As a psychologist, I sometimes ask my clients to tell me about their favorite magazines. If they share that they read fashion magazines regularly, I encourage them to think about the impact of this content on their sense of self. I might even ask, “do these magazines support or detract from your mental well-being?”
I’ve realized that, in a way, social media is the new “fashion magazine.”
The effects of social media
With the increased time most of us are spending on mobile devices, social media and internet sites, we are seeing airbrushed models, fitness/lifestyle bloggers, fad diet trends, and “self-improvement” tips in multiple places throughout the day — whether we want to or not.
Unfortunately, many of the images that we view contain distorted/photo-shopped images, dangerous diet tips, direct or indirect body shaming, and other harmful messages that can trigger our own negative self-evaluation.
For instance, research finds that after being exposed to media containing thin, idealized images of female bodies, women’s self-report of well-being is negatively impacted, as they report lower mood and body dissatisfaction and greater anxiety about weight. The same study finds that after exposure to these images “the body and its appearance become more salient points of reference for women in describing the self.”
In other words, women began to objectify themselves based on their time spent looking at thin, idealized images (Harper & Tiggemann, 2008).*
Yet, many of my clients who already report suffering from poor body image
, report spending hours each night scrolling through their social media feeds and surfing the internet. Often, with little prompting from me, they recognize the mental and emotional consequences of the exposure to idealized images — yet they continue to use these type of sites frequently.
The news and our mental health
Most people would agree that this is a difficult and contentious political time. Along with social media use, many of us consume news in some format daily, such as listening to podcasts, following Twitter accounts, or reading/watching other news outlets.
News not only contains upsetting content, but it can also contain emotional and inflammatory language. Have you ever noticed how you feel after reading a news story or watching a news clip? Unless it is satirical (and maybe, still, even then) you might feel one or more of the following:
Perhaps you are being negatively affected by exposing yourself to this charged emotional experience.
If so, just like with social media use, it is worth examining your time spent watching, reading, or listening to the news.
Before you start scrolling through that social media feed, consider this:
- How do you use social media and the Internet?
- When do you use it?
- Why do you use it?
- How do you feel while you are using it? What about after?
- When are you most vulnerable to using social media and the Internet?
- What is happening in those moments that makes you want to use it?
- When should you not use social media?
- What are the benefits of use? (short and long term)
- What are the consequences of use? (short and long term)
- What would you be doing right now if you weren’t on social media?
These questions are good to consider on a regular basis as they can help you increase your awareness about your use.
The paradox of social media-disconnection when we are seeking connection
How many of us actually pick up our mobile phones seeking connection? And how many of us feel highly disconnected
, discouraged, or even depressed afterwards? Glamourous pictures of celebrities, photos from a party we weren’t invited to, or reading about aggravated political situations can certainly make us feel bad — especially if we are exposed to this content when we are already feeling down.
When we are lonely, discouraged, or having a bad day, we may tend to process our experiences from an emotionally-minded (and less rational) place. This means that we might have difficulty accurately processing what we are seeing and become more vulnerable to negative self-interpretations such as “I’ll never be good enough” or “I’m different from other people.”
Let’s be clear, I am not advocating avoidance of Internet and social media.
It’s how you relate to it that matters. Engagement in our civic and social worlds is vital and it helps us feel connected and active in our community. However, it is helpful to be selective about factors such as:
1) How much you participate in these activities
2) The quality of your participation
3) The content of the material you are consuming
Like anything, it is how you relate to it that matters.
What qualities are you trying to bring into your life?
One story I use to illustrate these ideas is a classic Native American story; in the story, a grandfather is describing to his grandson the fight between two wolves, each one representing different qualities (let’s say good vs. evil). The little boy, intrigued by the story, asks his grandfather, which wolf will win?
The grandfather answers, the wolf that you feed.
This story depicts how we all are comprised of different aspects of self that grow or diminish based on how much time and energy we give to them. So, if we “feed” social comparisons, negative self-judgements and divisive rhetoric, these aspects of our self can increase. If instead we “feed” self-compassion and mindfulness, our ability to take care of ourselves during difficult times can grow.
Is social media helping you live your best self?
In this new year, give yourself the gift of a smart relationship with social and news media.
- What is one thing I would like to change around my use of social media?
- When can I start these changes?
Like with any relationship, increasing intention and setting small goals to improve the quality and health of the interactions is critical. You have the power to choose the quantity and quality of your engagement.
So, before you consume social media next, take a moment to ask yourself, what part of myself am I strengthening?
Angela Picot Derrick is a clinical psychologist and Senior Clinical Advisor at Eating Recovery Center of Chicago and Insight Behavioral Health Centers. Insight Behavioral Health Centers provides specialized treatment for mood and anxiety disorders at five Chicago, Illinois treatment centers and one center located north of Austin, Texas in Round Rock. Dr. Derrick has studied and treated eating and mood disorders for over 15 years and is honored to help her clients build hope, self-compassion and resilience as they work towards recovery.
If you are looking for social media and news sites that support mental health & eating disorder recovery, give these a try:
Harper., B & Tiggemann, M. (2008). The effect of thin ideal media images on women’s self-objectification, mood, and body image. Sex Roles, 58: