Selfie-conscious? Challenging normative understandings of social media and mental health

selfieselfie

Milly Morris & Frankie Rogan

In May 2017, The Royal Society for Public Health released a study which contended that Instagram is the “worst” social media platform when it comes to impact on young people’s mental health. The poll focused on issues relating to anxiety, depression, loneliness, bullying and body image, concluding that “social media may be fueling a mental health crisis among young people.”

These negative perceptions of social media aren’t new. In recent years, social media has become a breeding ground for moral panic, with newspapers warning that everything from sexting to selfies is indicative of some kind of health epidemic or moral deterioration. Indeed, the Royal Society for Public Health report follows the recent trend in mainstream media to “blame” social media for various social ills and highlight social media use(s) as indicative of wider social “problems”. That “millennials” (usually understood to be a cohort of people born between 1980 and 2000) are uniquely narcissistic and entitled is a well-pedalled myth in both academic and journalistic discourses. Dr. Jean Twenge, author of books such as “The Narcissism Epidemic” and “Generation Me”, is particularly prominent in this school of thought. Such criticisms are often closely related to social media and technology. Works such as these offer broad, reductive and methodologically flawed interpretations of “the millennial” by consistently ignoring the many intersectional issues which exist within all generations. Twenge constructs “millennials” as some kind of uniform monolith which, quite simply, does not exist. Despite this, the reputation has stuck.

Criticisms of social media often operate via a gendered lens. This can be explicit – for example, there is a tendency for newspapers to focus on the “risks” that social media poses to young women in particular However, these gendered constructions can also be implicit – for example, there seems to be a widespread agreement that social media is a primary contributor to an alleged rise in “vanity”, “frivolity” or “narcissism”, traits which have historically been tied to the construction of femininity. When we consider that the predominant users of social media are young people (and young women in particular), these constructions come as little surprise. It has long been the case that pastimes that are considered “feminine” are constructed as frivolous, trivial or self-indulgent.

Consequently, teenagers and young adults are consistently framed as isolated, apathetic narcissists who are only concerned with receiving online gratification for their perfectly polished selfie. For many scholars – such as Lupton, Zimmer and Marwick – contend that social media is based upon an “obsessive documentation of self” in which users take part in an exhibitionist culture that acts as a performance space for one’s image; users become engaged in cyclical behaviors of carefully constructing their online profiles whilst surveying other’s accounts. Such “surveillance as pleasure” allegedly leads individuals to present only the “best versions of themselves”. In debates about body image, then, social media is often blamed as being the catalyst for intensification in eating disorders and body dysmorphia among women. Studies have suggested that high amounts of time spent on Facebook may lead to “body image insecurity, which can also lead to depression.” However, as feminists have long argued, women’s bodies have long been subject to life-long disciplinary forces, with pervasive beauty standards demanding that women’s bodies be thin, tall, able-bodied and – usually – white. In 2015, the NHS noted that there had been a “stark rise” in the amount of women submitted to hospital for an eating disorder, with 90% of diagnosed anorexia sufferers being women. Due to this recent rise, some scholars have argued that the presentation of a “perfect” self on social media makes idealized standards of femininity feel more achievable and comparatively more ubiquitous than such messages within traditional forms of media, such as magazines or billboards. Indeed, Marwick contends that users may fall victim to severe anxiety by worrying about who may be surveying their profiles. Such arguments suggest that body-shame can be intensified by a fear of how one appears in pictures.  For example, Liz Frost asserts that being watched or “looked at” has always been part of young women’s experiences.

Lupton furthers these arguments by looking at fitness tracking applications and how they may intensify body-shame. Fitness apps – such as MyFitnessPal or Strava – have become a popular way for users to track their calorie intake and improve their exercise levels.  Lupton suggests that discourses of control within the apps places “responsibility” on individuals to discipline their bodies. This is an important point, but one that seems to ignore the ways in which messages about individual responsibility are ever-present against a backdrop of post-feminism and neoliberalism. Through Lupton’s argument, women’s bodies are reduced down to the calories they consume, the types of food they eat – “good” or “bad” foods – and even their sodium levels. For women, the media already quantify and grade different parts of our bodies (e.g: the Kardashian’s are predominantly presented as “bums”) and so a readily-available quantification of the body is potentially damaging for women’s body image.

It is important to note, then, that we recognize the changes that have occurred because of social media. In contrast to traditional forms of media, social media is now readily available at our fingertips 24/7 and is an interactive process. Likewise, we are no longer simply consumers of media but have the ability to produce our own identities and communities online. Thus, it is easy to see where fears surrounding “mental health and body issues” arise from. However, the argument that new technologies are at the heart of widespread mental health issues amongst young people seems, in many ways, to present faux-concern. Indeed, there is very little discussion in these pieces to wider political and economic structures that are perhaps far more likely to be contributing to poor mental health amongst young people. If one considers the political climate, it is hardly surprising that contemporary young people find themselves suffering with higher rates of anxiety and depression. If more focus were placed on cuts to education and other public services, rising student debt, removal of housing benefits for young adults and the closure of local youth centres, it might be easier to accept that there is a genuine concern for the mental health and wellbeing of young people, rather than an ideological desire to single out social media as the primary and (often) only “cause” worth examining.

It is overly-simplistic to position social media as a singularly “oppressive” force. As Foucault suggests, power works via a push and pull motion; whilst Instagram does present “filtered” bodies and #cleaneating diets as attainable, there are also positive aspects to social media which are largely ignored. Unlike traditional forms of media, social media can act as a space for women themselves to present alternative images of beauty. For women who fall outside of the constructed “beauty ideal”, social media provides a space to challenge their historic “invisbilisation” within popular culture. Popular hashtags such as #TransIsBeautiful or #BlackGirlMagic are some examples of this. Likewise, social media is often used as a tool to reject encoded messages about the fat female body. For example, “Fuck Yeah, Fat PhD!” is a community of fat women who archive images and biographies about fat women who have received PhDs, acting as a raised-middle-finger to the cultural stereotype that fat women are unintelligent and lazy.

Concern for women’s “body-confidence” also seemingly ignores the billion-dollar industries which consistently perpetuate idealized standards of femininity in a bid to sell us products to “improve” ourselves. In this sense, social media acts as an easy target for journalists; focusing the blame on neo-liberal and corporate perpetuations of beauty ideals would force people to look at the core of societal constructions of the body. Indeed, body anxieties amongst women have been consistent throughout Western history; it is simply the tools to measure one’s body which have changed. For example, throughout the 1960’s, images of models such as Twiggy – nicknamed for her “boyish” thinness – were plastered throughout magazines and billboards. Likewise, prior to fitness applications, women could use a treadmill or a pedometer to quantify their exercise levels. However, these products are not viewed as the central reason why women are suffering from body anxiety. Consequently, one needs to question the reasons why women feel body-shame, rather than the tools that are used to measure and/or “improve” their bodies. These arguments offer focus disproportionately on the women who use these apps, rather than the societies and cultures in which they came to exist.

In this sense, social media does not act as a singularly negative force which seeps into women’s sub-conscious and whispers “you’re ugly.” Unlike traditional forms of media, social media is a tool in which culture can be inscribed. Consequently, social media may have the potential to act as a space for resistance and community, elevating voices of women who are deemed to be outside the realm of normative beauty standards.  If journalists and academics truly wish to challenge beauty standards and support women’s mental health, perhaps they need to turn their attention to wider social, cultural and economic structures that organise and manage young people’s lives. Continuing to erase these wider “macro” structures ensures that responsibility is placed on women themselves to “disengage” from social media, rather than placing the onus on the wider culture to fundamentally change.

Too often, social media is discussed in binary terms – good/bad, oppressive/liberating, individualistic/collective. What if it is none of these things, or all of these things simultaneously?

Binary understandings of social media as either inherently “good” or “bad” do little to examine the nuances of social media as a site of both pleasure and pain. While it is important not to “romanticise” social media as some kind of utopian collective resistance (it isn’t), it is imperative that we stop presenting overly simplistic, easily-digestible narratives that do little to challenge wider social, cultural and political contexts.  Scholars who espouse “grand narratives of concern” look at the past whilst wearing “rose-tinted glasses.” They ignore the ways in which social media is a complex site of identity construction which cannot be reduced to snappy media headlines.

Navigating gender and the mainstream media

Ruth Blakeley

Last week I took to Twitter to express my surprise at the use of the term, ‘Head of the Household’, by British Airways. I was attempting to update details on my British Airways account and received an error message explaining that only the ‘Head of the Household’ could do so, in this case, my male partner. BA’s Twitter team responded to my tweets, insisting that the term was gender neutral, and that either I or my partner could be the designated ‘Head of the Household’. They did not engage with my suggestion that ‘Lead Account Holder’ would be a more appropriate term, and insisted that equal status could not be granted to account holders.

My direct tweets to British Airways were picked up by a news agency journalist. I agreed to discuss it with her. Like me, she was perplexed by BA’s use of the term, and expressed a genuine commitment to tackling issues of gender inequality. Our call lasted about ten minutes. The journalist was attentive and produced a story that accurately reflected a number of the comments I had made.

The story was published by several UK papers online, first, the Daily Mail, and then others, including The Times and Cosmopolitan.  It was interesting to see how the piece originally written by the agency journalist was altered for publication in other outlets. One, for example, described my direct but measured tweets and my brief, nuanced interview with the journalist as me having ‘hit the roof’. All published my age.

This led to a revealing foray into the world of the ‘below the line’ comments and social media reaction. Some of my research on the CIA’s rendition and torture programme has been discussed in the media before, and I have received some ‘below the line’ criticism: I’ve been labelled a terrorist sympathiser; my academic credentials have been challenged; it has been suggested my work threatens UK security; and of course, I’ve been labelled ‘biased’. But I have not previously been exposed to the sexist and in some cases sexualised responses that the BA story unleashed.

Wise academic friends counselled me not to read the ‘below the line’ comments, as did the journalist. I did though, to test whether my assumptions about the nature of those comments were correct. They were. While some were critical of BA, the vast majority fell into the following, all-too-predictable categories: 1) those who sided with BA, asserting that the term ‘Head of the Household’ is gender neutral; 2) those who said that of course the man is Head of the Household and that I should get back to the kitchen; 3) those who said I am over-privileged and have no grasp of real world issues, even though my comments quoted in the article were explicit on this point; 4) those that we could call ‘race to the bottom’ comments, suggesting I should be sent to Saudi Arabia where women are really oppressed; 5) those that questioned my professional credentials, suggested I was a threat to students, and attacked my university and universities generally; and 6) the sexually explicit ones. Ironically, many of them also served to reinforce my broader point that we still have work to do on gender equality. A number of people also took to twitter to directly address me along similar lines.

This was by no means the worst case of trolling. Women MPs and female columnists are relentlessly subjected to this. Frequently the trolling involves rape and death threats. The experience did, however, remind me why so many of my academic colleagues, especially but not only women, do not want to engage with the media. Unfortunately though, this has the effect of women experts being very poorly represented, even where they have plenty of insight to offer.

As I indicated in my comments for the article, gendered language and stereotypes are part of a broader spectrum of inequality. Of course they are not as serious as violence against women, or the crushing effects of extreme poverty. But this does not mean they should go unchallenged, not least because they reinforce the effects of other, more direct gender inequities. President Trump was elected in the US despite openly sexist comments and allegations of sexual assault. The gender pay gap persists in Britain, currently standing at 13.9% for fulltime workers, according to the Fawcett Society. The upcoming general election is likely to result in significant drops in the proportion of female MPs. Women are not being elected to the new mayoral positions in UK regions. Women, especially poor women and women of colour, have been disproportionately impacted by the current government’s austerity measures. Recent reports have shown that girls are missing school because their families can no longer afford sanitary protection. Gender-based violence is at epidemic levels, with two women murdered every week in the UK, and research shows that it escalates during economic downturns. Of course, where women are victims of domestic violence, perpetrators are emboldened by their assumed right to have power over and control of their partners.

The term, ‘Head of the Household’, has biblical roots.  One Twitter respondent did indeed remind me that man’s position as head of the household is God-given: ‘@ruthblakeley the husband is Head of household and if the husband dies then the eldest son. God created man 1st then woman as his helpmete [sic]’. (Interestingly, Cosmopolitan published this tweet before describing BA’s response that the term is gender neutral). Apostle Paul, in his letters to the Ephesians and Corinthians, instructed that women should submit to their husbands in everything, since the husband is head of the wife, as Christ is head of the church (Ephesians 5:23-24; 1 Corinthians 11:3). Biblical teaching for centuries shaped British social norms, and even today, some Christian denominations continue to uphold Paul’s teachings on sexual relations, as the quoted tweet indicates.

We clearly still have a long way to go, and calling out unhelpful language and stereotypes is just one aspect of the struggles we face. While engaging with the ‘below the line’ comments was unpleasant, several positives have come out of this experience. First, friends and strangers alike took to Twitter or emailed me directly to express their support for my position. Second, I came across other feminists on Twitter who have been truly courageous in their work, and feisty and humorous in their responses to the trolls. One has the twitter handle statement, ‘Ridicule is nothing to be scared of’. I have been inspired by their courage, and made new friends. Third, it has prompted some creative thinking and discussion on ways forward.

There are very friendly fora for academics to engage the wider public, including The Conversation and Monkey Cage. Media organisations are waking up to the need to engage more women experts, as Sophie Harman reported here recently. Some papers are also taking seriously the violence and misogyny directed at their columnists. I have had very positive experiences of working with journalists from some of these outlets in the past and have built trusting relationships with them. They would be my first port of call if I wanted to engage through the media about my research. But I also think we have to take seriously the need to engage beyond our usual circles. Recent commentary suggests that Brexit has exposed deepening divisions in British society. If we only engage with those who already think as we do, we reinforce those divisions. That does not mean we have to be accepting of online abuse. But I think we do have to understand what is driving it, and we can only do that through engagement and analysis.

‘Below the line comments’ and online trolling are ripe for research. I can envisage research projects which analyse online comments across several papers. We could explore how expert knowledge is treated, and whether the gender of the expert affects the nature of the comments. We could look at the treatment of MPs on a range of characteristics including gender, race, age, sexuality, as well as political party. We could categorise the comments as I have done, to determine trends in how ‘below the liners’ engage on a range of issues, and how they respond to different groups of people. The findings could be used to engage the media on the impact that particular representations of issues or people has on public opinion as expressed ‘below the line’. What if we could develop online, real-time tools that track and analyse the ‘below the line’ comments and social media responses, and could mirror these back to readers? This would serve as a real antidote to those who are dismissive of our claims that there is a lot of sexism and misogyny out there. The technologies are there to do this. Harnessing our skills, creativity and contacts to take this forward is the next step.

Motherhood and PhD fieldwork

By Thais Bessa

I am a PhD candidate in my early-mid 30s. I started the PhD 8 years after finishing my masters and in this meantime, I worked great jobs in my field and had two kids, now 7 and almost 4. I do not fit with the statistically average PhD candidate (single, mid to late 20s, childless) and this brings additional challenges to the whole doctoral process. Needless to say, it is harder for candidates in my position to socialize and network (we can’t always “just grab a pint at 5pm”), take teaching and research assistance assignments, attend multiple conferences and training events, jump into summer research opportunities in Australia… it is all much harder, if not impossible. I get it, I made my bed and I am lying on it. It was my decision to have children “young” (I guess in developed Western societies having a first child at 26 is young!) and follow an academic career in a non-linear manner, with a somewhat big break between postgraduate degrees. So although I understand this post feels like a big rant, I am not asking for people to feel sorry for me and offer privileges and exceptions to suit my life. Especially considering that, generally speaking, academic life is a very privileged one compared to thousands of women who have much bigger struggles in their lives and careers.

When I started thinking about the issues covered this rant/post, I read a bit about academic career and motherhood. There is quite a lot of interesting material out there, from books and papers to anecdotal articles and blog posts. Regarding post-PhD academic life (post-docs, tenure-track jobs, etc), there is ample quantitative and qualitative evidence that women with children are much less likely to advance in their careers than men with children. This is all well-known and reflects wider gender inequalities in the workplace. I heard once and it is true: the job market is bad for women but is actually cruel for mothers. As generations pass and men (hopefully) get more and more involved in taking care of their children (which you will never see me applauding because well, it’s their responsibility), life/work balance becomes increasingly part of their concerns as well. Change might be happening slowly and painfully, but it is not an even playfield yet, not by a stretch. You will still struggle to see men being asked “do you have children? And if so who will take care of them?” in job interviews, be it in academia or any field. In an article full of advice on how to deal with having kids and pursuing an academic career, a male professor said in hindsight he was an absent father because he loved his job so much, but kids survive even if they are ignored. Setting aside the debatable parenting standard promoted, it never occurred to him that he was only able to ignore his kids because there was certainly a woman doing his fair share of parenting so he could excel in that job he loves so much. This type of discourse, even disguised as useful advice, continues to perpetuate gender inequality so that unfortunately reconciling parenting and career is an issue that still affects women immensely more. Hence why the title of this post is “Motherhood and PhD fieldwork”, not “Parenting and PhD fieldwork”.

When tackling the issue of motherhood and a career in academia or elsewhere, there is a strong discourse about women being empowered and able to have and do it all. However, I am increasingly cynical about that. Today I read an article that recommended educating new generations of women so they believe they can have it all. First, this type of discourse is directed at women, subtly reinforcing the idea that it is their problem only and taking care of children is their responsibility. But foremost, this emphasis on “educating”, “informing” and “raising awareness” (I worked in the development sector, so I know how these buzzwords are thrown around willy-nilly), can actually make us feel more disempowered. I read this type of speech and one or two success stories of big executives and top academics who indeed seem to have it all and I feel not only inadequate but powerless. Knowing your “rights” and possibilities whilst everything around you and structural barriers remain the same is just frustrating. I call it “informed powerlessness”.

Because although this type of discourse sounds amazing in theory, when it is time to implement, it is utter bulshit. Take the example of fieldwork, a crucial part of most PhD projects in almost every single field. When I first wrote my PhD proposal and shared it with a few professors from my masters, they were very receptive and gave me great feedback. But one thing I heard from one (male, single, childless) professor stuck to my mind. He said the project was great, but my methods were not the best and he said my research would be much stronger and “non-extractive” if instead of interviewing people I did an ethnographic fieldwork, living, observing, and interacting with research subjects in a more natural manner for several months. That hit me hard and I almost gave up on pursuing a PhD as it would be impossible for me as a mother to go live somewhere else alone for several months. But after a lot of reflection and comforting words from awesome colleagues, I realized that 1) I am not an anthropologist, 2) I am not convinced that long ethnographic fieldwork renders “more accurate” data (I find it extremely presumptuous to think that after living with “research subjects” for 6 or 12 months one becomes “one of them” and is given truer information). However, there is another issue there and one that involves important issues of gender, class, and physical ability. For that professor, doing extended ethnographic fieldwork is not only his methodological choice, but also a possibility. But it is not a possibility for people in different circumstances: people who lack the financial resources (grants don’t normally pay the bills back home whilst one lives somewhere else), who have small children, who need to care for older relatives, who have disabilities etc etc etc.

Even when extended ethnographic fieldwork is out of the picture, fieldwork still takes time, not just the preparation of logistics, but the actual fieldwork (be it consulting archives, doing interviews and surveys, collecting samples, etc.) For mothers, being away from home for extended periods of time is hard or impossible for many reasons. This brings great anxiety about whether our research is going to be valuable or scientifically sound. Most advice for mothers to reconcile fieldwork and children call for the importance of having support from your partner and family. Of course this is important but when one does not have extended family nearby and have a partner who is not a fellow academic or who does not have a flexible job, it is hard. Although my partner is supportive and does his fair share of parenting as he should, he also works in a gruesome private sector field where 70 hours workweeks are a rule, working from home impossible and 10 days of annual leave are considered a luxury. So even with the best intentions and efforts, it is virtually impossible that I go away for weeks or months and dump my own fair share of parenting on him.

Some interesting articles about motherhood and fieldwork present a seemly great solution to this dilemma: take the children to fieldwork! Cue beautiful and wholesome stories about adaptability, overcoming struggles and the kids actually having fun and learning so much in the process! However, this is not always possible. These stories make the caveat that the presence of kids make fieldwork slower and longer, but the issue of costs is mysteriously ignored. Which funder pays for the children’s costs? Will funding be available for this longer fieldwork? What about childcare costs, sometimes in a foreign country? I also imagine the ethical issues that having children present in fieldwork must raise. My process to obtain ethical approval was excruciating in itself and I cannot imagine the response I would have received if I had mentioned in the Risks Section “by the way, my small children will accompany me to conflict zones and refugee camps”. I can practically hear the members of the ethical committee having a stroke.

Taking kids to fieldwork also depends on the location of fieldwork, the field of research and the age of the children. Taking kids to Geneva (or even remote villages in developing countries if one is more adventurous) is feasible with the adequate planning and if support is available. But it is unnecessary to explain why taking children to a conflict zone is not feasible at all. Most examples I have seen of mothers successfully bringing their children to fieldwork were in the field of natural sciences. Fieldwork is always difficult and demanding, but I imagine it is easier to have children around when one is observing ecosystems or collecting geological samples, instead of interviewing women about sexual violence. Kids can fit around some type of fieldwork, but in some cases the only option is to hire out childcare, which once again raises issues of cost and might be difficult in certain settings. Finally, these same success stories often include small children in pre-school age who have much more flexible schedules. Once children hit school age it becomes harder to remove them from their habitual life (unless one decides to homeschool on the road, which I am not capable of doing whilst also pursuing a PhD).

These difficulties unfortunately might mean yet another glass ceiling: in practice, the type of topics, research questions, methods and case studies a PhD candidate can pursue becomes constrained not by their hypotheses and intellectual ambitions, but by what they can actually do given their current situation. Fieldwork is an integral part of the PhD process in a way or another in most fields. However, the special circumstances of people are rarely considered and addressed by Universities. In this post, I raised issues related to motherhood, but I am sure there are many other special circumstances that make preparing and conducting fieldwork a difficult balance between the best option scientifically and what is feasible given people’s multiple roles in life.