As a child of Gen Z, I feel as if my own growth coevolved with that of social media. Together we’ve been through acne, A-levels and teenage angst. It started when I was 10, with copious awkward sepia-toned Photo Booth albums, moved into a phase of public social documentation, contributing to the snakes and ladders of social hierarchies and FOMO at school, and terminated with my last Instagram post almost four years ago. But while I no longer post to Instagram, I still spend a large proportion of my time scrolling, adding up to around four hours of mobile screen time a day. This is not abnormal for Gen Z, who have an average phone screen time of 4 hours 15 mins a day, with almost 3 hours on social media. These kinds of stats - about a quarter of our waking time each day - make me question why we spend so much time on social media and what effect it is having on our health.
When asked, people state that they go on social media for a multitude of reasons such as entertainment, social interaction and relaxation. In a study published in 2013, 52% of users said that they use social media for convenience: ‘it’s readily available and has no time restraints’, with 76% of users commenting that they used social media as a pastime ‘when they have nothing better to do’. These findings seem benign and without agenda, but this is an unequal match: while we are sometimes described as users we are also being used. The companies our intentions are being paired with are acting with purpose, their aim to capture as much of our time as possible, preying on an addictive propensity.
Why can’t I put my phone down?
Social media sites are designed with deliberately addictive interfaces such as the infinite scroll. Unlike traditional media which have in-built end points, like the rolling of credits at the end of a Love Island shock re-coupling or the last full stop of a magazine article, the Instagram explore page is endless. The next reel begins automatically before the previous one is finished, keeping us users locked in and undermining our capacity to stop and find something better to do. These sites use theories of behavioural science conceptualised by psychologists such as B. F. Skinner to get their users hooked. For example, when posting on social media, a positive response is never guaranteed - the number of likes and amount of engagement varies. This variation in positive response has a similar effect to that seen in animal addiction studies by Skinner, in which it was observed that a varied positive reinforcement schedule creates the greatest drive to go back for more. For us, this creates a compulsive desire to check our phone or post again, much in the same way a gambler takes another swing at the slots - that possibility of a win, a dopamine hit, draws us in.
Perhaps, however, capitalising on our engagement isn’t inherently bad? Social media has been key in movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter as well as destigmatising traditionally taboo subjects, including anything and everything from suicidal ideation to erectile dysfunction. But this kind of topic occupies a tiny subsection of the average feed. Instead, the vast majority of accounts with a large following post digitally enhanced selfies, their societally-idealised body is used as a tool to promote their latest brand deal. The negative impact of these posts was shown by a study in which time on social media was seen to correlate with body dissatisfaction and disordered eating, with heightened body comparison identified as the mediating factor across all gender identities.
What about #bodypositivity?
Another study showed that the negative effect of social media usage may have the potential to be reversed based on who you follow: exposure to body positive images improved young women’s body satisfaction. However, even these #bodypositive images were seen to increase self-objectification, maintaining the idea that our appearance is one of the most important things about us, rather than who we are and how we interact with those around us. More recently, even these positive niches on the internet have been co-opted by those with privileged bodies. The Body Positive movement was founded by black, fat women with the aim of providing a safe space in which to celebrate their bodies. Now, when searching the 8.3 million posts with the #bodypositive hashtag, this space is filled by straight-sized white women. This is just one example of how, even with good intent, social media ultimately results in the perpetuation of images that are in accordance with societal beauty standards. Increasing focus on the appearance of our bodies, encouraging comparison and leading to dissatisfaction. While all generations are affected by comparison to beauty ideals, comparison may be most pervasive among Gen Z as unlike previous generations, not only do Gen Z spend longer on social media but a greater proportion of the content consumed is image-focused.
And social good?
Last summer, at the peak of the Black Lives Matter campaign, Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, admitted that their algorithms maintain biases against marginalised communities. While recognition of this problem is progress considering he had previously denied selective bias, he did not explain how Instagram would address this crisis. His post, without outlined future action, highlights the rise of the strategic performance of alliances. This concept has been termed performative allyship and describes the use of social media for public profession of support for marginalised groups. In other words, performative allyship is yet another way in which those with privilege can use social media to capitalise on appearance whilst avoiding responsibility.
Comparison - inciting the desire to be more-than or better-than - goes beyond body issues.When discussing social media and mental health, one of the most frequently acknowledged issues is that social media sites act as highlight reels, documenting the peaks and hiding the everyday mundane and low moments that we all experience. This perpetuates a culture that encourages us to, as Jia Tolentio puts it in Trick Mirror, always be optimising - to celebrate your promotion on LinkedIn, to post your quinoa salad on Instagram and to advertise your engagement on Facebook. While previously we shared these moments with those close to us, who saw a more nuanced version of us, a version in tracksuits with unwashed hair as well as the version in that post-haircut selfie, on social media we’re presented with an airbrushed list of serial successes. Social media expands the reach of social observation, minimising the space for us to be who we are without judgement from others. I, for one, am tired of it, the constant pressure to perform and conform to fit this enhanced version of ‘reality’.
After researching this post and reflecting on the role of social media in my life, the effect on me as an individual and on society as a whole, I’ll be deleting my social media apps. But I’ll redownload them tonight because I’m addicted. Perhaps a more realistic approach than deletion is to engage more consciously:
- ASK: How much time do I spend on social media? How much time do I want to spend on social media? How do I feel before and after using social media?
- CURATE: Move social media apps off the home screen to decrease the ease of a quick scroll. Edit your feed. Studies suggest that the negative effect of social media is somewhat lessened in users following a high proportion of people they know, as opposed to celebrities and influencers.
- TRACK: Download apps that help monitor time on social media such as RescueTime. Awareness is often the first step of change, quantifying usage can help provide accountability to goals.
TikTok, Instagram or Facebook. Gen Z, Millennial or Boomer. We’re all in it together.
By Eva Lash, Biomedical Sciences Bsc and Holly Health's guest writer