We spend so much of our lives online, but could our social media habit be harming our health? HFG investigates.
Fifteen million Australians use Facebook every month and nine million tap on to Instagram, according to new research. The statistics are hardly surprising — you just have to step on a train or bus to see almost all eyes glued to the phone.
With baby announcements, stunning weight-loss transformations and daily food posts crowding social media, what was once considered private information is now out there for the world to see. On top of that, thousands of fitness, wellness and health bloggers are putting their lifestyles, diets — and bodies — on the screen and on the line. So, while at face value it may all seem light-hearted and harmless fun, the question needs to be asked — what sort of impact is this mania for scrolling having on our health?
Body image blues
Social media can negatively influence your perception of what a healthy body looks like. News feeds are often inundated with idealised body images, scantily clad fitness models and extreme weight-loss makeovers, attracting an enormous number of ‘likes’. What is considered ‘healthy’ has been narrowed down to a size-8 bikini — but in the real word, of course, that’s certainly not the case.
“People can go down a spiral of comparing and contrasting themselves with what they think is everyone else’s reality … but people cherry pick the images they put up and how they angle themselves,” says psychologist and author Meredith Fuller. “Everybody assumes that we’re supposed to be perfect, which is unreasonable and unrealistic.”
Showing off our best side
How often do you see friends posting about bad hair days, stress and arguments on social media? Never, is probably the answer! People want to portray the best version of themselves online, so you’re likely to see only the positive aspects of people’s lives like tropical holidays, friendly gatherings and healthy meals.
“The biggest problem is that we’re so busy trying to get a beautiful photo, we’re not actually having a life experience. We’re just looking to collect photos for later to make others feel jealous,” Fuller says.
“People are not being true or honest, so it all becomes very perplexing.”
This is particularly true of food and health content. We may forget that for many wellness gurus, being healthy — and projecting that image to their followers — is a full-time job. That beautifully styled smoothie bowl isn’t just their average weekday breakfast, it’s a carefully curated (and often paid) post.
Show me the money
Increasingly, social media ‘influencers’ are paid to promote and share images of certain products,like supplements, protein powders or diet shakes. This is seriously big business, with some people making their entire living via social media.
“Unfortunately, social media influencers often post misguided nutrition information in order to appear knowledgeable,” says Tara Leong, nutritionist from The Nutrition Guru and the Chef. “More often than not, this information is incorrect and could cause great physical and psychological harm to their followers.
“Brands are also very savvy at choosing the prettiest, skinniest, most photogenic influencers to promote their product. Because that is what will sell more product,” says Leong.
While some influencers discreetly use hashtags like #ad or #spon on paid posts, the message isn’t always that clear. This is something Leong sees on a daily basis. “Many influencers neglect to inform their followers that they have been paid to promote a weight-loss shake so that their post appears ‘more genuine’, but it is highly unethical to withhold this information from the public.”
Whether they’re qualified or not, anyone can portray themselves as an expert on social media. It’s vitally important, therefore, to understand just who is giving you the advice, and to trust only those who are qualified. This is particularly the case in the health and nutrition world.
Chef and paleo diet advocate Pete Evans, for example, has attracted criticism from health professionals and doctors for unscientific recommendations to his million-plus social media following on issues like sunblock, dairy consumption and autism.
“Unfortunately, in the land of social media, the number of followers a person has is considered an indication of their knowledge and expertise,” comments Leong. “So an unqualified person who has 117,000 followers is perceived as having more knowledge about health than a university professor of nutrition who might have 600 followers.”
Social media platforms only compound the problem by showing us more posts of what we like, based on what our online behaviour reveals. Essentially, we are being fed stuff without knowing it is happening, which can quickly reinforce or affect our perspective and make it easy to lose sight of reality. We become trapped in the social media echo chamber.
On the bright side
It’s not all doom and gloom, however — social media can also be a powerful tool for the greater good. It can connect us with loved ones, be a source of joyous entertainment, and provide a platform to build supportive environments and raise awareness on pressing social issues.
So, how do you sort out the good from the bad?
Here are five powerful tips:
1 Seek variety in the social media accounts you follow.
2 Don’t trust everything you see online.
3 Be cautious when someone on social media is trying to sell you something.
4 Ignore sites that promote extreme fad diets.
5 Look out for sneakily sponsored or paid posts.
What to do if social media is a problem
Unfollow accounts that cause you to feel insecure.
Set a time limit on your daily usage in the app’s settings.
Aim for one social-media-free day each week.
Make work and meal times social-media-free zones.
Don’t leave your phone next to you when you sleep.
Cluster your device usage: set aside specific times during the day to check emails, texts and social media.
Looking for uplifting and empowering people to follow on Facebook or Instagram? Here are some HFG thinks make a difference — for the better.