We all know the dangers of the endless scroll. “I’ll just look at a few more posts then go to sleep,” I tell myself as I am laying in bed at night, the stark white glow of the Instagram explore page lighting up my bedroom. Then, before I know it, it’s 2:00am and my eyes hurt from scrolling through memes on my phone for the past few hours.
As of late, the memes that feature most prominently on my timeline deal with the issue of mental health. According to a survey of 1,500 people, conducted by RSPH and the Young Health Movement, Instagram is the social network deemed the most detrimental to the mental health and well-being of young adults.
There is even an online community dedicated to posting memes centred around mental health as either a personal coping mechanism or in a bid to normalise the conversation surrounding the topic.
However, are these memes actually helping people open up or is their tone harmful to the mental wellbeing of Instagram users?
Content from Instagram user @memeassbitch, who has almost 12,000 followers, includes “destructive behaviour bingo,” a game where followers are to tick off the boxes that they identify with. The image is made up of statements such as “taking drugs at school,” “casual sex” and “stealing”.
This list of activities could be viewed as an instruction manual for young and impressionable Instagram users. A physical checklist that emphasises behaviours that people with mental health are already self-conscious and anxious about.
The meme has more than 1,000 likes and the owner of the account posts material on mental illness, receiving validation from their followers who respond with their bingo scores and comments asking “why am I like this?”
A popular meme format is the starter pack, which is comprised of stock photos and captions that describe a certain type of person or characteristic. Eating disorder starter packs produced by smaller accounts, such as @depressionjarmemes, have fewer interactions than destructive behaviour bingo, averaging at under 100 likes.
One of their starter packs discusses the symptoms of relapsing back into disordered eating after recovery, such as “refusing to eat,” “endless body checks,” and “obsessive thoughts and conspiracies.” Despite their reach being smaller, they still receive responses from teens comparing their own symptoms to the ones in the post.
Their content also describes what the maker deems ‘positive’ aspects of eating disorders, including “guaranteed praises and admiration from society for aligning to the social demand to lose weight”.
The bio for @edgypixie’s page explicitly states that they are only sharing their experiences and are not trying to promote eating disorders. The caption on a post about their eating disorder habits emphasises this, stating that their intent was not to create a how-to guide. “If someone were to see a meme and decided to starve themselves, there were already much deeper underlying issues,” it reads.
These are just a few examples of how these behaviours and actions can easily garner attention and generate ‘noise’ within social media platforms. Emboldened by ‘likes’, ‘shares’ and ‘comments’ these individuals and groups are steadily growing community trickling out of their niche space and onto Instagram explore pages.
The owners of the accounts appear to be young, some of their biographies state that they are of school age. It seems that they are not making memes to intentionally promote eating disorders and romanticise depressive tendencies but as a means of dealing with their own mental health struggles.
@meme.queen.satan includes a pink trigger warning image for their memes, which reads “trigger warning, I guess: eating disorders,” where followers need to swipe left in order to view the content.
When scrolling down their page, these pink images are scattered throughout their posts. Whilst eating disorders are not the account’s main focus, they have a much larger audience of 17,000 followers and the warnings are an addition that could help their followers avoid sensitive content.
However, are sensitive content warnings something that Instagram should include as part of the app so that it is not down to individual users to incorporate them into their posts?
Whilst Instagram hasn’t currently addressed the issue of harmful meme content, it has introduced features to further safeguard its users. In a statement released in September, Instagram co-founder and CEO, Kevin Systrom, described the app’s new settings, including a new way of anonymously reporting users who appear to be experiencing mental health issues during live broadcasts. When reported, the user will receive a message offering help, which includes options to talk to a loved one or a professional helpline.
A new setting that may help prevent the encouragement of eating disorders and depressive behaviours in comment sections is Instagram’s new comment controls. These allow users to pick the accounts that are allowed to comment on their public posts from pre-existing groups, such as only people they follow or their own followers.
“We feel as strongly about creating a safe and welcoming environment today as we did when our community was just getting started,” Systrom concludes.
“If in doubt, don’t post,” says Rachel Melville-Thomas, who is a child and adolescent psychotherapist.
“The trouble with expressing things through images is that the meaning is often not clear.” She questions if the memes mentioned express pain or if they are simply celebrating eating disorders. “Humans will always try to manage difficult situations through humour, but the memes we see are really bleak and painful, rather than funny.”
“It’s as if there is trouble in finding an “emotional vocabulary” that would properly express how a young person might be feeling. I think that’s why the dark memes get produced,” she adds.
[pullquote align=”right”]“Seeing these memes about starving and bingeing brought thoughts to my head.”[/pullquote]Whilst they appear to be funny or witty on the surface, she believes that they simply display how helpless the sufferer is feeling without any real benefit to themselves or other people.
“Research shows that excessive social media activity encourages states of mind that are the opposite of good mental health practices – like escapism, comparing and defining oneself simply in physical terms, lack of honesty in anonymous messages and the addictive aspects,” explains Rachel.
She adds that the 2013 study says “Facebook use predicts declines in subjective well being in young adults,” explored the idea that the more time that is spent on social media, then the more sadness is reported by young people.
There has been a significant rise in mental health issues for young people in the UK in recent years, which has coincided with the rise in social media use. UK Hospital statistics for 2014 saw almost 42,000 hospitalisations for self-harm for people aged between 10-24, which means that for people under the age of 25, it is estimated at 367 per 100,000. This is an increase from 330 per 100,000, found in statistics from 2007-2008.
In addition, eating disorders in people under the age of 25 are recorded as double that of any other age demographic in Britain according to mentalhealth.org’s Fundamental Facts about Mental Health, which was published in 2016.
“As a young teenage girl I’m not super confident, which is normal at my age,” explains 14-year-old Ciara Louise. “Seeing these memes about starving and bingeing brought thoughts to my head.”
She adds that occasionally she would catch herself thinking that perhaps she should adopt these kinds of dangerous behaviours too, so she decided to block the accounts. “Those girls look so skinny and I would like to look like that,” she says. “I would have all those thoughts whirl in my head all because of a so-called meme talking about how ‘relatable’ disorders are.”
She believes that if every time she saw an account post a ‘relatable eating disorder meme’ posted about how to get help instead then there might be less of a mental health epidemic for young people. If these accounts “focused on recovery, not the negative aspects, I think it would be a lot more beneficial,” she says.
[pullquote align=”right”]“The trouble with expressing things through images is that the meaning is often not clear.”[/pullquote]This is not an entirely new phenomenon. Social media has a dark history for romanticising mental illness’ due to its content being primarily user-generated. The micro-blogging site Tumblr, for example, was popular among teenagers between 2011-2014 and was particularly notorious for pro-anorexia/bulimia blogs.
These pages would promote eating disorders to their followers and include tips on calorie counting, diet and exercise plans and ‘thinspo,’ which would be images of underweight celebrities. Particular favourites were the Olsen twins and Nicole Richie, all of whom suffered from eating disorders themselves.
Rhys, 22, was a frequent Tumblr user when he was at school and describes the new wave of mental health memes as a more subtle form of the old pro-anorexia and bulimia blogs, despite the creators of the memes stating that they are not promoting eating disorders.
He has struggled with his mental health in the past and believes that the glamorisation of mental illness’ was counterproductive for him when he was a teenager. “Both my self-confidence and idea of what was normal were warped,” he says. “Tumblr’s constant feed of imagery confuses you enough but if you are struggling with your mental health issues then it quickly takes over your life.”
“It became ‘cool’ to be depressed,” says Rhys, “It seemed like you didn’t need help.” Rhys agrees with Ciara Louise that if the new wave of memes are made with respect then they could have a positive impact. “People have whole conversations via memes now so it only feels right,” he adds. “Memes could normalise mental health in a way that Tumblr could not; by making it normal and less of a trend”
Mental Health Awareness Day on October 10th, which aims to raise awareness and break the social stigma surrounding mental health disorders, brought with it an influx of mental health memes, both to the dismay and appreciation of Twitter users.
Using mental health for meme content divides opinion. On one hand, the memes encourage a form of relaxed discourse, which will help break down the taboo surrounding the topic. Artists that have received praise include Celeste Mountjoy, also known as @filthyratbag, whose raw illustrations allow her to discuss her mental health in a way that millennials can relate to; by using dark humour.
In addition, @scariest_bug_ever’s “healthy coping mechanisms bingo” outlines ways in which you can improve your mental state by simply completing basic tasks, such as showering, making your bed or calling your mum. “It’s incredibly refreshing to see,” says Ciara Louise.
“There is room for using the internet to support young people’s mental health – through support from friends, or joining in on regulated online chat groups,” says Rachel Melville-Thomas.
But it seems, however, that the best way to improve the mental health of adolescents is to simply log off.
“There is research too, showing that sympathy from someone face to face works better, than sympathy in a text. So we need to be helping parents, teachers, family members to learn how to listen for teenagers mental health difficulties, not brush them aside, and take them really seriously. Talking beats texting,” she concludes.
Featured image by Luisa Rossi