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Sierra Bein is a content editor and author of Globe Climate, The Globe’s climate change newsletter.
My first internet presence was on MSN messenger, which took my parents some getting used to. We had a shared family computer, so I would get on after school, update my status to whatever song lyrics applied to the day and chat with friends.
MSN was easy to manoeuvre, even as a kid. The rules were: don’t talk to strangers and don’t send out personal information. It seemed like my parents were scared for no reason. I only spoke to people from school, really.
Then a message from a stranger popped up.
Hey, you look like you have nice blow-job lips.
I wasn’t scared of the message. I just deleted it. I didn’t even know what a blow job was.
But still, at 12, I looked in the mirror and examined what I saw that day. It was around this time that I became highly aware of the hair on my upper lip and asked Google how to remove it. Eventually, I was comparing my body to others, and trusty Google was always there to tell me how to fix what I didn’t like. As a young teen, I became obsessed with finding ways to look better. Today, I get those tips from branded Instagram accounts and ads.
Parents are, rightfully, scared for their children’s safety online, but their concern shouldn’t just be about strangers on the internet. We all know that being on social media can be bad for our mental health. It’s part of why Facebook (which owns Instagram) is getting grilled by lawmakers. The company’s own research, leaked by former employee Frances Haugen, suggests that Instagram makes about one in five teenagers feel worse about themselves, and this applies particularly to girls. The data also suggest an association between Instagram and self-harm or suicidal thoughts.
I first got Facebook at the end of Grade 7. “What would a 13-year-old even post online?” my mom asked. I chalked up my parents’ concern to them just not understanding.
Slowly, I used Facebook more, becoming fixated on the pictures I was tagged in. Did I look good? The first thing I did was change my settings to let me approve people tagging me in pictures. Soon, my friends and I worked together to critique our photos, choosing the best ones for our accounts.
Luckily for my parents, Instagram wasn’t really a thing until my senior years of high school and now, when I look back, I’m glad I didn’t have it in my early teens. The platform is where my concerns about my looks really deepened. I don’t do my eyebrows, but maybe I should? I think I need a more pushy push-up bra. Would I look good with eyelash extensions? I would get countless ads for makeup and skin care products. Could I even afford half these things? Probably not.
Since then, I’ve also joined Snapchat, LinkedIn, Twitter and TikTok. In the grand scheme of things, my experience with social media hasn’t been all bad, but I completely understand the downward spiral of toxicity it can be, for women in particular. And it’s all backed up by research. There are studies that show plastic surgery requests have become more influenced by social media, and that users suffer diminished self-esteem. As The Globe’s Erin Anderssen reported last week about the effect of social media on young women: “For years now, researchers have been documenting the damage that apps such as Instagram do to a vulnerable teenager’s mental health … Instagram’s potential to do harm was never hidden; it was right there, on the feed of every teenager worrying about being fat, its algorithm serving up a poisonous meal of glossy, impossibly beautiful, digitally altered bodies.”
Indeed, Instagram pushes a lot of ads. Over the years more and more have crept into my feed. Just today, within two minutes of scrolling, I saw ads for Culturelle’s product for better metabolism, only-90-calorie Crispy Minis and acne removal (“don’t let acne get in the way of your first date, job interview”).
The good news is, people are starting to catch on to the harmful effects of social media. Forty per cent of those who responded to an online survey by Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies said they had a negative opinion of Facebook and more than 60 per cent agreed that Facebook amplifies hate speech, helps spread fake news, damages individuals’ mental health and poses a risk to children and teenagers.
When the pandemic started, I was online more often and wanted to be more in control of what I consumed. I turned notifications off for most of my social media apps and flagged content that I didn’t want to see. I blocked branded accounts and searched topics of interest to trick apps into giving me similar posts. Next, I’m going to banish ads from my feeds.
But why is this responsibility even on me? In a way, it reminds me of the flawed thinking of telling a girl that the way she dresses affects how safe she is on the street at night. Why should I have to change my behaviour?
Still, despite its flaws, I think most of us can agree that social media can bring us together, help us keep up with each other’s lives and create community. With that in mind, my hope for the future is that as social media companies get more advanced, users continue to become more savvy.
After all, who better to challenge these billion-dollar corporations than the young people who grew up on the internet?
What else we’re thinking about:
My whole October has been marked by the viral “couch guy” TikTok video, which took over the app and spurred countless iterations. The original phone-quality clip is of a young woman surprising her long-distance boyfriend, as her “friends” filmed the reunion. Meanwhile, couch guy was seemingly unimpressed with her arrival as he appeared to be lounging around with three other women. Ever since, the girlfriend has been defending herself and her relationship against a relentless internet bent on proving couch guy is cheating. The hashtag #couchguy has been used 954.7 million times. How horrible must it be to garner that much unwanted attention? It mostly got me thinking that when people go viral by accident, especially involving their personal lives, we should leave them alone.
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