There can be little doubt that social media has had a profound impact on society. Sure, it has brought people closer together. I can connect with a friend who I haven’t seen in years and receive a vivid, blow by blow account of his holiday in Majorca, alongside photo evidence of every alcoholic drink he consumed while abroad. I’ll probably never actually speak to this friend again IRL (in real life), but it’s good to know he got shitfaced on Monday night.
I can watch an endless amount of 15-second-long cat videos while I ignore my fiancé sitting next to me. It doesn’t matter, she is busy watching some online makeup artist, (or ‘mooah’, if you’re fluent in ‘girl’) recalling where she bought each item of her latest shopping haul. Funny, I don’t remember anyone asking her but here we are, listening.
All in all, social media appeared great at its inception. Well, if not great, at least harmless. However, as we are becoming increasingly aware, social media has a dark underbelly, which is anything but harmless. In fact, I would argue it is downright dangerous.
The birth of social media coincided with a dramatic increase in depression, anxiety, eating disorders, body dysmorphia and self-harm, particularly among younger users. Recent figures released by CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) revealed that a total of 11,703 referrals and re-referrals of children and teenagers in the year leading up to November 2022 were received by CAMHS. This was a 20% increase in HSE predictions from the previous year.
This is hardly surprising since children and teenagers spent an increasingly excessive amount of time on social media during lockdown, during which healthy hobbies and activities were either not possible, frowned upon, or borderline illegal in some instances.
The increasingly growing volume of referrals received by CAMHS year on year highlights the inherent dangers posed by social media to our children’s mental health. However, what often remains unknown, is the fact that children’s mental health issues, especially eating disorders, have long term and lasting physical consequences.
One young woman’s story, which has stayed with me since I first read of her and her experiences, is that of Emmy, who first began suffering with mental health issues and eating disorders from the age of twelve. Upon entering secondary school, she became hyper-conscious of her body, something every single reader can undoubtedly empathize with, I am sure. This consciousness regarding her body gradually developed over time into a severe eating disorder which involved anorexia, bulimia, and numerous other issues, of both a mental and physical nature.
Thankfully, Emmy has apparently recovered from the brunt of her eating disorder after battling with it for many years. However, what may come as a shock to some readers is that in extreme cases of eating disorders such as Emmy’s, individuals can even go on to develop physical issues as severe as osteoporosis in later life. Unfortunately, this was indeed the case for Emmy, who was diagnosed with osteoporosis following her recovery.
Now, let’s go back and remember that all of that began with body dysmorphia. Due to the nature of my own work in the gym industry, I can unfortunately testify to the extensive damage that can be caused in people’s daily lives as a result of body dysmorphia.
This is something that is so often dismissed casually by those lucky enough not to feel the need to bow to external pressures created by ‘beauty standards’, (which, by the way, is no hyper-woke buzzword), or those who have the inner confidence and self-assuredness to know that there is far more value to themselves as a human being than what the weighing scales says.
As limited, or extensive, as our own individual knowledge and experience of body dysmorphia may be, I would argue that it pales in comparison to the daily experiences of young children or teenagers who are growing up today in Ireland under the constant barrage of toxic, warped and ultimately damaging media. Emmy’s story should stand as a warning to others.
The damage stemming from this barrage of damaging content is all statistically on the rise among young children and adolescents. The recent comments from Stephen Donnelly highlighting these issues, alongside the wonderful Greystones primary school anti-phone pact are indeed welcomed, however, this is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of battling the insidious damage caused by social media to our children.
This increase in depression, anxiety and body dysmorphia is hardly surprising given the sheer volume of obnoxious and damaging content pertaining to the human body that is solely created for social media and distributed among different social media platforms.
What is worse, is that this content pertaining to the body often lurks under the surface or hides under an egregious level of acceptance, tolerance, or Orwellian doublethink.
What do I mean when I say content lurks under the surface?
Well, let’s take my example of the makeup artist mentioned earlier, (who, according to legend, is still listing her shopping haul to this day). She, and her beauty community sisters simply provide women with makeup tutorials. Harmless on the face of it of course, but beneath the surface of this industry lies an entire web of body dysmorphic issues of which the beauty community, intentionally or not, ultimately uphold.
The reach of this online beauty community is into the millions and spans the globe. Names like Jaclyn Hill, Pat McGrath and Gucci Westman are sure to ring a bell for many of the female readers of this publication.
However, there can be little doubt that the most obnoxious and damaging content is brought to you, courtesy of my own industry, the online fitness world. Should you ever take a scroll through Instagram’s world of fitness, you will be met with a mixture of excessive bare flesh and unrelated philosophical quotes. It is usually some girl with one of her arse cheeks perched precariously on her local gym’s bathroom sink alongside a misplaced Dalai Lama reference in the caption.
Personally, I currently consider the gym industry to be one of the guiltiest communities of promulgating damaging images and ideas of the human body to younger generations, and it is about time the gym industry acknowledges the damage that it is doing to these young people.
Why do I think this?
Well, the extremely hypocritical and oxymoronic nature of the rhetoric spouted online by the gym community concerning the human body and ‘bodily acceptance’ is damaging, as it says one thing and does another. The blurred lines created by this hypocrisy is exactly what keeps the damage of this content hidden under the surface and accepted, as it makes it difficult for young children and adolescents to identify the hypocrisy at play, instagram post by Instagram post.
It has always seemed strange to me that those (the gym industry), advocating bodily acceptance or discussing the dangers of body dysmorphia, are also the first to whip off their t-shirts at the first sign of a photo opportunity and post it immediately to social media. For anyone who legitimately is suffering with body dysmorphia, I can’t help but feel sorry for the confusing relationship that must be developed with these social media influencers who preach one thing but do the total opposite.
Maybe it’s Orwellian double-think and I am outside of the loop and don’t understand the jargon, but posting a photo of yourself with a ridiculous wish to have a happy Friday is simply not necessary and suggests to me the high levels of insecurity that must run rife through these individuals’ heads.
The constant “physique updates” in the Instagram realm of fitness is undoubtedly the worst of it though. You know these updates will be coming in hard and fast as we approach summer each year. Has nobody informed these individuals who claim they have confidence in their body, yet desperately fish for compliments and approval from strangers they have never met, that nobody gives a shit how many veins are visible along their waistline. Most fitness accounts have become a soft form of porn at this point with so little useful information actually available.
Ridiculous and idiotic as the individuals who partake in this warped form of the fitness community may be, the damage these people are having on our children cannot be overstated. Through my work in the gym, I am meeting progressively more insecure teenagers and young adults on a weekly basis. Their insecurities tend to centre around their warped relationship with their body, following comparisons online to GymShark ‘models’, competitive bodybuilders, (both male and female) and the excessive quantity of soft porn that masquerades as fitness content, which has unfortunately become casually accepted as a pillar of the online fitness world.
The endless dopamine drip of the social media feed is clever. It just keeps on giving you exactly what you want. You want progressively more ripped, and swollen bodybuilders? Social media has you covered! You want to compare yourself (and lose that comparison!) to someone online in terms of size, shape, fitness, strength?
Well good luck, there will always be someone skinnier, more muscular, stronger, whatever it is, than you! This endless act of comparing oneself to others ultimately rots the very hormonal makeup of our brain and our innate sense of self and value, leaving us dependent on external validation, overly anxious and increasingly feeding further and further into this cycle of self-harm.
While the damage caused by social media is thankfully no longer going unnoticed, it is about time that the hypocrisy of the online gym industry is identified, exposed and ultimately reoriented from within as its current form and trajectory has no true care or concern for the health or wellbeing of you, or future generations.