Just How Dark Is The Dark Side Of Social Media?

Wherever you walk, you see people on their phones: scrolling in the supermarket, double tapping in the dentist’s waiting room and typing in traffic. It is safe to say that as a society we are addicted to seeing the world through our phones. As a result of this addiction, the internet has become a different place; it is used for personal branding and sharing what we had for breakfast. There is fear lurking, though, that social media is slowly turning us into narcissistic, fame hungry bullies who spend all our time comparing our lives with other people and therefore in a constant state of disappointment. But is social media really to blame for body image issues, abusive comments and the ‘comparison culture’, or are we as a society simply too quick to point the finger?

At some point in our lives, all of us have been on social media; it is not just a ‘young person’s game’. Whether we are an avid ‘liker’ or an occasional scroller, it seems everyone has a social media presence somewhere. We know there are negative effects associated with social media: anxiety, self-evaluation, body image issues, stress, the list goes on. We are also aware of the positive movements and messages that can arise out of social media:

#IAmNoAngel, Dove’s #choosebeautiful and #LikeAGirl to name a few. Despite knowing all these things, the good and the bad, many of us use social media on a daily basis while still also seeing it as ‘the bad guy’. We are quick to blame social media for the issues young girls have with body image because of the pictures they see, for the hateful comments that get spread and the horrific results that can follow. This is not to say that social media is not to blame, of course it plays a role. It is an enabler for such behaviour, but it is far from the only reason we have these faults to deal with. Social media is often getting a bad name in the media, mostly due to reports and studies that highlight the negative effects it has on society.

However, many experts – including Associate Professor Luke Goode, lecturer in media and communication at the University of Auckland – think the dangers of social media tend to be exaggerated. “We’re at risk of a moral panic,” he says. Goode believes most of the things we think are dangerous about social media are human factors rather than technological factors. “As an academic researcher, I’ve been studying social media from the beginning and I firmly believe, even in a world of fake news, that the benefits of social media greatly outweigh the costs,” Goode says.

“Things like status anxiety or body image pressures aren’t specifically social media problems, although they can be amplified through social media. Instead they have much deeper and wider roots in, for example, consumerism and a patriarchal culture that treats particularly female bodies as both commodities and objects of moral pressure, stigma and social shame. If social media disappeared tomorrow, those problems would still be endemic in our society.”

Social media as we know it started out innocently enough in 1997 with Six Degrees, which allowed people to upload profile pictures and make friends with other users. Blogging followed in 1999 and created the social media sensation still popular today. Sites like Myspace, LinkedIn, Flickr, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter followed in the early 2000s, changing the way we used the internet and how we communicated. People started to customise their Myspace sites, picking a profile picture that best showed who they were. Others started YouTube channels, showing off their talents and creating a name for themelves, introducing a new type of ‘celebrity’.

This brings us to today, when the internet is used not only as a tool to communicate, but as another way for people, and businesses, to promote who they are and what they believe in. Whether this is done through selfies or through sharing products that fit a certain ethos, people are able to showcase a life in a certain light. Take influencers for example, people who have garnered a social media following and are then seen as influential in their own right and realm. We were more and more buying into the idea of social media as a branding tool, not just for businesses but for ourselves. This has also created a culture where we compare ourselves to others.

A Comparison Culture

Walking down the street you see a family hopping out of their shiny black BMW. The tall, slim mum has perfectly blow-dried hair, a crisp, ironed dress and an impeccably styled Mini-Me. They look perfect. But little do we know she just had a huge argument with her husband that morning, her daughter tore the ribbons out of her hair five times before having a tantrum and their car is causing them so much financial stress she hasn’t slept properly. Just because we see 10 seconds of their life doesn’t mean we can decide it is perfect.

Yet, we have become a society that does just that, not only in person, but online as well. We are obsessed with following people and their ‘perfect’ lives on social media, while also comparing our own life and self to these people. We gaze at the bodies, comparing them to our own slightly-bigger-muffin-top body and drool over their picture-perfect breakfast and compare it with our standard tea and toast.

The concept isn’t new; ask anyone who walks along the beach and looks at other people’s bodies or wanders down the street and compares their shoes. Social media has just given us more and more opportunities to compare our lives with others’ more ‘perfect’ lives. Influencers are a prime example of this. Their lives look perfect, not because they don’t have bad hair days or because their children are the epitome of angelic, but because they only share the good moments. Unfortunately, society has a habit of seeing these people/images and forgetting that social media is just a curated snippet of people’s lives.

A good example of this is blogger Abby Plested, who shares photos of her adorable family to her 10,200 followers. As you scroll through, you are greeted by smiling faces of her young family, mirror selfies with her children and fashion selfies. On the surface, it can look perfect. “I honestly, from the bottom of my heart, feel no pressure to make it look like a perfect life,” she says. “But, when people do say to me ‘I want your life’ it looks ‘so happy all the time’ I quickly correct them and stress how I have ups and downs like them and remind [them that Instagram is] just little squares of all the happy moments… It is just photos, an image of a one-second reality of their world. Photos are also so easily twisted realities, so do not find your worth in social media. Take this advice from me, who gets girls asking me all the time how I always stay positive and happy. Yes, I am a happy person and yes, my Instagram is a very clear picture of my reality, but I do have breakdowns and sad moments all the time, and I am not always positive… ask my husband.”

When it comes to sharing her photos, it isn’t a simple ‘line up and shoot’ like so many people may assume. Plested admits there is a lot of creative thought behind them and that maintaining an Instagram account is a big commitment. With so much resting on social media, Plested admits there have been times when she worried what might happen in a future if and when social media becomes irrelevant. “My accomplishments are not defined by social media. I am not defined by social media. Sure, I have followers who will disappear if social media does, but my worth is not found in them. I have to remind myself of this because I have thought this exact thing before and it can be so easy to get caught up in it all.”

The darker side to this concept – of people as a brand – is that they lose their human qualities. These influencers are seen as a commodity, rather than a person. Stereotypes have been developed that assume these people are money hungry narcissistic individuals who are just after some fame and fortune and are missing out on the life in front of them.

“People think that all [I] do in life is take photos and that I am missing out on ‘real moments’ as I am always on my phone,” Plested says. “It is not true… I am not always on my phone and I have real moments everyday… Social media will never dictate my life but I strive to have my feed as raw and honest as possible, so I guess it encourages me to be the same person on my Instagram as in real life day to day.”
Society can be so quick to judge these people for their choices and, rather than stop scrolling or unlike the page, they continue to dish out their negative opinions. As someone who often shares pictures of her children, Plested knows this all too well.

“I kindly let them know that I have no issue sharing my children and it’s my decision. I am also well aware of the risks and never overshare regarding them, but I also believe risks come with anything we do in life and we can’t not do things because of them. I love my kids and I want to protect them but I will not shelter them too much.”

Makaia Carr, founder of Motivate Me – New Zealand’s online Health and Wellness Community, also understands what it is like to be on the receiving end of people’s stereotyped thoughts of social media and how she is raising her kids. With 111, 000 followers on Facebook and 30,400 followers on Instagram, she has encountered all sorts of social media users.

In the past five years that Carr has had a public page, she says she has been called a “money hungry bitch” and admits that people assume she has a rich husband and she can prance around doing Facebook posts as a ‘job’. “In the beginning it used to really make me angry and sometimes upset. I use to reply to everything and stick up for myself with every single comment; these days I’ll have good discussions with people but don’t want to waste the energy to get too involved with conversations that aren’t going anywhere. I think people that let loose with rude or negative comments on social media forget the person running or posting on the page is a real person, and most of the time reads everything on there. We have feelings, we are real people with friends and families.”

Most of the negative backlash over her social media came from her personal choices and some of the content she chose to promote, such as posting about dairy products or meat. They have also come from people, often other mothers, who are questioning the food she gives her children and other parenting choices.

Like Plested, Carr is well aware the pictures she paints of her life on social media can be perceived by others as perfect, but encourages people not to get caught in this trap. “Try not to compare your life or how you feel to what you see from people you follow. Many social media influencers or celebs will only show you the good and exciting stuff, and it’s natural for people to feel jealous or as if they’re not good enough – please don’t. Because everyone goes through shit and has their own struggles, some just choose to not share it online, and that’s fine.”

Some people in society are judging others for their choices and blaming social media for this new culture, yet to garner the number of followers they have, there must be some reason people follow them. This comparison culture is not the only issue with the rapid growth in social media usage and the role it plays in our lives. Any big societal change often has detrimental side effects; those arising from our usage of the internet include cyber-bullying, harassment, peer pressure, status anxiety and body image pressures. A lot of people are quick to blame social media; after all it gives people the platform to anonymously and indirectly have their say without thinking about the consequences.

The body as a brand

It really is impossible to discuss the impact social media has had on our lives without touching on the influence it has on body image. Research from psychologists at Flinders University found evidence that linked social media use with body image concerns, dieting, body surveillance, a drive to be slim and self-objectification in adolescents. This does not mean that social media causes these problems, rather, there is a strong association between them. Of course, none of this is news, rather, it is a constant societal battle that seems to be difficult to win.

As we fight to make magazines and runways more inclusive of body types, colours and sizes, it can seem as though image-based social media platforms are leading us backward with their obsession with slim, toned, model-like individuals posting attractive shots. A report from psychologists at the University of Sydney and UNSW Australia found a negative correlation between social media and body image, discovering that comparisons women made between themselves and others on social media were particularly harmful and were more damaging than comparisons with billboard ads and magazines.

Of course, there are the toned, tanned, taut bodies on Instagram showing off their abs, box gap and slim waists. But, there are also women, like Carr, using Instagram for body positivity. “I think social media is a great tool to support body positivity. Often I post photos of me showing my not-so-flat and not-so-toned belly, my muffin tops and whatever else – and the response and support from my audience is always amazing and positive. I think more women need to try and build the confidence to do so and show that not everyone on social media has a six-pack and perfectly stretch mark-free skin.”
But rather than just look at the effect social media has on body image, it is important to consider the effect the body has on social media – the body as a brand. Dr Rosemary Overell, lecturer in cultural studies at Otago University, explains that because we live in a capitalist concept, our bodies are seen as a brand in everyday life – from what we wear to work to walking down the street – but the influence of social media on our lives has changed this.

“We’ve had a move from ‘web 2.0’ – characterised by the early rendition of Facebook, wikis and the like, where content was interactive and user-generated but remained largely ‘onscreen’ – to ‘web 3.0’, where one’s whole body becomes part of the social media experience. We can think about things like fitbits/wrist bands, which feed your steps and workout data into your social media as an example of how one’s whole body is integrated into [it]. This is also clear with the rise of selfie culture – the body becomes the brand,” she says.

The queen of Instagram selfies is a clear example of this concept. Kim Kardashian showers her 91.8 million followers with selfies and ‘belfies’ (bum selfies) and other images that show off her body. “Her apparent feminism is bound to her body – her belfies, etc. – which produce a kind of idea that a good, successful feminist woman is one who is able to produce their bodies as a brand,” Overell says. “I mean, we think of Kim Kardashian as a collection of bits, right? Butt, straight hair, lips, etc.”

Our body is not just our brand, it is becoming more and more crucial for participation on social media. Take Kayla Itsines and Ashy Bines, for example, two influencers who share fitness-related content, including their own programmes. “The body is key to participating here,” Overell says. “Consider #fitspo – to be part of Kayla’s crew you don’t just buy the diet and exercise plan, you also have to ‘self-mediate’, i.e. [Insta]gram yourself, by posting before and after selfies, ‘platies’ (food pics), plus gym shots with Kayla’s hashtag to feel like you are getting somewhere or working out ‘properly’.”
Many of us snap a quick selfie on a night out to help prompt the memory of that night, the fun we had with friends, the new bar we discovered or the perfectly applied eye liner. Taking photos of ourselves and uploading them on social media is common, but what we don’t realise is that when we upload these photos we are creating a brand for ourselves, our online identity. For some, this online identity is fitness shots in sports bras and lycra, for others it might be bikini shots or the latest fashion looks. It appears to be a human characteristic to observe, compare and, at times, judge; and therein lays the problem – but it’s a societal problem, not a social media problem.

Don’t get me wrong, social media is a vicious enabler that has opened doors to hashtags, anonymous comments and the thought that we can comment on whatever we want just because people share intimate moments. But it is still us on the phone and behind the message. As a society and, more importantly, as individuals, we need to monitor our social media use and the way it makes us feel. Are our comments and unhappiness inspired by spite? Self-hate? Or jealousy? If we see a body or a life on social media and feel uncomfortable and depressed about our own, what can we do? Just as we could close the magazine or turn off the runway show, we can turn off social media.

Just because we see it everywhere, all the time, doesn’t mean we have to believe it is right. Social media has given us more and more opportunities to compare our lives with others’ more ‘perfect lives’ and we spend too much time looking at other people’s photos and less time on our own lives.

The overall issue we are faced with is that society is made up of individuals with unique opinions. Some like meat, some do not; some share pictures of their children, others do not. Social media is simply a platform that allows freedom of speech and allows people to express their identities how they wish. Of course, there are opportunities that can be taken on social media that we would rather people didn’t use, such as posting provocative pictures for attention and using the anonymity of the internet to bully and apply peer pressure. Ultimately, social media has a lot to answer for, both good and bad, but when all’s said and done, social media doesn’t run itself – society does.


This article was featured in the March/April 2017 issue of M2woman Magazine

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