The neoliberal side of social media
It’s no secret that whilst we’re a generation that loves social media, its effects on our mental health can be catastrophic. Studies have shown that there is a direct correlation between poor mental health and high usage of social media platforms, which can be partially attributed to the low self-esteem caused by hours spent scrolling through images of people who appear to be flawless.
It is estimated that over 90% of young people use social media platforms regularly, yet the increase in usage has been coupled up with a 70% increase in depression and anxiety rates during the last 25 years. Whilst correlation does not automatically equal causation, it is apparent that social media, specifically Instagram (which studies have shown has the most negative effect on its users), can greatly affect ones psyche.
2018 studies showed that nearly half of young social media users said Instagram, Facebook and other platforms made them feel sad or anxious. On top of this, over half of social media users have also experienced cyberbullying, with up to 20% experiencing it on a regular basis.
However it may not be accurate to assume that social media autonomous, and that is entirely to blame for these issues. Behind these platforms is a more deep rooted problem; that of neoliberalism. It can easily be argued that this is the dominant ideology in our society, and whilst it is predominantly thought of as a set of economic policies, it also has social implications.
Social media, particularly Instagram, surrounds us with ideals of what a successful, beautiful and popular person should look like
The Guardian states that neoliberalism locates competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. Neoliberal societies punish inefficiency, and teach us that it is our duty as individuals to always strive to better ourselves; if you fall behind, then it is a personal failure, rather than a failure of the system. An example given by The Guardian is that if you are unemployed, your laziness is to blame, rather than structural unemployment.
Advocates of this ideology argue that it allows for human progression, however the high levels of competition that are produced by neoliberalism can leave many feeling as if they will never be viewed as successful. The social laws put in place by this entity can have a negative effect on our self-esteem and mental health, and I believe that the social side of neoliberalism is widely negative and unbeneficial.
Therefore this raises the question; is social media really to blame for damaging our mental health, or is neoliberalism the real demon behind our screens?
Social media is not an autonomous phenomenon. It exists in a wider societal structure, and it can be thought that it acts as a tool to help facilitate the diffusion of neoliberal ideas. The Independent has argued that the rise of mental health issues amongst teenagers, particularly the increase in the amount of young people self-harming, may be a result the neoliberal policies that are projected onto us through social media.
Social media, particularly Instagram, surrounds us with ideals of what a successful, beautiful and popular person should look like, and these images can easily permeate our consciousness and affect our own self-worth. This is not to say that we are completely passive consumers, and of course it is common knowledge that the majority of these images are only an illusion, but when we are
constantly exposed to what appears to hyper successful people, it’s no wonder that our self-esteem is damaged by social media.
When we are exposed to those with supposedly perfect lives, we are encouraged to better our own lives. We strive to show the online world that we are attractive, successful and happy. It is a culture of demonstrating our achievements, often financial achievements, to the world- commonly known as ‘flexing’. We are also encouraged to compete for likes and followers, which act as a virtual currency, showing how popular and affluent we are. The volume of likes we have can become a success in itself.
We are encouraged to compete for likes which acts as a virtual currency, showing how affluent and popular we are
I believe that social media encourages us to tear down others, and even resort to persistent cyberbullying in order to ‘get ahead’ in this metaphorical competition, thus causing more mental health issues amongst online users.
When our mental health is suffering and self-esteem is lowered by spending time on social media, we become the ideal consumer. As we strive to improve ourselves in order to be deemed worthy enough, social media platforms offer us advertisements for products that will supposedly transform us into the perfect individual, such as the appetite reduction lollipops that Kim Kardashian endorsed in 2018.
The effects that social media has on us closely echoes the ideals that neoliberalism strives towards; self-improvement, and becoming a successful, independent individual, no matter what the cost. On social media, we are effectively encouraged to display that we are as productive and diligent as possible, and our desire to do so creates a population with a high capacity for labour.
Instagram and other platforms are perfect tools for a neoliberalist society to use to condition people in order to produce independent and high achieving individuals, and to encourage us to consume, and increase our labour output as a method of bettering ourselves.
This is what Sussex students and The Badger team have to say on the matter:
‘Whether or not neoliberal economic structures exacerbate the worst effects of social media use is a thorny issue; there is of course an argument to be made that, in any case, people should be free to produce and consume content online uninhibited. However true one takes this to be morally, however, it doesn’t free social media from analysis and critique. The fact that we clamour for the fashion trends we see celebrities wearing or the next biggest TV isn’t a phenomenon exclusively perpetuated by social media, but it is surely where it is most explicit.
Added to this, it is ‘on’ all the time: you can have your material desires presented to you 24/7 – at a distance where they are just about unreachable. The effects of this constant availability hold real consequences for people’s mental health; I felt this myself and decided to take flight from Instagram three years ago – saving myself time and preserving my focus in other more useful places, such as reading or playing video games. Even if we were rid of neoliberalism, I propose that this would not entirely solve the issue: making good mental health and social media work together requires hard introspective work. What that means is this: we should not outsource our self-worth to the appearances and lifestyles of other people, or indeed material goods.
To preserve one’s individuality is often to say ‘no’ to the decisions of others, and to hold full confidence in the process of carving one’s life out for oneself. The worst effects of looking from afar and through a screen at others can be dampened if you can comfortably say ‘That is good – they are living their life fully. I too am living mine’. This is the big hurdle to jump here: to restore control and come to a tranquil understanding that your value is derived from and directed by you, even when faced with hundreds, or even thousands, of people that you follow on three or four different social media accounts independently.
Perhaps the best course of action is to withdraw from social media entirely, like I did with Instagram. I am however still on Twitter and Facebook, but the central factor for me is that they have real utility: my use of them is a net positive in my life, for communicating with and understanding the world around me.
So remember this: preserve primarily the pursuit of your own happiness and the stability of your mental health before looking to the lives of others and the acquisition of material goods. Social media, if taken at face value, can promote the opposite of this: offering you a vision of what you could potentially have and leaving you unsatisfied there – when it is fully within your grasp to achieve it yourself’
Luke Mitchell (2nd Year Journalism)
‘Social media, particularly Instagram, makes me compare myself, which in turn makes me feel lesser than others. Everyone portrays their best sides on social media; it appears as if their life is perfect in terms of their appearance, their relationships and their wealth. Because of this, social media makes me want to better myself. I think it’s a good thing to want to improve yourself, but it should be self-motivated. The way social media makes us want to better ourselves isn’t healthy as our motivation to do so stems from the fact that we feel we aren’t good enough- it’s damaging for our mental health.
However, even though we may be aware of the damaging effects of neoliberal social media, it is also evident that this culture holds an appeal. I’m conflicted as to whether I want to be a part of it or whether I want to remove myself from it. I appreciate that this system has very negative effects, but at the same time it’s satisfying when you receive recognition on social media. Also when everyone uses it, you feel as if you’re missing out by not having it.’
Emily Alexandrou (2nd Year Media and Communications)
‘Social media and neoliberalism seem to have a lot in common. It’s a platform in which all its participants are in competition with one another. Who can get the most likes? Who can get to the top of the algorithm and thus our feeds? Who is having the most fun? We post the best versions of ourselves; we create an image, an individualistic brand. We look our best and are always having a great time.
We are also made to feel inadequate and left out, which is the perfect state to be in to consume. We are told we can fix these problems if only we work hard enough or buy the right things or look a certain way. Flat tummy tea, appetite suppressant lollies and gym memberships. When we don’t look the right way and aren’t a great success this has a detrimental effect on us. Everyone else is so happy, so why am I not?
The truth is, social media is the neoliberal dream come true. A tool that can make you feel bad about yourself, compare your lives with others, whilst simultaneously telling you how to fix it with money. In many ways, social media is almost synonymous with neoliberalism.
The effect of these neoliberal ideals being pushed on us can make us feel as though we aren’t worthy, and this can take a huge toll on our mental health. However, it’s important to remember that people are profiting off your feelings of inadequacy. You are not less because social media tells you so. Scrolling through an app that tells you you’re not good enough isn’t going to make you feel good, so unfollow the influencers, forget about the likes or even better, uninstall.’
Lilly Subbotin (Comment Editor)
‘If you use any social media you will be familiar with the concept of ‘flexing’. Engaging with social platforms means you will be confronted with your peer’s posts, designed to demonstrate how they are achieving the western standard of success.
People tend to ‘flex’ material quantifiers for wealth, such as phones, cars and houses. When people flaunt their romantic partners they highlight qualities that symbolise the partner’s wealth. This includes: how well styled their hair is, if they have expensive nails and if the partner can afford to go from the gym.
Because people only ‘flex’ using monetary signifiers of success, the meaning of flexing has devolved into even more basic terms. People now use social media to brag about how many hours they work or how many jobs they have. The logic of these statements is that more hours equal more money and, therefore, more success.
Boasting about how much you work reverses the traditional logic that being rich permits you to engage in leisure activities. In the past people would go to lengths to prove they did not work. Women deliberately did not tan to show they were too rich to work outside in the sun. Doing overtime and going to the gym has become the new qualifier for being successful. The winners are those who are wealthy in labour power and potential to make money.
The distorted, material concept of success is made clear in the etymology of the word ‘flexing’. When one flexes a muscle they are enacting a performative demonstration of their physical power. In the same way, when someone flexes online it is to display their capability to work, which has become their social power.
A productivity based standard of success means that people are aspiring to be a hyper productive machine. However, it is hard to move away from the materialistic expectations of ‘flexing’ when the concept of labour power is intrinsically built into the word.’
Emma Nay (Arts Online Editor)
As Karl Marx turns in his grave, the youth of today struggle to keep up with the hyper-real productive forces at play within the social media platforms that have become extensions of our modern selves. The definition of happiness is rapidly expanding to mean ‘living your best life’; translation- being your best self in every aspect of your life. From cooking to cosmetics, social media has become a barrage of content to ‘better’ one’s self, to be not just a ‘better’ person, but also a profitable one. The result? An alienated society reminiscent of Marxist theory circa 1848, and a book of mental health conditions bigger than the entire UK legislation.
The next time you’re feeling blue, disconnect and decompress
The American dream-esque notion of building a brand around your body is now being replicated throughout every social media stage conceivable, which encourage us to profit from our virtual popularity. The emergence of Instagram poets is a prime example, whereby online artists are estranged from the product of their labour, as it is produced to suit the needs of a fast pace scroller. Whilst most of us have been exposed to the harmful effect social media has on our mental health, the neo-liberal politics espoused by the ever-growing right wing may be one explanation for the increased emphasis on individual production that causes such anxieties. If every outlet of our life focuses on individual production and personal betterment, the line between product and person becomes ever more blurred.
The Instagram model ultimately promotes an unsustainable lifestyle that focuses on a purely aesthetic measurement of success. This being said, there are certainly positive uses for social media as a tool for connecting and empowering individuals that can’t be dismissed. Self-awareness is integral to our use of such platforms, and a short hiatus from social media may go a long way for our mental wellbeing. The next time you’re feeling blue, disconnect and decompress. Focus on your real self rather than your virtual self.
Tallulah Belassie Page (Features Editor)
It seems many of us have a love/hate relationship with social media. Whilst it can be a useful tool, and the positive reinforcement it can bring may be a source of self-esteem, it also has the potential to crush your self-worth and make one believe they are not ‘good enough’.
We cannot assume that social media alone is the cause of poor mental health amongst online users. There are certainly issues surrounding social media that are exclusive to the platforms themselves, however under this façade could be the reality that neoliberalist social policies could be the true cause of young people’s low self-esteem and mental health struggles.
It is easy to assume that everyone’s life is perfect, and it is natural to feel as if we should be striving to do more with our own lives. However it is also important to remember that the expectations projected onto us by neoliberal society and social media are unrealistic. Whilst self-improvement can be a good thing, bettering one’s self for the sake of social competition can have extremely negative impacts on our mental health. This void that can be left as a result of using social media cannot be filled with material goods, no matter how much Instagram tries to persuade us that this is the case
Perhaps it’s time to put down our phones, turn off notifications and remind ourselves that we are good enough, and that the amount of likes we have does not define our self-worth.