By MAY LIN TYE and NIDHA KHAN.
We’ve all enjoyed something that’s gone viral on the internet. From our favourite memes, to videos of Kanye West dancing to The Wiggles, to charitable acts like the ALS ice bucket challenge. It all seems like some harmless fun, or even a positive way to raise awareness. But what happens when things go awry?
Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen a whole range of crazy challenges appearing on the internet. These challenges can see thousands - even millions - of young people taking part, posting pictures and videos all over social media. These challenges seem like a bit of fun, but can actually be extremely harmful.
What seems to simply be a photo becomes so much more when it's shared by people all over the world. It becomes a social issue and a public health issue.
There are some ridiculous 'challenges' going around, which claim to 'test' how beautiful, skinny or flexible a person is. What they can really do is create anxiety and low self-esteem.
Many people may do these challenges as a joke, but by taking part, they could be affecting others; a young person entering high school worried about how to fit in, for example, or a Facebook friend who is struggling with self-esteem or mental illness. The fact that so many people then post their images on social media, often as a way of self-validation, is proof that these types of viral challenges are corrupting young people’s minds.
Just as the traditional media has influenced our 'standard of beauty’ over time, social media is also slowly shaping how people perceive themselves.
All aspects of our bodies are under constant scrutiny. Pictures of 'thigh gaps' and 'hot dog legs' have been flooding social media for several summers now. There are various destructive challenges that encourage people - mostly women - to post pictures showing various parts of their bodies. There are thousands of posts on Instagram tagged with #thinspiration. Memes that shame people’s appearances, even their eyebrows, are not uncommon.
Not only are there mental harms caused by these viral challenges, there can also be impacts on physical health. One, for example, can cause bruising, swelling and wounds on people’s lips.
It is also no surprise that most of these challenges and trends all centre on the appearance of women, rather than men. Body dissatisfaction and insecurity resulting from these viral challenges can also lead to a whole range of mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, and eating disorders.
We all know how much we love showing off and competing with others on Facebook and Instagram - curating our profiles to showcase what a great holiday we’re having or how much fun we’re having with our friends. Most of us are guilty of this; it’s only human nature. We use social media to connect with others, so it’s expected that when something goes viral, many people will want to join in. This is society’s issue.
We hope that next time you see a ridiculous challenge floating around, you don’t buy into it. Having low self esteem isn't fun, and by not participating, you are protecting others from this toxic perception of beauty. Taking part may seem like harmless fun, but really, it's helping to keep broader, damaging issues alive.
We live in a world which is slowly starting to embrace things outside the socially constructed norm of 'beauty'. But viral challenges are only one part of social media’s effect on body image.
Social media also gives rise to social comparison. One study found that women who used Facebook rather than another non-social media website had more negative moods. Also, women who made more comparisons of appearance were more likely to desire change.
The prevalence of eating disorders is also increasing. In the UK, hospital admissions for eating disorders have doubled over the last three years. Social media is increasingly being blamed for this increase.
We visited Albert Park in Auckland to find out what some of you think about social media harms:
On viral challenges:
“They’re a bit silly. They kind of make standards that some people won’t be able to meet. I guess they’ll judge themselves based on whether they can meet it or not. I think [people are affected because] it’s just so trivial and silly that it becomes a big thing, and some people take it seriously."
On viral challenges:
“I think it’s quite stupid. I’m actually studying personal training, and it’s against my views. I just believe in being healthy, fit and strong. When people come to me and want this kind of waist measurement which is really unhealthy, it’s difficult for me to talk to them because I don’t want to put them down, and it’s not something that people should be trying to work towards.”
On viral challenges:
“I think they’re ridiculous, like everybody’s different and if you don’t have what people think is good then that means that you’re not good, and I just think it’s ridiculous. I think it’s because they try, they have this image of what they want to be like, and I think if they try and be like what everyone wants them to be like then it’s good.”
On the effects of body image on males vs. females:
“I think it’s a problem for both, but I think girls do have it worse I guess, in a way. Most of the time, guys would probably just blow it off, but there are some sensitive dudes that might take it badly as well. I’m not completely sure how bad they’ll take it, but I guess there would be some guys who would take it badly.”