Social Media & Mental Illness

“Can I get a gluten-free, non-dairy, low-fat, sugar-free, soy-free latte with a triple shot of espresso?” Ask a barista 20 years ago to make a beverage like that and they’d probably give you a dumbfounded stare, but nowadays if you’re not offering alternatives like soy, almond, rice or hemp milk in cosmopolitan cities like Manhattan or LA, you might as well close shop. My NYU psych major friend mentioned to me how she wrote her thesis on how social media has now overexposed us to too many options whether it’s restaurants, diet trends or networks of people, ultimately leaving us more confused and unhappy. She gave an example of how Yelp has helped us increase access to new restaurants, but while you may find yourself waiting in line at the new fajitas place down the block, you can’t help feeling somewhat remorseful for missing out on the highly reviewed poke bowl joint downtown (while she had a more professional term coined for this, I just call it FOMO).

Social media and psychological distress

And so this begs the question of whether or not social media has really enhanced our generation’s mental illness. Has it increased our likelihood of anxiety, depression and eating disorders or has it created a more accessible platform for groups to form strong support communities?

Depression

Lancaster University published a study that suggests people who compare themselves on Facebook are more likely to feel depressed than those who do not. I suspect these findings are more applicable than ever for Instagram users. Of course users would like to post the most exciting, interesting updates of themselves via Instagram, but constantly scrolling past posts showcasing friends’ travels and participation of different social activities (perhaps parties) can more than likely affect one’s self-esteem. Another study conducted by Ottawa Public Health found that teens who used social media sites for more than 2 hours per day were more likely to suffer from poor mental heath, psychological distress and suicidal thoughts.

Something I have found particularly interesting is how social media has influenced the rapid rise of veganism and subsequently, its impact on eating disorders.

What exactly is veganism?

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4d92074fa3861483ffd924dcacdfa74aI’ll be quite honest, the first time someone explained this term to me, I thought it was absolutely ridiculous – to lead a vegan path meant adopting a lifestyle that went beyond just abstaining from meats, but also dairy, honey…and eggs?! I dismissed the trend, thinking for sure it would die down in a few months. Little did I know social media would propel the veganism movement up 350% with 150,000 vegans in the U.K. in 2006, to 542,0000 vegans in 2016. With the release of documentaries like Cowspiracy and Food Inc., YouTube videos like “101 Reasons to Go Vegan”, an increase in public Instagram accounts that focused on both spreading the word of health/environmental benefits as well as demonstrating the ease of making vegan recipes and the upsurge of influencers who advocate veganism such as Natalie Portman, the lifestyle became the online hype. Unsurprisingly, half of all vegans are aged 15-34 (42%) compared to 14% that are above the age of 65.

Link to eating disorders?

While this increased exposure has helped me understand how veganism can be a healthy shift in environmental protection and concern for animals rights, I think to some degree (but don’t quote me on this because this is only my observation), the popularity of the lifestyle has also helped more teens mask or trigger eating disorders, giving those who choose to participate an excuse to refrain from having certain foods with justified reasoning. In fact, surveys show prevalence of vegetarianism among eating-disorder patients is higher than in the general population.

Many Instagram posts of “perfectly crafted vegan meals” with all sorts of oddly named ingredients like coconut flour, superfood flax seeds and raw cacao have some users feeling “unhealthy enough” compared toScreen Shot 2017-04-18 at 9.13.38 PM.png the rest of the Instagram world. Celebrities endorsing crazy juice fast diets and pills with the hashtag #ad are constantly appearing on personal feeds (with no mention of side effects whatsoever). A certain pressure to be overly health-conscious emerges and thus we see a food industry now slapping on “gluten-free”, “GMO-free”, “oil-free”, “soy-free” labels on every snack package possible. Even PETA went to the extreme of proposing to place and ad depicting a stereotypical overweight American tourist on the Great Wall of China that would read “It’s the Wall We Should See From Space, Not You. Go Vegan.

 

But surely social media has also created a safe haven?

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All that being said, I am still confounded by how social media can also play an important role in mental illness recovery. Online communities are often viewed as safe” and “anonymous”, encouraging first-step recovery patients to be more willing to seek help. A Cambridge University study reveals that those in recovery interacting with supportive communities experience a change in their uses of social media including music preference and Facebook conversation (less negative language). Just from personal experience, I had a friend who silently suffered an eating disorder that I was not aware of. One day she finally openly discussed the topic via her new Instagram handle and vowed to dedicate the account to advocating her new healthy vegan lifestyle as a way to monitor her recovery. Today, she is a positive body-image Instagram influencer who has over 32K followers who look to her for recipe suggestions and recovery advice. And while her battle is still an ongoing one, I can truly see how a mutual support system has aided her recovery journey.

10 comments

  1. This post was a great read! I agree with your stance that health accounts on Instagram have the potential to promote unhealthy habits that their followers buy into. In my experience on Instagram, I have noticed more and more of these accounts advocating for healthy lifestyles over the past few years. This applies not only to food, but also fitness accounts making it known that a flattering picture of ones body is heavily influenced by angles, lighting, and time of day. Hopefully this trend will continue in the future!

  2. Great post. Often what celebrities endorse on SM and Instagram has a large impact on those who follow them and especially those who aspire to be like them. On the contrary, and from my personal experience, I do have some friends though that are not vegan, and I see them posting many unhealthy pictures of food (like crazy desserts), but still this does not make me inclined to conduct an unhealthy lifestyle, but yet again these are just my friends and not influencers/celebrities. I do think that it’s important to maintain a healthy diet and have a balance, and from my experience on SM, I often simply look at these Instagram posts, give them a like, and continue on with my day. Thanks for sharing your insights on the Vegan lifestyle, which was really interesting. SM can definitely be used as a tool to influence others, and will hopefully continue to do so on the positive side in the future with regarding mental disorders.

  3. I really liked this post and your focus on social media and eating disorders/body shaming! I thought it was interesting you pointed out that there is a higher population of vegetarians among people who suffer from eating disorders than the regular population. Often times if I come across a body positivity IG account on my popular page (like your friends), their recipes tend to be vegan or vegetarian – so that was an interesting connection! Thank you for sharing!

  4. Really interesting tie you reflected on social media and mental illness/eating disorders. I think there are a lot of ties between these too and often times social media can inflame these issues by having so many posts with seemingly perfect lives. It is hard to live in an era that photoshops and masks unhappiness by only promoting “cool” experiences or impossible body standards through retouched photos. That said, I do think the internet and social media has created outlets and spaces for people to feel comfortable and empowered. These are the sites that need more press and publicity because they are promoting communities that are building people up rather than focusing on their flaws and what “they aren’t”. Thank you for an awesome post!

  5. It’s impressive how social media could have a negative impact on a person’s life with the lack of information or emotional intelligence. Many young people are pressured by social trends to stay thin and this could be dangerous when people start cutting important supplements from their diet. What is even worse, no one in your social circle will say that there is anything wrong with the habit of cutting down the weight. In fact, most close friends, Facebook friends, and instagram followers will start complimenting the change on the person’s body; which ultimately encourages the person to continue this unhealthy behavior. That’s why it is important for parents, professors, and conscious friends to know how to detect these symptoms and have a conversation before the physical and psychological damage becomes greater.

  6. This was one of my favorite blogs from the entire semester. I agree with a lot of points you made about social media having the ability to drive unhealthy habits and illness. I like how you backed these observations with statistics and numbers that support your claim. I’m sure there are some other factors playing a role, but I am a huge believer that social media has given rise to practices such as veganism. I think that adopting a healthy lifestyle is fantastic, but I don’t think a good amount of people know the downsides you discussed. I am very curious about how these types of posts on social media impact different genders and age groups on social media. Does the 16-year old female view these posts and pressures differently than a 21-year old in college? Social media can definitely be a tool to influence others, but it can be an avenue to discover new options, and seek a safe environment.

  7. Such great post! I loved the way to explained that social media overexposuses to a lot of things. Food, work out, trends, fashion, and people are all at the touch of your finger but also along with this jealousy, mental health issues, and comparisons are also a result of this exposure. There are so many way that social media can affect our mental health and it is sad to think that the younger generation is so consumed but the media that they may not realize these results until its too late. I am glad you addressed the other side of social media.

  8. Great blog. It’s funny how there is this struggle on Instagram, in particular, between memes that say things like “8am: Portioned out foods for the week. 10am: Finished them all,” which is self-deprecating and humorous; making the topic of how difficult it is to diet a very common trend and one linked with humor on social media. Conversely, there are ads always popping up on Instagram, as you mentioned, for new weight loss tips and tricks and exercise programs one can subscribe to. So this juxtaposition is confusing – should we be accepting ourselves with our flaws and just sum our struggles with indulgence as human or be working to improve our bodies daily? I can see how this would lead to a much bigger internal conflict for someone struggling with body issues. Thank you for sharing!

  9. Great post! it is interesting to me how social media that was designed to spread positivity and happy thoughts have also spread depression and shaming. The point of instagram was to show off a picture of something that you felt would make others happy and smile, like it made you smile. So it is really interesting to see how that has also had a reverse effect where people see someone with a different body type and feel bad that they dont look like that, or see a picture from a trip or party and feel worse that they werent there rather than being happy that the person was having a good time. I think you did a great job of showing both the problems it can create while also mentioning the safe haven space that it can promote like pro body image accounts and posts.

  10. Such a great post! Sometimes I think Instagram is just a channel for people to show how cool their lives are and it’s almost like a competition to have the coolest (but not realistic) post. I really liked how you connected social media to mental health, and I agree that social media can change how we perceive ourselves compared to others. I had no idea veganism was so influenced by social media, and while the negatives you mentioned are concerning, I’m glad to see a positive light of social media as a safe haven for people struggling.

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