Picture Perfect: The Mental Health Impact of Social Media
Experts are starting to wake up to the effects of social media on young women, both in damaging mental health, and in making them feel addicted to social media apps
Louise Chunn talks to Professor Rosalind Gill about her book Perfect: Feeling Judged on Social Media
There are many fun things about social media such as Instagram and TikTok, but recent research is starting to show much more clearly the damage it may cause, especially for younger women.
Professor Rosalind Gill, a sociologist at City University, London, published the results of her research into the effects of social media on women aged 18 to 28 in the book Perfect: Feeling Judged on Social Media. She spoke to more than 200 young women from a range of backgrounds through the UK and heard “that they really, really struggle.”
Depression, loneliness, fear of judgement, hyper-vigilance, hyper-self-criticism, fear of being excluded, feelings of addiction, isolation, fear of getting it wrong, fear of missing out, fear of looking unpopular, sexual harassment by strangers, feeling not good enough, fear of looking fake, feeling you will never, ever match up to the perfect people you see on the phone that is almost never out of your hand… the list of effects goes on and on.
Almost all the women she interviewed follow such celebrities as Kardashians, Jenners and Hadids, but also influencers, bloggers, activists and reality TV stars from shows such as Love Island, Drag Race and Made in Chelsea. They absorb the message that women’s appearance is key to success but at the same time are well-versed in feminist and other campaigning slogans. They also know that when they move from watching Instagram to posting on it, they need to be absolute perfectionists because their friends and frenemies are watching, and judging, their every move.
The time devoted to social media astonished Gill. “I was surprised by the array of ways they felt they could get it wrong. So they felt that if they posted too much, then that would be a kind of fail, because they didn't want to appear up in people's grills or spam them too often. So they had to carefully regulate how often they posted. If they posted too little, that was another kind of fail. Because people might think that you had had a nervous breakdown or that you just weren't doing anything interesting.”
While few of the women mentioned the power of the tech companies behind platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, many "noticed the addictive properties. For example they promise themselves they're going to go on for five minutes before bed. And then they just get pulled in, particularly to TikTok and then they're just watching hours and hours and hours, as the algorithm knows them intimately, and sends them exactly the right stuff. Many of them really difficult to actually just put the phone down."
The Guardian this week reported that 57% of young women taking part in the Millennium Cohort Study which is tracking the lives of about 19,000 people born in 2000-2002 across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, feel addicted to social media. In comparison, the figure for young men was 37%.
“This adds to evidence that many people feel they have lost control over their use of digital interactive media. It comes as dozens of US states are suing Instagram and its parent company, Meta, accusing them of contributing to a youth mental health crisis and as the EU has ushered in major reforms designed to give consumers more control over smartphone apps.”
As a sociologist with a psychology degree who has now moved into the media and communications field, Professor Gill feels she is well placed to address the issues. “In the communications world there's such a kind of positive, upbeat spin often given to the digital natives. There is a feeling that we shouldn't have a moral panic, we shouldn't worry. And I sometimes feel as if that ignores any sense of the pain or the struggle. I feel like we have an ethical responsibility to hear about that as well, and to take it seriously.”
Professor Rosalind Gill's book Perfect: Feeling Judged on Social Media can be purchased here