In 2019, Instagram announced that they will restrict users who are under 18 years old from seeing content including and advertising weight loss products and programs.
“We want Instagram to be a positive place for everyone that uses it and this policy is part of our ongoing work to reduce the pressure that people can sometimes feel as a result of social media,” Emma Collins, Instagram’s public policy manager said in a statement.
Although this is a step in the right direction as children and adolescents are most vulnerable to the disadvantageous impacts social media can create, it does not mean that Instagram won’t do any harm to our mental health anymore.
We should also bear in mind that adults develop eating disorders too. As far as we know, Instagram has not made any further restrictions since 2019 regarding content affecting body image.
“I was only 16 years old when I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. Although I wasn’t entirely sure what made me sick, I knew it probably had something to do with family issues that were happening at the time.
“I was also getting bullied at my high school which I think was definitely a factor. However, a few years of therapy and growing up to understand myself and the human mind more taught me that my eating disorder was most likely a way to have some control in my life when I felt like I couldn’t control the drama in my family or the mean kids at school.”
This is how Laura, now 25, illustrates her past struggles with an eating disorder that has recently come back into her life. Laura thinks that a big factor in her relapse is social media and the hours spent there, especially under quarantines and multiple lockdowns.“After I was diagnosed when I was 16, I lived in denial for a little while until my condition got to the point where I had to be taken to the hospital as I passed out at my summer job as a make-up artist’s assistant,” said Laura.
“I was so embarrassed, but it was also a great wakeup call for me and I finally agreed to go and see a therapist – and so my healing process begun. It took a few years, but I managed to get rid of all the negative images I had about myself and I gained my self-confidence back. I really truly felt ‘normal’ again.”
Eating disorders are complex. According to UK eating disorder charity Beat, “these illnesses can also become severe and enduring, lasting for many years,” and in some cases, even become chronic.
“I’m aware, that one will most likely never fully recover from an eating disorder, which is probably why it resurfaced so quickly as it did. However, I’m certain that social media, more precisely Instagram, played a big part in triggering it,” Laura told us.
Social media offers an easy way for us to connect and see what our friends, family and acquaintances are up to.
Platforms like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook update us on news from around the globe and let us update others on our new job, if you’ve recently adopted puppy, or been on an exciting trip to an exotic country (back when travelling was still a thing before Covid-19), all within a matter of seconds.
If used correctly, and in moderation, social media can be great. In addition to maintaining contact with friends, family and the world outside, small business owners can easily reach out to a vast audience and grow their engagement, which will lead to more sales.
Social media can also literally become your job if you become an influencer or it can set you up for stardom when one of your TikTok dance videos go viral.
Although there are many benefits of social media, these platforms can also also work against us. One problem being the creation of false realities of their users’ lifestyles or looks. On social media, and particularly on Instagram, people tend to present the best version of themselves and showcase the highlights of their lives.
This problem of only displaying the finest bits of ourselves and our lives added to social media’s large presence in day-to-day life can then influence other users, creating anxiety or pressure to have the “perfect” body or an extravagant lifestyle.
“Back when I was a teenager, Instagram existed, but it really wasn’t a thing yet. I started to use it in my early twenties and it didn’t really massively affect me then, I had moved abroad so I wanted to stay in touch with my friends and post pictures from my travels,” Laura said.
“However, slowly I started to spend more and more time on Instagram and I noticed that I actually started to care about what other people think about the stuff I posted. I became really critical of myself whilst comparing myself to the girls I saw on the app.”
One study states that “the media may play a central role in creating and intensifying the phenomenon of body dissatisfaction and consequently, may be partly responsible for the increase in the prevalence of eating disorders.”
“I’ll never forget my mum’s face when she saw me and instantly knew I was sick again.”
The unrealistic beauty standards set by media can result in heavily controlled eating patterns and poor self-esteem, which are some of the symptoms of an eating disorder. This study also pointed out that this risk is the highest for adolescent girls and people who have had an eating disorder in the past.
“After Covid-19 hit the world I found myself spending even more time on my phone, as I didn’t have much to do during lockdowns. My criticism towards myself grew and turned into pretty negative images of my looks – again. I found myself back where I was nine years ago: controlling my eating – or not eating at all, as well as finding any ways I could to lose weight whether it was by doing exercise or by other tricks I learnt as a teenager,” Laura said.
“This lasted for months and I lost so much weight in a short period of time. In December I saw my parents for Christmas and I’ll never forget my mum’s face when she saw me and instantly knew I was sick again. She was in tears.”
Obviously, Instagram cannot be fully blamed for one of its users developing an eating disorder, as these are complex mental illnesses, but Laura’s case can be seen as an unfortunate example of how previous struggles with a mental illness can be triggered to resurface, if not being careful when spending time on social media.
“It’s strange how I know that a lot of people alter the content they post and in the back of my mind I’m aware that a photo is probably fake or it has been edited but I still let it affect me negatively and I know I’m not the only one who feels the same; in a way it’s really dumb,” Laura continued.
While the pandemic can make some spend too much time on social media, these platforms can also be a life saver when human contact is restricted. Helsinki-based personal trainer Ella Gabrielsson is using her social media to keep people motivated by posting before and after photos of her clients and sharing tips for healthy, nourishing meals.
“I train and work at a private gym and in Finland private gyms have been able to stay open, so luckily I can still work and help my clients to achieve their goals. However, because of coronavirus some of my clients have stopped coming to the gym. I also haven’t taken on any new clients for months. Thankfully, I can still use my social media for reaching out to people and sharing my knowledge and workouts.”
“I think the problem of Instagram is that it can really have a negative influence on people who are already insecure or are struggling with a mental illness like an eating disorder, anxiety or depression. It’s easy to get caught up on someone else’s life that seems absolutely perfect, and this can just add fuel to the fire that is a mental illness,” Gabrielsson said.
“It’s easy to get caught up on someone else’s life that seems absolutely perfect.”
“However, I think it’s impossible for Instagram to control the fake or altered images unless they start banning bikini and underwear photos or selfies, which will never happen.”
While no-one, especially Instagram, can really limit the time that’s been spent on the app by each user, and in spite of the efforts by Instagram to keep teenagers from seeing harmful content by blocking it, there are ways to keep being on social media healthy and less dangerous for your psyche.
Greta Gleissner, founder of Eating Disorder Recover Specialists, says social media platforms should be used for self-empowerment: “Surround yourself with supportive friends and family in your digital world and do not be afraid to celebrate who you are.”
And it’s true – as these platforms keep growing larger and become increasingly involved in the business world, what would be good to remember is that by choosing how much time you spend online, and who you follow on social media, each user can control what effects these platforms will have on them.
“I’ve recently unfollowed all the accounts that were toxic for me and ate away my self-concept. Essentially, there is nothing wrong with these accounts and I bet some people might even gain the right kind of motivation from these accounts and start exercising or having healthier lunches without it going to the extreme like for me it did,” Laura said.
“My history with an eating disorder plus social media is a bad combination and unfortunately I let it get out of control. Luckily, I understand it now and I’ve once agin started the healing process.”
Personal trainer Gabrielsson hopes that people will start to be more real on social media, especially now, when most of us have the excess time to spend on it.
“Although there is still a lot of fakeness and perfection created by Photoshop and and apps like Facetune, there are some influencers who have changed their ways by starting to post unfiltered and unedited pictures of themselves and encouraging their followers to go against the norms set by this age of Instagram.”
Focusing on following accounts revolving around body positivity and self-love can assist in getting rid of negative images of self and help in gaining more confidence.
So it seems that a lot of how we let platforms like Instagram affect us is in our own hands. Whether you unplug, unfollow or unwind, you, as a user can decide what kind of relationship you will have with social media.
Featured image by Prateek Katyal via Pexels.
Edited by Jussi Grut and Susu Hagos.