Image: Kim Kardashian. Image source.
Social media is an almost unavoidable part of our lives in 2017, but as its use has become more and more entrenched we are beginning to realise that this isn’t always positive. Especially for teenage girls and young women, ostensibly ‘social’ networks like Facebook and Instagram can become an endless list of the ways we are not enough: not pretty enough, happy enough, well travelled enough, or confident enough. Social media use has been linked to causing depression among girls, and it’s not difficult to see why. We have become caught up in a vicious cycle of only presenting the most polished and airbrushed versions of ourselves online, but assuming that what we see in other people’s profiles is an accurate representation of their lives.
We are often told that if we can’t manage our social media interactions, we should just get rid of it altogether. I know people that restrict their interactions to one platform, or set time limits on their access to social media. However, in a world that revolves around the Internet for both professional and personal socialising, cutting it out altogether is simplistic and impossible advice. You’re probably reading this right now after clicking on a Facebook link. Maybe that friend that you don’t see that often but keep in touch with online tagged you in the comments. Similarly, Twitter and Instagram are indispensable tools for many aspiring creatives, allowing people around the world to access creative work easily and immediately. So if we accept that social media can serve a useful purpose in our lives, can we avoid the damage to our self-esteem?
There have been multiple instances throughout 2016 where women in the public eye (and to a lesser extent men) have decided that they can no longer cope with social media trolling and abuse. This is an entirely understandable choice, and reflects the fact that we are still not adequately protected by the companies that have created the networks we use. Instagram’s announcement earlier this year of new features to support people with mental health issues is a step in the right direction. As well as technical support, I have found unfollowing certain accounts (models that make me feel inadequate, boys from my high school that are unfailingly racist and sexist, brands that I will never be able to afford) and following others (artists, writers, models that exist outside of the traditional spectrum of beauty) has had a subtle but recognisable effect on my mental health.
Of course, blocking and avoiding anyone who has a different opinion to me would only serve to create an echo chamber where I would never be challenged or educated. The results of the US election demonstrate the problems that arise when those with progressive politics become caught up in a liberal bubble, unaware of the conflicting world views held by people in different social spheres. On the other hand, the Internet is populated by thousands of trolls who are not interested in civil debate but rather in silencing women and making us feel small. As Clementine Ford wrote in Fight Like A Girl, I believe I do not owe anyone the opportunity to interact with me if it will have a negative effect on my mental health.
With the rise of ‘fake news’, it is more important than ever to be critical consumers of online media. However, reliable and established news sources are available. I have learnt so much by following publications based in different parts of the world that I would never have access to otherwise. The main benefit of social media, however, is that it facilitates a platform for voices that would otherwise struggle to be heard. Zine culture is experiencing a resurgence online, and there are Twitter personalities that are popular for no other reason than their perceptive and relatable honesty. Protest movements and political dialogue spreads through the use of hashtags and online events. Despite the influence of advertising, sponsored posts and corporate interests, social media is the most democratic form of interaction we have.
In their purest form, social networks allow people who are geographically distant to forge communities. These communities can be supportive, open and educational, but they can also be destructive. While none of our choices occur in a vacuum, to some extent we have the ability to shape the kind of online world we want to create. So my New Year’s resolution is a conscious decision to control my social media rather than letting it control me, so I can continue to learn and grow both online and off.
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