Facebook and Twitter have both been criticised for the way they facilitate vicious behaviour, whether it's a hostile message or more sinister long-term abuse. But social media can make us be unkind to ourselves, too. According to a number of recent studies, our bad habit of comparing ourselves unfavourably to people we see online can result in plummeting levels of self-esteem.
Last year, the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), a British charity, found that of all the social media platforms, photo sharing apps such as Instagram and Snapchat were the most detrimental to the mental health of young people, who find themselves feeling less successful, less happy and less beautiful than other people. But this isn’t just about envying the way celebrities present themselves: it’s also our peers, and even ourselves. According to a recent American Medical Association paper, doctors have seen increasing numbers of young people wanting cosmetic surgery in order to more closely resemble the filtered, doctored photos that they post of themselves online.
Dr Jasmine Fardouly from the Department of Psychology at Macquarie University, Australia, has done a large amount of research into the links between body image and social media use. “People have always wanted to present themselves in the best possible light when, say, they meet new people,” she says. “But social media provides an environment where you can really control how you come across. You can carefully curate a version of yourself that’s very idealistic.” This results in what has been termed an “envy spiral”, where we compete with our peers by presenting increasingly unrealistic versions of ourselves, creating an airbrushed online environment that’s increasingly divorced from reality.
Quotes from people (predominantly young women) who have come forward in studies to admit to low self-esteem are heart-rending. “With Snapchat filters, I felt I was beautiful,” said one. “Instagram makes me so anxious,” said another. Psychologists have long been interested in the way that photography in the media affects self-perception, and the way airbrushed models can highlight our own deficiencies. But according to Fardouly, idealised photos of our peers affect us in different ways to images from film or advertising. “One important factor is attainability,” she says. “In other words, whether you’re actually able to reach that level of attractiveness yourself. It has been suggested that peer photos are more harmful for this reason – although the research is messy at the moment.”
The psychological effects
There’s no doubt, however, about our tendency to disparage ourselves. “People compare themselves to another person in an image,” says Fardouly, “and most of the time they judge themselves to be less attractive. It’s also been argued that these comparisons are largely unconscious, so it’s possible that people might not even be aware of what’s happening to them.”
It’s easy to see the behavioural effects of us making these comparisons: the taking of (and discarding of) large numbers of selfies, compulsive use of filters, and close monitoring of online comments in order to be reassured of one’s own attractiveness. However, the psychological effects (and precisely what causes them) are more difficult to discern. Dr Martin Graff, a lecturer in psychology at the University of South Wales, stresses that drawing firm conclusions isn’t easy. “It could be that the kind of people who are dissatisfied with their appearance are spending more time online,” he says, “almost seeking comfort by burying themselves in social media.”
What is unarguable, however, is the surge in interest in cosmetic surgery procedures from younger people. One data set from the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons notes that the proportion of people seeking surgery to make themselves “look better in selfies” has risen from 13% in 2013 to 55% in 2017. This has been exacerbated, according to Fardouly, by the promotion of such procedures by social media influencers.
“They’re posting pictures of themselves getting lip injections and Botox,” she says, “so it’s becoming more normalised for their audience, which is mainly young teenage girls. And they can be incredibly conscious of, and dissatisfied with, their appearance.”
While there’s a strong belief amongst people seeking cosmetic surgery that it will make them more happy and more confident, Fardouly notes that this may be unlikely. “You don’t want to put a moral judgement on whether someone should do it or not,” she says, “but if they’re suffering from a body dysmorphic disorder it could be harmful for them to have it. There are a lot of ethical issues surrounding this.”
What's the solution?
There’s also concern about the ethics of the social media platforms that provide us with the tools to alter our selfies. Bodies such as the RSPH have called for the likes of Instagram to add disclaimers or watermarks to doctored photos to remind people viewing them that they’re not real. “That might make sense logically,” says Fardouly, “but there’s a large body of research that suggests it’s completely ineffective. Some research has even found that if you tell people which aspects of the photo have been altered, it draws people’s attention to it and makes them feel even worse.”
So what can be done? Graff wonders if these are just teething issues while we get to grips with a new world of interaction. “It’s possible that we’ll become desensitised to these things,” he says, “as we get better at recognising when pictures have been edited.” But with image editing having become the norm, it’s a long way back for a society that is desperate to present itself in an attractive way. “We need to create a social media that isn’t just idealised images,” says Fardouly, “by following accounts that recognise that these images have an effect, and that make you feel good about yourself.”
One such account is run by the comedian Celeste Barber, whose 4.4 million Instagram followers are treated to pictures and videos of her mocking idealised images by recreating them in funny, messy, realistic ways. Fardouly is currently completing research into Barber’s work to assess whether her Instagram posts may do more for positive body image than a watermark ever could. Social media is, after all, just collections of people’s highlights. To compare ourselves to such things is almost an act of self-sabotage.