Elsie McKendry

Social media harms student mental health

December 4, 2021

Facebook knows that Instagram has created an epidemic of insecurity and low self-esteem in teenagers. Ninety-Seven percent of teenagers in the US interact with a platform that connects them to other people while also exposing them to stereotypes and manufactured lifestyles. Teenagers scroll, like and comment for hours on end without realizing the impact of the content in front of them. The mental illnesses, eating disorders and lack of self-esteem that social media causes are just as pervasive at the high school as anywhere else. Beneath the veil of Instagram perfection, social media’s toxins of self-hatred and anxiety seep easily into all of our minds.

The impacts

Research shows that misleading representations of people on social media can leave people, specifically teenage girls, struggling with their mental health. A study conducted by Facebook said that one out of five teenagers in the US and UK say that Instagram makes them feel worse about themselves. According to Polaris Teen Center, about 70 percent of young women aged 10 to 18 say photographs of models and celebrities in social media have motivated them to reach an “ideal” body type. This pressure that teenagers have for their bodies to look a certain way is linked to eating disorders, and 90 percent of people with anorexia are female.

Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, conducted studies on the algorithm that the apps use to present content to their users. In the algorithm used, once a person types something into their search bar, their screen will instantly be flooded with all things related to that topic.

The internal study said that on Instagram, people only share their best moments, and for someone who is already suffering, seeing this along with the pressure to only look your best on social media can give them an unhealthy idea of their bodies.

For students like senior Sasha Kalvert, not enough people acknowledge the physical toll of mental illnesses.

“When you do not eat enough, you literally can not think clearly. You do not have enough energy to function as a person. You have to look at what the long-term effects of eating disorders are, which is a population of women that are sedated by this horrible, horrible illness that has been pushed upon them. Nobody talks about this, but did you know that anorexia is the most deadly mental illness?” Kalvert said.

Senior Nina Bakum said Instagram and other social media platforms also spread toxic messages regarding diet culture.

“Seeing these things on Instagram, TikTok, these idealized bodies and what they are supposed to look like can make someone think that their body is not supposed to look the way that it does. That gets into the stuff of diet culture and all these unhealthy diets that make people think they need to do something to get their body to look the way that these Instagram models look when that’s not possible,” Bakum said.

Beauty standards

Bakum said social media reinforces the idea that being beautiful is the ultimate goal for people.

“This one standard of beauty that is presented in social media can destroy people. There are so many different definitions of being beautiful,” Bakum said. “If you are seeing all these images on social media and not feeling like you are seeing yourself, insecurities start to creep in and can lead to someone questioning their appearance and feeling insecure.”

Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA) Coordinator Kate Leslie said the ability to edit photos and alter appearances before posting them on social media is one of the factors that feed into beauty standards.

“The fact that we can Photoshop a photograph so that you hit some artificial idea of perfection, and then we hold people to that, helps to explain why we have got so many people who are dealing with eating disorders, are deeply uncomfortable with their bodies or have this horrific relationship with dieting and exercise,” Leslie said.

Kalvert said it is easier for teenagers to compare themselves to their peers using social media, which can cause competition and make them feel negatively about their appearance.

“We are competing with unrealistic and untrue standards, but nobody is really willing to admit that what they are posting or what they are seeing is not true, so it creates a lot of really unhealthy expectations,” Kalvert said.

The beauty standards affect people of color who may not fit the desired standards, Senior Elliot Lazarova-Weng said.

“The favoritism of eurocentric facial features or certain body types are so harmful, especially to children,” Lazarova-Weng said.

Associate Dean Marisel Figueroa-Marrero said she has talked with students before about feeling the effects of these beauty standards in social media.

“I had a conversation with some female identifying students about the pressure to fit into the beauty standard that social media sets. We talked about how the images we see on social media can have an effect on how we perceive ourselves. Social media is constantly promoting this unattainable and unrealistic standard of beauty, which many times ignores, diminishes, and disrespects people who do not fall within those stereotypes,” Figueroa said.


Between all of the photos and videos on social media lies something just as harmful: advertisements. These advertisements are curated through analyzing users’ social media searches, and take advantage of viewers through their vulnerability and desire to attain the sought-after beauty standard and fit into stereotypes.

English teacher Kiera Flynn-Carson said social media includes targeted ads that are formulated in ways that make viewers think that the only way to become happy is by engaging in things that cost money.

“Now with social media, you are bombarded with not just the images that you see, but personalized ads that are exacerbating in the way that the viewer thinks ‘Oh, I feel this way about my hair, this product that shows up in my feed and will make it all better,’” Flynn-Carson said.

Senior Evan Guttell, a former student in Leslie’s class, said that targeted ads need to be viewed as a larger issue, not just a problem that only occurs through social media.
“We need to ask ourselves what motivates these companies, and usually, they are trying to profit off of people’s insecurities,” Guttell said.“All of these products marketed towards women to reach an unattainable beauty standard help big companies to make money, while women may never feel ‘good enough,’ or only feel ‘beautiful’ once they buy a certain product.”

Public speaker and writer Jean Kilbourne portrays the effects of advertisements in her documentary, “Killing us Softly.” She said ads sell not only products, but also lifestyles and values.

“But what does advertising tell us about women?” Kilbourne said. “It tells us as it always has that what is most important is how we look. We all learn how important it is for a woman to be beautiful. Women learn from a very early age that we must spend enormous amounts of time, energy and above all money striving to achieve this look and feeling ashamed and guilty when we fail.”

Coordinator of Guidance and Counseling Darby Neff-Verre said it is important to recognize that this is not an issue that can be instantly fixed, as it is deeply ingrained into our society.

“Social media sometimes reflects culture and sometimes culture builds from what social media has started. But, there are people that are impacted by not seeing a reflection of themselves in social media,” Neff-Verre said. “As women, I think we still have a long way to go, although we have made a good amount of progress. We need to let women feel comfortable expressing themselves without validating only a certain body type or appearance. The impact is there, and it is blatant and pretty horrendous. Even at Brookline High, we need to keep working on it.”

Neff-Verre said that school counselors are great people to talk to if a student is worried about themselves or someone else. They have exceptionally skilled social workers, on all campuses, from both the town of Brookline and the Public Health Department.

“The first and most important thing is to build a sense of trust so that the student understands that there are people who care and who are trained to support them. It is important for students to understand that their safety and health is important to us,” Neff-Verre said.

Stereotypes in social media

Unattainable beauty standards are only one of many harmful elements of social media. Stereotypes that misrepresent different races, genders and sexualities are also prevalent in social media.

Social media does not represent everyone, and finding representation of women of color, transgender women or non-binary people who present themselves in a traditionally feminine way is difficult, while finding representation of white, cisgender and straight women is not as difficult to find on social media.

Social media presents narrow ways in which people should act based on their gender. Leslie said that students who do not fit into this presented criteria feel pressure to change the way they act to fit the desired stereotypes.

“I have heard a lot of folks who identify as men talk about the ways in which media representation and societal stereotypes have made them feel like they are supposed to be ‘macho’ or not show emotion or not cry or they need to be interested in sports or to not be interested in drama. So in that way, I think the media has boxed people in,” Leslie said. “And then, those who identify as non-binary and trans, in some ways feel it for both sides, right? The ways that we put expectations on all people based on this very problematic vision of gender being binary is very harmful.”

Leslie said that teenagers are susceptible to believing what they see on social media, and since stereotypes come up in daily scrolling, Leslie suspected that this would eventually take a toll on their self-esteem and they may feel unseen.

“When you cannot see yourself represented, that limits your dreams of what you can imagine happening for your future. I feel like that often plays out, and I have seen a lot of students talk about how if they identify as young women and they do not see strong women being represented, both in media and in their everyday lives, it makes them wonder what that means for what is possible in their futures,” Leslie said. “We have a lot of talk about that concept in the GSA as well, like if you do not hear positive, happy, successful stories about LGBTQ folks, that may make people feel like that is not a possibility for their lives later on.”

The stereotypes that social media perpetuates stray far beyond gender and what constitutes beauty. BHS Graduate Lexi Danesco said beauty standards can lead to internalizing false messages about marginalized communities. When youth see misrepresented people, they may start to perceive themselves and each other inaccurately, or think that their behaviors should align with those portrayed on social media.

“I identify as biracial, and I have always felt like I was not represented in social media, but I started following accounts of people who identify as biracial, and that has helped me. It depends on who you are and who you follow, but generally, I do not feel well represented in social media,” Danesco said.

Lazarova-Weng said lack of representation in social media feeds into successions of inequality.

“Injustice-wise, having a lack of representation really plays into the role of how stereotypes are created and continued. I think it allows the cycle of discrimination to continue when we just stereotype or allow stereotypes to continue without really combating them or adjusting them or even calling them out as a problem,” Lazarova-Weng said.

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