Ailsa Malcolm, PR & Marketing Executive, Conscious Communications

Social media has received a large portion of blame for the rising number of mental health cases reported in the UK, especially in young people. There is, of course, some fairness in this; cherry picked images and rose-tinted feeds are unauthentic, and pretty much unattainable, portrayals of how people live. Yet, despite knowing that most of what we see online is enhanced, filtered and edited, we can’t help but make comparisons that can lead to a downward spiral of guilt, jealousy and self-criticism – not a healthy mix. But is the social media landscape changing for the better?

People are slowly beginning to recognise the powerful and influential nature of social media, as the serious and damaging effects of it come to light; such as reported associations between the promotion of detox drink products on Instagram – which have until recently been able to fly under the radar of usual advertising standards – and the development of eating disorders. Similarly, users have begun to recognise the more subtle, but equally damaging, effect of social media’s ‘likes’; what may appear as a simple measurement metric to determine engagement has a much deeper and personal impact on its users, whose typical social media feeds consist of carefully curated, staged and, most importantly, ‘likeable images’, rather than snippets of everyday real life.

With increasing awareness, the social media landscape has begun to shift to create room for candid conversations on topics that aren’t so ‘likeable’ – such as mental health. Campaigners and mental health charities have harnessed the power of social media to enter the topic into a space previously occupied with #foodporn and idyllic sunsets, such as the ‘UOKM8?’ campaign from LadBible; a content driven campaign that utilised key channels on social media to achieve roughly 823,000 engagements. Such campaigns have not only helped to remove the stigma of mental health, but also attempted to change the negative climate of social media by confronting the unspoken rules of what should and shouldn’t be shared online – and some platforms, such as Instagram, have taken steps in response to this, by removing its ‘likes’ feature in some countries, and removing its follower activity page (a feature which allowed you to view the online actions of everyone that you follow, and vice-versa) across the world. By relieving the pressure for online users to post likeable content, Instagram is not only recognising the negative effect that it has had, but is also allowing the platform to return to a place closer to the idea it was born out of: to connect people.

Social media is an extremely powerful and influential tool; and it can, and should, create positive change rather than contributing to society negatively. The virtual world is slowly shifting to one that is closer to real life, while there is still a long way to go (for example, celebrity influencers have been quick to hop onto the bandwagon of talking about mental health, but few have been able to ditch the glossy and harmful images), social media is becoming a positive tool for communication and support with mental health issues. Where you might have once felt completely alone in your feelings, now, a simple hashtag can connect you to literally thousands of people who feel exactly the same.