There is so much discussion happening online about the pros and cons of social media for individuals, photographers, and society in general that we decided to delve into the subject ourselves, conducting our own research which we'll share with you in the first of a series of articles.
10 years ago kids didn’t have their own mobile phones, let alone having their own Instagram account but now it has become a norm, even at school. Talking about the impact that social media has on individuals and, in particular, young minds will never be “enough” as it is a growing problem but the more we discuss it today, the better decisions we can make tomorrow.
Back in 2017 the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) in the UK undertook the #StatusofMind survey and talked to almost 1,500 students on the impact of social media platforms on young people's mental health. Not surprisingly, Instagram (which has over 700 million users worldwide) appeared to be more detrimental to young people's mental health when compared to other social media platforms. Next in line was Snapchat, another image-based platform. As photographers, we know that every photo has the power to help or harm. So looking first from a photography perspective, what’s happening on these platforms that is causing a negative impact on our next generation?
“Short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that have been designed to be as addictive as possible.” is how Dulkara Martig, outdoor educator and NZ school teacher describes the use of social media platforms by teens. “There's a corridor in school that I call the "robot hallway." You walk down it and literally every teenage boy is sitting with his head in a screen. There's almost no laughter or chatter, just robots.”, she says.
The issue is hidden in unhealthy implicit values that are shared on these platforms with the “help” of photography that restricts the enrichment of people’s lives and their real-life connections. The effect is called “effortless brilliance” – where some people love to show off their personality and mastery by dazzling others. By seeing the social “approval” that those photographs or accounts have in the numbers of likes and comments, we subconsciously tend to desire to become like those other people so we too can get as much attention and approval.
We think “Why them, I'm just as good” then we upload our photo (be it of ourselves or of someone/something else) and when it has much less engagement (without thinking and understanding social media algorithms) we become our own worst judges, thinking we're not as good as that other person who has thousands of followers and likes. Many people feel oppressed, fearful, and trapped as a result. Quite often they don’t even say anything out loud for fear that someone else will cut them down demonstrating even greater “effortless brilliance”.
Photo on the left by Thomas Deck: "Always trying to put on a happy face for the social scene. Sometimes we end up just feeling like clowns."
In our attempt to look at the issue of social media from all perspectives, we decided to talk first-hand with Crystal D'Mello, a Year 13 student at Kāpiti College who has a passion for visual storytelling. Crystal is working on her own photo series about the overuse of social media by teens and it’s impact on their mental health.
“I've noticed that the need for attention and constant consumption is starting to become something people, especially people my age, are codependent on.” says Crystal. “As a daily user of social media, I resonated with the struggle of being attached to social media in an unhealthy way and wanted to explore the 'brain-dead' systematic way people use social media through a unique, conceptual photo series.”
Crystal, what are your thoughts on social media and it’s impact on teen behaviour?
Social media is a great tool and has helped me and so many other people to easily connect, learn, and discover. However, there is definitely an unhealthy overuse of social media content in our society and I believe it's contributing to the decline in mental health in young people today, whether we want to admit it or not.
Do you think there is a link between social media use and mental health issues in teens from what you have seen amongst your peers?
I don't think that social media is the core cause of mental health issues in teens, but I definitely think it doesn't help due to the amount of comparison and need for validation that social media enables. I see how social media creates self-doubt in people around me and I think that we need to talk more about that as a society.
"Social media beauty"
"Our idea of beauty seems to be based on how many likes we get." By Crystal D'Mello
How and why do you think teens cultivate a social media ‘personality’? Do you think it matches their real life persona?
Everyone on social media creates an image of themself that is the best version of themselves possible. A lot of people are afraid to be vulnerable on social media because perfection is the expectation online. So many people, I find, feel the need to alter the image of themselves or their lives online so that they can receive that addictive positive attention from others. People use social media as a way to mask the troubles going on in their personal lives, which usually turns out to them seeming "fake" online.
"Trying to make myself feel more social media acceptable!" By Crystal D'Mello
What do you think is the answer to social media overuse by teens?
The answer will always be complicated as social media is such a large part of our teenage lives now, but I think talking about it more and teaching people not to be afraid to admit their addiction will be a good step. I think we need to start treating the overuse of social media the same way we treat any other type of addiction.
Instagram has recently announced the hiding of likes and that posts with a price tag or an incentive to buy products such as appetite suppressant lollipops, supplements, or detox teas will be hidden for users under 18. “As you scroll through your feed, there are no like counts,” explained Mark Zuckerberg at F8. “You can see who liked a photo or video, you can tap through to see [the list], and if you have the time you can add them all up yourself.” The question is then – will it really change anything in our young people's minds? If people who post the images are still able to see the number of likes and everyone can “tap through to see” who liked the post, surely there is still the same level of judgement and social pressure on being “likable”?
Where is the change coming from? There are many arguments about the social media giant making this change for mental health or for the sake of diverting advertising money from influencers' pockets back into their budgets. We can't know for sure but nonetheless, the above steps won’t solve the problem of what long-term effects social media has on mental health.
There is much more work needed and we, photographers, can help. Every photo has the power to help or harm. It’s our job whenever possible to give the gift of empowering photos to every person, on their terms and to help people feel good no matter what.
When you have a chance, try to take a photo of someone to show them how beautiful they are, encourage, support and spread the word in other communities. Always remind others, especially the kids and teens you know that they don’t need “social approval”, they are beautiful as they are.