We’ve all heard the horror stories about what the ‘gram is doing to our wellbeing – but according to experts, the truth is more complex
Mental Health: Beyond Awareness is a five-day campaign asking what we can do for mental health issues beyond "raising awareness". Young people are more aware of mental health issues than ever, but our services are broken, the internet is stressing us out, and self-medication is on the rise. Who is campaigning for change? And how can we help ourselves? This week, Dazed is aiming to find out.
It was in the midst of severe depression that Binny Debbie started making memes under the Instagram handle @scariest_bug_ever. “I'd post, like, a video of me chugging straight bourbon with tears running down my face, and at the end I’d smile and wink. I thought that shit was hilarious because at the time. It was my everyday. I was incredibly unstable, and my profile reflected that.”
Things have improved for Debbie, who now uses Instagram as a platform to sell art and promote the work of friends, as well as a “mood board and mind dump”. But @scariest_bug_ever remains part of a small Instagram community who use the app for the explicit purpose of talking about mental health. While not all of Instagram’s 800 million users are as introspective as Debbie, it’s an issue that’s affecting a growing number of them. In one of the first major studies of its kind, the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) last year ranked Instagram the worst social media platform for young people’s mental wellbeing, joining a growing body of research which has linked social media to symptoms of social anxiety, and suggested that young people who spend more than two hours a day on social media are more likely to report poor mental health.
These are concerns that are shared beyond the research community, with organisations such as mental health start-up Sanctus coming up with innovative ways to tackle the problem. Their LifeFaker.com website promises downloadable ‘perfect photo packages’ of a range of scenarios for use on Instagram – but when you try to download them, you’re redirected to Sanctus’s own website, full of information about the negative health effects of social media.
Carmen Papaluca, a researcher at Australia’s University of Notre Dame, chose to focus her PhD on the impacts of Instagram on the wellbeing of 18-25 year old women, after earlier research findings indicated that its visual focus presented a far bigger risk factor than other platforms. “The image-based environment seems to be much more pervasive for socio-cultural influence,” she explains. “It’s just so visual; we already know that social media is such a risk for social comparison, appearance comparison, and comparison of life satisfaction, so when we’re only seeing tangible images, of course it’s going to increase the salience of those transmitted ideals.”
Through a combination of content analysis, focus groups, and questionnaires, Papaluca is finding a strong negative impact on her participants from Instagram. Crucially, she notes that their experiences go beyond very common issues with body image and appearance comparison, and into the realms of life satisfaction: “So many were saying that they want other girls’ lives and they want to be them. So it’s really gone past just wanting to look like somebody – now it’s about having their life, having what they have. That’s a whole new challenge.”
There is, of course, a difference between wellbeing and mental illness, and research has so far concentrated largely on the former. But for those working on the frontlines of mental health, the Instagram effect has not gone unnoticed. “Whilst it definitely has its good points, unintentional or extended use is not so good for you” clinical psychologist Dr Jessamy Hibberd tells me. As with other forms of social media, she says, “it is not generally very rewarding, and research shows that mood drops after this type of use and can leave you feeling frustrated, lonely, and depressed. It has a negative impact on your relationships, as you can’t give people your full attention when you’re online. Our phones and tablets also emit blue light, which is stimulating, and so over-use can also have a negative effect on sleep.”
“You’ve got young, evolving minds where it’s all about belonging to the tribe – and if you don’t quite fit in, then feelings of isolation can grow” – Beverley Hills
For the young clients seen by Beverley Hills, who is a practicing counsellor in Surrey and Kent and a member of the Counselling Directory, this can manifest in panic attacks, anxiety, self harm, sleep issues, academic underachievement, isolation, abuse of drugs and alcohol, and bullying – both as victim and perpetrator. “I’ve had young people say ‘I’m bullying people and I don’t want to be, but I hate everybody because I’m not like X,Y,Z celebrity,” she says. Hills puts this down to “the competitive selfie culture” and the pervasive need for young people to find a sense of belonging. “You’ve got young, evolving minds where it’s all about belonging to the tribe – and if you don’t quite fit in, then feelings of isolation can grow.”
In this sense, she says, Instagram usage can have similar effects to addiction. “They can’t just leave Instagram because they’ll no longer be part of that group, and if you’re not part of the group then you have to replace it with something. It’s like any addiction; if you give up alcohol or drugs, you’re giving up your friendship group – otherwise you’re just going to go straight back into it.”
When Instagram users do find the sense of belonging they crave, though, the results can be incredibly positive. Beth Evans, the artist behind @bethdrawsthings, knows this well, having amassed 256k followers and a book deal with her illustrations about mental health and the difficulties of adapting to adult life. “There is a whole sense of community in all parts of the internet that focus on mental health that truly want to offer support.” she says. “The fact that so many people want to discuss these tough issues and help people feel better is really amazing.”
This community-building aspect is one that Instagram itself has been keen to nurture, launching campaigns such as #HereForYou to celebrate the support networks which exist on the platform. The company is also keen to draw attention to new features that aim to create a caring environment in which users look out for each other, such as the ability to anonymously flag users you’re worried about, so that they will be presented with options for accessing support.
Hills has seen the positive effects of Instagram communities on her own clients, particularly, she notes, on young transgender people who “find great comfort in being able to identify feelings of isolation and share life experiences with others in a way they would never have been able to before.” Carmen Papaluca agrees, noting that emerging research into the concept of self-love on Instagram shows that this can be a strong mitigating factor against its negative impacts: “Even if they’re looking at negative images at the same time, this still seems to provide a protective factor. It’s a huge area for further research.”
Binny Debbie recognises this positive factor, and is grateful for the opportunity to work through mental health issues with a supportive community. But even memes about mental illness can fall victim to the same dilemmas about authenticity and life through a filter that play out across Instagram. Of her “miserable early sobriety” Debbie tells me: “I was trying to put a positive spin on something that, at the time, I wasn't completely sold on myself. It didn't always come through as I intended. I work through thoughts publicly, and it can be helpful and harmful. I often don't think before I post. I'm reactive. I'm working on that, because I know a lot of people see it and are affected by it.”
Like Debbie, Papaluca says the participants involved in her research are also becoming more reflexive about their Instagram use as they consider the effect it has on the mental health of themselves and others. “The most powerful part of the research has been turning off the tape after the focus groups when we’re all just casually talking; they’ve all talked to each other about how good it felt to hear other people vocalising the things they felt and how reassuring that was. It’s empowered them to feel that they’re in control of how this affects them, and it’s started conversations about how they’re going to make that change.”
“People get shit for posts that seem too ‘attention seeking’, but I think those posts need to be seen; they might be the only way certain people know how to vocalise their traumas” – Binny Debbie
She is keen to emphasise, though, that the solution cannot be solely in the hands of users themselves, or indeed their parents, as has been the go-to solution for so long. Instead, her research advocates framing the effects of Instagram as a public health issue in order to create a sense of collective responsibility at all levels. “We know that young people engage in negative behaviours and risky behaviours no matter what we tell them” she points out. “So we all have a responsibility to address it and instead show them how to make safer and healthier decisions and how to be more mindful.”
But in the context of huge debates about the responsibilities of tech giants and the effects of social media on society, what of the platform itself? “Millions of young people use Instagram every day to express themselves and connect with their friends and the wider community. We take their wellbeing seriously and have a responsibility to ensure that Instagram is a safe and supportive place.” says an Instagram spokesperson. “Mental health is a complex issue, and one we are committed to addressing. We have created in-app tools, features, and resources so people can control their Instagram experience and get support they need, when and where they need it. We will continue to work to maintain Instagram as a welcoming and safe place for everyone.” They point to their Community guidelines and changes to comment moderation; these are positive initiatives for the community as a whole, but changes which arguably do little to address the concerns of experts around comparison and the specific dangers of image-based media.
Considering what could make the biggest difference to young users, Beverley Hills suggests introducing social media sessions as part of the PSHE curriculum, and flagging manipulated photos with a symbol or caption. Papaluca notes the responsibility of Instagram to stay on top of constantly emerging hashtags and trends around the likes of self-harm. Influencers and celebrities also have a part to play, she believes, in being honest about their real lives, and acting as role models to those consuming their content. The RSPH report, too, made a range of recommendations, including pop-up ‘heavy usage’ warnings on social media – which would alert users when they’re spending too much time on the app – and a system of the type already implemented by Instagram, in which vulnerable users can be identified and discretely signposted to support.
Carmen Papaluca and Dr Jessamy Hibberd are also passionate about the need for further study in under-examined areas. For Papaluca, this is the experience of men and boys online, as well as the concept of self-care as a protective factor, while Hibberd highlights the need to differentiate between different types of use: “intentional versus unintentional, and aspirational – which can cause comparison – versus finding an online community, which can foster social relationships.”
And Dr Hibberd practices what she preaches, embracing Instagram – and launching her own app, Noodle – as a way to spread messages about how to look after your mental health. “I love my work as a psychologist, but I’ve always been aware that there’s a limit to how far psychology can go if you only work one-to-one with people.” she says. “For me, social media has been a way to make psychology more accessible. Social media and apps are here to stay. My view is that it’s better to get on board and find a way to give out useful beneficial information that can make a difference to people.”
Instagram is, indeed, here to stay. And while discussions will undoubtedly continue about its effect on our mental health and wellbeing, it’s clear that the true picture is far from simple. The way forward, according to professionals such as Carmen Papaluca, Beverley Hills, and Dr Jessamy Hibberd, is a combination of further research, meaningful action, and collective responsibility – no small ask amidst existential questions about the rapid growth of technology and the overtaking of the physical world by the digital. But if progress for society as a whole requires a revolution in our way of thinking, it’s worth remembering that for individuals such as Binny Debbie (and the 146k who follow @scariect_bug_ever), the existence of a platform to talk about mental health at all is already revolutionary:
“People get shit for posts that seem too ‘attention seeking’, but I think those posts need to be seen; they might be the only way certain people know how to vocalise their traumas,” she tells me. “(When I was depressed), I needed those crying selfies and weird dark memes as a way to connect. I want to make people feel less alone and more understood, ultimately. It helps me feel the same way.”