“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?
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?
I’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 to 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?
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.