating disorders are on the rise all around the globe, and many experts attribute the surge, at least partially, to social media. Depression and anxiety have also increased with digital and social culture bent on perfectionism and idealism. Even the number of men seeking treatment for eating disorders saw a 70 percent spike between 2010 and 2016. Plastic surgeons have also recently reported the emergence of “Snapchat Dysmorphia” — people altering their appearance to look like themselves with a Snapchat filter.
The need to address the rise in eating disorders in recent years is especially pressing, given that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. On top of that, adolescents are most vulnerable to developing eating disorders or other body dysmorphic disorders — experts say the pressure to be accepted by peers is at is highest during teenage years — so social media can be a unique danger for this age demographic. While social media companies may have limited ability to steer the content users, particularly adolescents, restricting access to accounts dedicated to dieting tactics and weight loss may help alleviate some pressure for body perfection. Additionally, Instagram and Snapchat could include disclaimers to remind users to some pictures may be edited a false representation of reality.
For many users, social media can do more harm than good. It allows people to measure their self worth in likes, allows too much comparison to others and gives us too much time trapped in a world of unachievable, if not unhealthy, body expectations. But social media culture is entirely a product of the users. As people who have grown up with a foot in the digital social landscape, we have the power and the Instagram accounts to help dictate the values of our online culture. It is time to use that power — to use social media as a platform to encourage celebration of all body types, rather than perpetuate a culture that places value on thinness. Social media is not going away any time soon, but the mental health consequences are too grave for the culture to continue unchanged. It is time for body positivity to take over our feeds.
A version of this appeared in the Monday, March 19 print edition. Email Alison Zimmerman at [email protected].