This summer while abroad, I caught the last half hour of a documentary shown on BBC World Service, entitled ‘Smartphones: The Dark Side’. It chronicled the effect of Social Media on young peoples mental health through a few sensitively broadcasted personal stories. This is an issue which in recent years has rightfully been brought in to the limelight. Although, still a topic that is deeply misunderstood and attached to social stigma, it appears that these days, thankfully, many more people seem to be championing self-care and with it safe usage of the internet.
However, something different struck a chord within me, something poignant, and thought-provoking stood out of the screen, and that was the reporter’s final line and lasting message, “the next time you reach for your phone, ask yourself why?”. And so, for that evening I left my phone tucked away in a cupboard while I went out for dinner, and saved myself from mindless scrolling and the invisible damage that this can cause because, in the timely words of Harold Wilson, we are living through the next “technological Revolution”, and everyone is affected. Today, the smartphone is at the top of the food chain, and in this visual world, we are its prey. Instagram launched in 2010 as an innovative new photo sharing App, designed as a platform for artists to curate and share their creations with the rest of their industry. Fast forward 8 years and Instagram is worth $100 billion and is projected to surpass 111 million users by 2019, which is just 3 short months away. In late 2017, the Independent reported that the average Brit checks their phone 28 times a day.
Simultaneously, more than a quarter of the UK’s population will log on to Instagram at least monthly, according to eMarketer’s latest forecast of the country’s social network users. Social media use is clearly booming with 91% of 16-24-year-olds in the UK using the internet regularly. With us glued to our screens, we are undoubtedly going to become recipients of whatever our feeds are showing us. We are growing influenced by ‘influencers’, with adverts moulded to what we follow, view, and like. In a world of Airbrush, Face Tune and curated lifestyles, a blurry line has been sketched between our imagining and reality. It is a bizarre world that we live in.
Perhaps not so absurd for me, a 20-year-old who has grown up surrounded by ever-evolving tech, but older generations may still find the concept of us talking into cameras, posing for selfies, playing up our personalities for likes extraordinarily unusual and unorthodox. We may find it creative, business-minded, or just the norm of mundane everyday life. They may find it trivial, mindless and futile.
With the picture of the sheer excess and vastness of our social media engagement, the dependency of smartphones on our daily lives painted. Let me point you in the direction of a growing concern that has spurred from the intensity of this modern phenomenon – the effect on young people’s self-esteem, and how many of them are subconsciously led to believe they are not attractive enough because they don’t match the unrealistic demands of today’s niche online beauty standard, consequently, leading some to plastic surgery, body dysmorphia or eating disorders at a young age. Plastic surgery is a difficult topic to tread. In today’s culture that champions subliminal autonomy and zero judgments, we are supposed to say “yes! Good for you!”, when someone decides to go under the knife for cosmetic purposes. That is all well and good. It’s frankly none of our business unless we’re a close friend or relative of that individual. When large numbers of girls and boys, in an impressionable young age bracket, are taking to plastic surgery because of an unattainable beauty standard has been hammered into their mentality day after day through social media, we really ought to draw a line and begin a conversation. Let me just remind you that 18-24-year-olds are the most significant demographic on social media.
For decades people desired for cosmetic surgery to be removed of its stigma, and miraculously, in 2018, it finally feels like it has. Plastic surgery has become normalised. The regular audience of social media accounts will be aware of what their favourite beauty blogger, reality TV star and you-tuber may very well have gone under the knife, and been honest and open about their procedures. Although, it’s, of course, healthier and more mindful of others to list what you have had done, but what sort of message does that send to your young following, that you an already beautiful and successful individual was not attractive or good enough? This is a question that many people ask, and is often responded to with comments like “its none of your business”, or “don’t be so negative, it makes them feel better”. That is all very true, if it makes you feel better it’s undoubtedly a good a thing to do, many people equate cosmetic surgery to giving yourself a new hairstyle, or getting your nails done. However, my issue with this is not the singular fashion entrepreneurs who may be partial to a bit of Botox to lift their eyebrows because they are in the public eye.
Although, at this stage, it’s not for me, who am I to judge right? I still enjoy their content and continue to follow their social footprint. My problem is with the immersion of photoshop with everyday content, and the reluctance to address it, and the extensive online distribution of these perfect airbrushed images and the glorification of unattainable bodies, who have clearly been subject to over 20 surgeries. This is fake, and in this sea of perfection, now nobody aiming to grow their following really wants to post a photo of themselves that hasn’t been edited to the nine’s on Face Tune, because they will feel naked, they will feel inadequate, and they will feel like they will lose their admiring following. With them setting the standard, we follow and adapt our image accordingly to whoever we admire the look of. Welcome to the vicious cycle of social media.
The marketing side of things is even more contrived. Here’s how it works, if you appear on reality TV, and the public take a liking to you, you usually get a few thousand followers on Instagram, if you went on a show with a large following, par example, ITV2’s 4 million hit ‘Love Island’, you can even be awarded over a million followers, maybe 2 million, or in the rare case of this years winner Dani Dyer, 3.2. Now a fully fledged public figure, you then become a so-called ‘influencer’, and companies start queuing up on your PR agents mailbox, desperate for you to front their brand as an ambassador, or sign as the face of a sister collection. These brands are almost always tailored for a young target market. This is nothing new, advertising has always been the forte of the rich and famous, and that’s ok, as far as I’m aware not many people have a problem with this. It’s just another norm. The interesting point here is that as soon as anyone becomes someone, much like the case of these previously unknown ‘Islanders’, a sizeable chunk of the country flocks to their social media platforms to drop a follow, signifying their support and admiration of them. We ALL do this, highlighting even my own hypocrisy on the issue, and just how the likes of Instagram and Twitter have become as crucial to our every day as brushing our teeth. Our constant connectivity has led to an addiction to networking, fuelled by the dopamine we get when someone interacts with our post positively.
Thes ‘Influencers’ and ‘Fitspiration’ (excuse the social media jargon) vow to inspire and educate their following on healthy lifestyles, aside from a few facts about carbs, instead of encouraging me to be healthier and make positive changes, I ultimately carry on scrolling mindlessly, envious of how this individual is capitalising on supposedly helping others, and has made a reputable name for themselves online.
I like to visualise it is by using the analogy of Harry Potter, weird, I know. Although, not a huge Potter fan the way that we take a part of us and put it on Instagram to show the world is similar to how Voldemort takes a part of him and places it in a Horcrux to truly personify his individuality and immortalise it. Back to the point of Social Medias effect on our self-esteem here are a few statistics to underline the impact that these App’s may have had on us. The number of women aged between 19 and 34, who get Botox and other smaller cosmetic procedures in the US has risen by 41%, since 2011, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. The Industry in the UK is worth a staggering estimated £3.6 Billion. According to BBC Newsnight, 60% of young people who have been bullied for their looks have reportedly tried to change it, with plastic surgeon Dr Derk Kremer stating that “procedures for millennials are now massively on the rise”. He reported that Social Media boosts demands for cosmetic surgery and that he is continuously bombarded with clients wishing to look like an unattainable Instagram star, Kylie Jenner from ‘Keeping Up With The Kardashians’ fame for instance.
Frames Direct discovered that on average a millennial will take 25,700 selfies in their lifetime. 55% of millennials are found to share selfies on social media, and to date, Instagram has more than 250 million #selfie posts, this increases every day. In 2015, The Office for National Statistics found that 27% of children are glued to their sites for 3 hours or more a day, with around 8% of young people aged between 10 and 15 spending over three hours every day using social media sites. 56% of preteens have reported spending up to three hours a day on social media. Simultaneously, rates of anxiety and depression in young people have increased by 70% over the last 25 years. The Canadian Association for Mental Health states that children as young as 12 have higher doses of anxiety and depression than a few years ago. The American Academy of Facial Plastics and Reconstructive Surgery found a 31% increase in plastic surgery requests as a result of how people want to present themselves on a social media account.
BBC News reported from findings by the Royal Society for Public Health that Instagram had been ranked the worst social media for mental health in teenagers. They also commented that “social media has been described as more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol”, and needs “checks and balances in place to make sure Instagram is not the wild west for young people”. This is evident through the fact that 40% of online adults have experienced online harassment. The Centre for Collegiate Mental Health found that the top three diagnoses on campus are stress, depression, and anxiety. Numerous studies have linked this rise to increased social media use in university age. A collection of Canadian Universities found that 7/10 students would get rid of their social media accounts if not for fear of missing out. Even my 11-year-old cousin has her very own Instagram account.
It is not uncommon for people to get lip fillers for 18th birthday presents, some people will be horrified to hear this, others will think that its the exact same as getting braces, or your ears pinned back, but the problem is that lip fillers are a rising trend founded somewhat by Kylie Jenner (remember her lip challenge?) and subservient Instagram models. Many people have commented on the toxicity of continually comparing ourselves to others, and seeing our insecurities in light of other peoples highlight reels (ironically Instagram has launched its highlights feature) There exists a social currency for a lot of people where their self-value is dependant on the likes they receive, very similar to the Black Mirror episode ‘Nosedive’.
Nosedive cleverly predicted that excessive social media usage would result in the decline of us as genuine people and it’s easy to see why. When considering the economy of attention on our platforms, we are the product, and we are attributing value to ourselves and quantifying it for everyone to see. CBC has reported that teens prioritise money and fame as values of high importance. This can be attributed to the multitudes of wealth and excess that we see amongst social media stars like the Kardashians and Hadid’s. Of course in the past few decades as celeb culture grew we saw all of our favourite celebrities in magazines, but that was nowhere near how much we are swarmed now. This places enormous pressure on young people. In the age of reality TV, the culture of having the spotlight on yourself, and being the star of your own show thrives. It could well have been called a platform because it is literally our very own podium by which we show ourselves.
Ethically there are documented and highly publicised problems, social media is very dangerous and deceiving. Our increasing emptiness and lack of empathy are juxtaposed with our exhibitionist self-expression on social media. This is evident through the fact that being engaged continuously on social media don’t activate brain areas necessary for self-reflection interacting with other people and developing empathy. Social media champions beauty, everyone wants to look perfect, and so we use filters to achieve our desired look. After this, you can be defined by the number of likes and comments you get. Back in the day, it used to be that we looked at models and Hollywood stars and thought, well I’m not a Sports Illustrated cover star, it doesn’t matter that I’m not 6ft tall with a so-called ‘beach body’, but now everything has changed. The spotlight is on every girl, the girl next door, the person you just met, anyone who has an online presence and is visible to others in the same way that models are in online magazines. The beauty ideal has narrowed, and everyone wants to become it, resulting in many people opting for cosmetic procedures to attain the unattainable. The truth is that changing your appearance will not necessarily boost your self-esteem. We should use social media with the right intentions in mind and champion the idea that everyone is beautiful without a nose job or a brow lift. This imposed an ideal of perfection is not attainable, and in my opinion, it’s not beautiful anymore because it is no longer a unique you. Simply put, we should not feel inadequate next to people who are not even real.
What Instagram presented in its purest form is merely the most recent tool that we have employed to do what we’ve always done, just to tell stories and communicate with one another, perhaps we have always been striving to portray a contrived perfection in an imperfect world. So when you next reach for your phone, ask yourself, why? And how impressionable to social media do you think that you are?
Words by Melissa Fleur Afshar