The Impact of Social Media on Mental Health and Body Image Issues

Below is a transcript of an interview with Gen Morley tackling the topic about the impact of social media on mental heath and body image issues. 

Interview with an Expert – Gen Morley MA LPC

Therapist at North Boulder Counseling Office
Anxiety Specialist + Group Practice Owner + Business Consultant She/Her/Hers

1) Gen Morley: Hi. Good to see [you]

2) Skylar Berman: Good to see you, too.

3) Gen Morley: So what are we doing today?

4) Skylar Berman: I’m going to ask questions about mental health, and how social media influences body image and body comparisons. And so my first question is, what mental health struggles specifically do you see in adolescents or young adults as a result of social media?

5) Gen Morley: Okay, so isolation. The central tenant of all mental illness is isolation. The correlation, to me, around body image and mental health, or really any disturbing piece of social media and mental health for anybody, and in particular for adolescents, is isolation. It is not because oh, you can see skinny people on your phone- that’s a part of it, because, sure, you can. But you can also see Lizzo twerking in all of her juiciness [being body positive]. This is a way in which you can also get content that is body positive and amazing. So it’s not that we should worry about the content, sure, you can worry about it, but I think the bigger issue is the way that social media, and our portals to the universe {phones}, detach us from actual real life and humans. In the context of eating disorders and body image, the reason that we know that we are lovable, which has nothing to do with our body, is because we know that we have people who love us, and we know that because we have contact with real humans. Our phone is not a real human; even if you get a lot of likes, it’s still not a real human. Does that make sense? If you want to talk about specific content, we can go there, but I think the bigger problem is not the content but the fact that the phone is taking the place of humans. It is engineered to make our brain not turn off, even when our higher self knows we have had enough, and it doesn’t feel good anymore. And it [the phone] is taking our time. The time that we should have been using to go find other humans, or even just be in our own minds.

6) Skylar Berman: Okay, thank you. That was awesome. So my next question is: Do you see any prevalent association between social media and depression, or eating disorders? Any mental health disorders?

7) Gen Morley: Eating disorders, mental health disorders, and social media connections… I think it’s what I just said, which is kind of the best and the beast, right? Where there are awesome things about social media. There are some people, who have social anxiety, and they would make no contact with humans if it wasn’t for their social media or their devices. 

They would literally find it to be too much to make any contact. But because [social interaction] is more accessible on their phone, even though it’s less rewarding, it is better than nothing, right? Pseudo-human connection is better than none.

But then there are people who, if they didn’t have their phone, would go out, they would make a phone call and talk to a real human, or they would walk out of their house or drive to another house, or they would be with people, or they would take a bigger risk to go to a gathering or a party because they don’t have anything else to do.

Specifics in regards to diagnoses would be the most common things that I see with people using too much social media, too much screen time, is aggravated and elevated depression, anxiety, and suicidality. The eating disorders, I think, probably are exacerbated, but they come out of those three things. 

Anxiety and depression are both really deep functions of isolation- a feeling I don’t think I am OK. And the reason we can know that we are okay is that we have people around us who love us. Right? So again, if we go back to find any humans, even if it’s one or two, who love you it is going to be so much more healing than anything you’re going to find on your phone.

8) Skylar Berman: Awesome, thank you. The next question I have is: are young adults more likely to develop mental health disorders, as a result of social media, or are they just more prone to it in general?

9) Gen Morley: Both. Because… There are a couple of things when you’re going through adolescence, and adolescence starts around puberty and goes all the way into our early twenties, even up until twenty-five years old, sometimes; So that’s a long time…over ten.

It’s a huge swath [of time] and what happens is you go from being a kid to then being an adolescent and a young adult, and for a lot of people, when they hit puberty, their hormones are unbalanced, which is a very remedial way of saying they’re are not in their typical state of’re in all these hormones and it can be a lot! 

I explain it in the example that when you’re pregnant, your hormones are all over the place, and you hear a lot of jokes about pregnant ladies. Well, that’s like teenagers, for like ten years. It’s just hard. Your brain is doing so much stuff. You’re learning, very fast and doing all kinds of new things. 

Your reality is changing, and your brain is actually forming new parts and ways of functioning. Right? And so, it just makes us very susceptible…between changing realities to changing, literally and physically, the brain, in addition to a lot of hormones that aren’t always exactly at the right level; unlike if we were in our most leveled state, all of those pieces are what makes it, just, hard to be a teenager.

Our bodies and our psyches and our souls are just kind of like, whaaaaat?! And then the social media piece is really interesting because there is a generation, my generation, where we did not have the Internet; it just did not exist when I was in high school. 

My son is four, and he knows how to get into my phone. He’s like, “What’s your code?” He knows how to run my phone. Right? So there is a difference between people who have grown up with the Internet and social media their whole life and a difference between people who learned it later on in life . . . I actually have a theory. 

This is a made-up theory, from a professional, but made up. So my generation, the generation who only got the Internet as basically adults or young adults or even later, will never manage the Internet very well. We just never will-either you don’t like it very much, and you don’t use it, or you do use it, but not very well. 

Whatever you do [my generation] is probably gonna just stick with how it is.We’re stuck in our ways. And then there’s this middle generation who is like . . . It’s everything. It’s your job. It’s everywhere. . . And then there’s also a younger generation. I think that kids who, I’m not sure if it’ll be who’s in college now, or who’s in elementary school now, but there’s going to be a generation that comes that says “You guys use your phone so much. 

It’s so bad for you.” It’s sort of like how smoking cigarettes used to be. You could smoke cigarettes in the hospital, in the hospital room, with the person who has cancer. The nurse is smoking a cigarette, right? So that used to be totally normal until somebody said, “you can’t have cigarettes all the time and everywhere.” 

That’s because cigarettes are not good for you. I think that’ll happen with phones at some point; there’s going to be a generation who says, “you guys were so gross; you used your phone all the time, it’s so bad for you.” But, we don’t know that yet. So now, there’s this generation, I think probably your generation, and, parts of mine, and whoever else is using thier phones constantly.

In essence, if you don’t have your phone, you’re like, “Where’s my phone?” That, I think, is really yucky. Have you seen the Netflix show, the one all about how socil media is engineered to keep your attention? Did you watch it ? 

There are people way smarter than us engineering this [social media] thing where you literally can’t put it down, even when your whole body is like: “I don’t want this anymore.” But the thing is it’s powerful and I think we’re being so naive. We think we’re going to “manage it.” I think the right term is, you can look it up, fact checks me, but I think it’s called The Dunning Kruger Effect, which is the basic idea where everybody thinks that they’re doing a good job. 

Everybody thinks actually they’re doing a better job than they’re doing, like everybody. So I think everybody thinks: “Yeah, I do okay, I’m managing my phone.” No, you are not. We do not manage our phones. So it’s not that social media is bad– if it is something where you are like, oh, I do this for twenty minutes in the morning and twenty minutes at night, that could be considered okay. 

However, what is actually harmful is that it interrupts our natural behavior to interact with ourselves because we are constantly consuming content . There’s always content inundating us. I’m reading something, I’m watching something, I’m texting with somebody, I’m chatting with somebody, so we actually never have the pause to say: “Wait! What’s actually here? What’s here? I would like to know myself. 

I want to know what’s in my mind. I want to know me.” You don’t get to know yourself if you never stop taking in external stuff. Does that make sense? So the issue isn’t that there’s “horrible content on the Internet”!… It’s the world!.. It’s the same humans on the internet as in real life! It’s just that the issue is that they are available all the time.

 The issue is that there’s constant consumption when we need quiet, and we need peace with other humans, and with ourselves, to regulate and to make our best choices. There are these thought impulses that we have when nothing else is coming into us that are sacred and profound, and they direct us to the right things in our lives, and we have less access to them if we’re constantly consuming other stuff.

10) Skylar Berman: Yeah, thank you. My next question is kind of the opposite of the previous questions. So do you see any benefits to social media and body image? And of course, like, there are benefits to social media, like connections and stuff, as we have seen in the pandemic. So specifically between social media and body image, and how all the time, you kind of compare yourself to those on the Internet.

11) Gen Morley: I think the positive stuff that I was telling you about earlier-Lizzo and those that are the trending examples right now . . . I may have mentioned the name before, but Sonia Renee Taylor is also doing really amazing work. So, with that said, we have access to these people, like Sonia Renee Taylor, who are saying, valuing some bodies over other bodies is the foundation of slavery in and this acculturation, where this body is worth more than this body, is how we got to say brown bodies have the least amount of value, and then there are bodies that are different sizes that we want to rant in value. 

We have started to realize that different bodies are just different, and have started to realize that it is actually completely arbitrary and that they have no bearing on human value or power, or at least they shouldn’t. The idea that some bodies have more value than others, and it’s not only just arbitrary, it’s actually fundamentally oppressive, not just to you or me “Oh, I’m a college student worried about the right size and shape of my body,” but actually by you even entertaining that worry, you’re holding up the system of oppression that is stabilizing slavery and other systemic oppression. And, what does she [Sonia Renee Taylor] call it, the delusion of white supremacy. 

Ok…so other positive things? Well, we have access to all of the information bothhelpful and hurtful. We have access to different ideas and we have access to people like Lizzo. . . she realizes that she is amazing and she is saying not only am I going to say that, I value it. And… I’m also hot. She’s [Lizzo] really sexualizing herself. 

And so that might not be someone else’s angle of value, but one of the things she’s kind of going after is sexualizing people who aren’t the right shape and body; because sex is a kind of power, and sex is an expression, and sex can be fun. She’s like “everybody gets to have that if they want it.”

12) Skylar Berman: Okay, thank My next question is: Do you believe that it’s possible to be body positive as a result of social media?

13) Gen Morley: I think if we took social media and had healthy in-person relationships, and sometimes without social media every day, social media would be awesome. Social media has the potential to change the world in a way that is unfathomably collaborative and loving and supportive. 

We also know it has the capability to do the actual opposite. But, if we can be wise enough as individuals to say, “I need to take care of what’s here in front of me, the real things, the real people, myself,” and then add in a little sprinkle of social media, I think it has more potential than anything humanity has ever seen. 

But it requires us to have a level of discipline; a personal discipline. I read somewhere that discipline is the ultimate form of self-love, because it is investing in our future self, and saying our future self deserves something amazing, and that what we do is powerful enough to get that for us.

14) Skylar Berman: And then my last question is similar to previous questions: Is it possible to enhance your body positively, possible to enhance your sense of positive body image as a result of social media? If you kind of feel depressed or insecure about your body, is it possible to enhance that?

15) Gen Morley: So I think the most powerful thing would be: “Go find the people who love you or go use your body, but in a powerful way,” If you are like, “ my body is blah, just go do a thing in your body that makes you be “I love it,” not because it’s sexy, but because it does super cool shit. It’s awesome, bodies are awesome. 

So those are probably the things I would say to do first, but, in a pinch, if you’re: “Oh, I feel gross” you could Google juicy, beautiful women, or whatever negative concept you’re struggling with, and you’d be: “Oh, look at all these women and their bodies”, or you could pull up the hashtag that you know is body positive; pull up body positive videos on Tik Tok and for the rest of your whole day, you could not leave your room and just want to watch body positive Tik Tok videos. 

I don’t think that’s fulfilling but if you did it for five minutes, try that. It’s very hard to get off Tik Tok. But if you just spend five minutes, and then you said: “now get up and take that awesome body somewhere. ”It’s funny now because I know all of our content is procured, and because I’m a therapist, and I’m all positive there is some really cool Tik Tok stuff that I see so I know that it’s out there. 

But it just should not be our main course. It should be the dressing, right? It’s like the gravy with our chicken, and not the chicken itself. It’s like the salad dressing, not the salad right? It’s just sprinkles on the ice cream. Not the ice cream. Content can not be the main course of our life. If it is we will be sad, anxious, and lonely.

16) Skylar Berman: Mhm, So that’s tremendous to both, like, mental health and body positivity to spend all your time just kind of focusing on the positive side of social media, even though that doesn’t fix the core problem. But it’s definitely like a Band-aid.

17) Gen Morley: Yeah, I actually think, fundamentally, if you’re in the right places, you could look up horrible things to make you feel worse, but if you look up the right things, it’s great. There’s nothing. . . there is nothing, besides breathing, that you should be doing for as many hours of the day as people are on their You shouldn’t be sitting that long. You shouldn’t be eating that long. 

There’s nothing you should do as many hours a day as people are on their phones. It’s just too indulgent. It’s not the phone that is the problem, it is the number of hours we’re using it.

18) Skylar Berman: Okay. So do you find that, well in my research, I’ve kind of seen that adolescent girls are more susceptible to falling into depression and body image issues; do you feel like this is true in your experience?

19) Gen Morley: Are adolescents more susceptible than other ages?

20) Sklar Berman: That adolescent girls are,

21) Gen Morley: Well, I actually think girls are probably more susceptible, but I also think male eating disorders and body dysmorphia is really under-reported. It is particularly prevalent in Boulder. Boulder is a really special place for how healthy your body is supposed to be, and what healthy is. 

But certainly, we know that adolescent girls have the highest rates of eating disorders. But it happens at all I mean, I have women in their sixties who are bulimic, and I have women, older women, who are struggling too, still. I also have male athletes who are training for and are basically anorexic. So I want to be clear that I think we want to think about our distorted sense of our bodies as not only an adolescent girl thing.I think it’s a disservice to the rest of humanity, who is also suffering in that way.

22) Skylar Berman: Well, great, thank you, that’s all my

23) Gen Morley: Thank you, I’m glad I could


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