Social media may have good intentions in trying to provide strong connections with others on a professional and personal level, but it can also shatter the mental health and body image of others as well. We may not be able to control what others post, but social media can control the functions they have set up that can fuel the damage that inflicts social media. By social media sites taking responsibility for the functions that make an impact on a person’s mental health, more companies can follow suit and be more aware of their actions.
New Policies on Instagram
A 2017 study showed that Instagram has had the worst effect on a person’s mental health, including eating disorders and body image issues. Facebook is trying to change all of that. They announced two new policies to ensure the wellbeing of members is improved as well as creating a healthier culture around dieting. One of them is that Instagram will prevent those under 18 from being shown any ads that are related to dieting. Another is that it will ban any ads that will glorify certain diets or weight loss products. Facebook has also announced that it is trying to hide likes. While these policies are heading in the right direction, we need to ask if there is a limit to what can be done for social media to not touch the mental health of others.
Commentary From the Experts
Emily Brunner, CEO of the Recovery Clinic and psychotherapist in eating disorders and body image issues, believes there needs to be a stronger relationship between users and social media companies. She believes that these companies need to take the feedback of users more seriously. Brunner also believes that the biggest problem is that users do not have the ability to be specific when it comes to reporting harmful content. When you flag it, it does not tell you why it is reported, problematic, or offensive. This can help companies decide whether this content is personal for one person or could make a negative impact on the masses. Brunner believes that the problem does beyond diet ads.
Dr. Ysabel Gerrard, a lecturer at the University of Sheffield, believes in the opposite in that Facebook’s efforts should be appreciated. That Facebook is speaking to experts, activists, and health practitioners, showing that they care. Dr. Gerrard thinks that there is no point in calling what Facebook is doing a PR stunt as they did not have to engage in any of these efforts. Despite admiring Facebook’s efforts, Dr. Gerrard still believes that these policies are not perfect. Deciding what is considered a “glamorous diet ad” is subjective. There may not be a way to know what ads should not be seen.
Dr. Gerrard worries about the content that gets recommended to people. Liking a certain post or engaging with certain people can make you see more and more content with the potential of it being harmful. For example, if you like a post on Instagram about eating disorders, all you will get is more posts about eating disorders flooding your home feed. Just when you want one day where you do not see the same familiar content, you cannot get that as it is all run by an algorithm. For example, British teenager Molly Russell killed herself after getting graphic images of suicide and self-harm that was recommended by her Instagram account months before. Pinterest was sending her automatic emails of violent images of death that said: “things you might love.”
Social Media’s Pressure to Compare
In reality, there is only so much that social media companies can do. You cannot control the dialogue that people on social media have with each other about eating disorders and mental health. But, fixing one policy will not fix the lengths of time when women were told how to look, the ads of products and creams, and what the standards are beauty are. The cosmetic and beauty industry is to blame for centuries of putting pressure on women while social media is just another addition to the pressure. We are constantly comparing ourselves to others and the lives they lead which makes us feel small. Before social media, people would compare themselves to models. Now, social media allows us to compare ourselves to average people. Our friends on social media could be making us feel like they exercise more or can afford more than others.
Where to Go From Here
Because Facebook is the largest social media site, the company most likely feels a responsibility to ensure that no member on their sites is harmed by functions that the company places. Removing the like button and controlling the ads may not be the sole solution to solving how social media affects mental health, but it is a start. Big companies like Facebook do have a responsibility to ensure that their websites are making others happy and making any changes to ensure that. While these social media sites may be addictive now, accounts will be deleted and fewer people will join when they realize what these accounts are doing to their mental health. People will find other ways to communicate compared to continuing to go on a site that will make them feel lousy. Facebook taking the first steps to protect the mental health of its members shows just what a priority our mental state is.
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