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Here's why you can't log off social media — even when it makes you miserable

The apps that checkerboard our home screens offer a constant stream of images to be devoured and internalized, like exhibits of comparative beauty standards in a handheld museum. Those of us who like to believe we're immune to social media's intelligent algorithms still can't completely divest, thanks to the dopamine elicited by each tap and share. As humans, it's simply not in our nature to log off, even when staying on hurts.

"When self-esteem is forming in adolescence, that's when people are the most vulnerable," says board-certified dermatologist and psychiatrist Amy Wechsler, M.D. "For some kid scrolling alone in the dark, [apps] can be a black hole." That dark reality — and its bright revenue upside — isn't lost on app creators.

A few months ago, The Wall Street Journal published documents leaked by a Facebook whistleblower containing some of the social media giant's research about its impact on the mental health of its youngest users. Among the grim discoveries: In one survey, 13.5 percent of U.K. teen girls said their suicidal thoughts became more frequent after joining Instagram. In another, 17 percent of teen girls said their eating disorders worsened with use of the app. And there's no evidence to suggest that we break out of that mind-altering, thumb-stiffening cycle as we age. In a recent study, TikTok and Snapchat use was associated with depressive symptoms among those 35 years or older. We might get savvier and more intelligent, but so does the technology that distorts our perceptions.

This tech includes the seemingly harmless yet sophisticated filters that can adorn users with full-body tattoos, lush swaths of fuchsia hair, or shimmering angel wings. The subtler filters are more insidious, though. With one swipe, your face is instantly tailored to an of-the-moment, often Eurocentric definition of beauty: sharpened cheekbones, a photogenic glow, lips plumped to a 50/50 ratio, and a constellation of delicate freckles. You're "you," altered to an unachievable degree. But that doesn't stop us from chasing that distorted image IRL.

"Filters take the human aspect out of the images people are seeing," explains Dr. Wechsler. "[My patients] ask for plumper cheeks, bigger lips, and a new side profile based on what they see [on social media]," she says. "I have to educate them on why we can't enhance certain things. Or they want the surface of their skin to not have a pore visible, and that's not possible." Board-certified dermatologist and psychiatrist Evan Rieder, M.D., cites Instagram as a prime source of filter-born distortion. Because no matter how critical our thinking or steadfast our self-image, we're still likely to follow the mega-influencer that is familiarity.

"The app — by design or not — makes very effective use of 'the mere repeated exposure effect,' a psychological phenomenon that demonstrates human beings' tendency to increase their

appreciation for something after multiple repeated viewings," he explains. "This is how those overly-inflated lips that used to look ridiculous to you become more and more normalized and attractive."

For some users, normalisation keeps them grounded. "Eighty-five to 95 percent of teenagers have acne, though many of them feel like they're the only ones or that their case is the worst," says Dr. Wechsler. "But if they find a supportive online group or a celebrity who's posted their skin without makeup and it's full of acne, they don’t feel alone. They feel like they have a community."

In TikTok's case, that community is massive and can offer endless affirmation for those who

are looking — or have an algorithm that will offer it up. Feel-good hashtags like "body positivity" and "acne positivity" (which boast 17.3 billion and 109.4 million views, respectively) can provide hours of support-scrolling alongside more potentially harmful content.

Though it's almost impossible to log off entirely, it comes down to conscious consumption and plain-old willpower to fight the pull of a scrolling stupor and stay anchored in our own realities — whether they're the most idyllic versions or not.

Which platform has the biggest potential for negative effects?

Allure asked Dr. Rieder to spend time on a few of the most popular social media platforms and weigh in on each one's potential to negatively affect a user across these categories: self-image, encouragement of comparison, and how much anxiety it might elicit. Numerical ratings go from one (benign) to five (severe).


Self Image: 4

Comparison: 5

Anxiety: 5

"Given the rapidity in which users can view different videos, it can be very difficult to sort fact from fiction and one can easily lose track of time. Like Instagram's, TikTok's algorithm can lead consumers of beauty content down a dangerous spiral that perpetuates unrealistic societal standards of beauty."


Self Image: 2

Comparison: 2

Anxiety: 3

"Overall, Twitter is one of the more benign apps, often relying on text rather than imagery to spread information. While there is clearly a mix of information and misinformation, its tendency to use the written word makes it a less visually appealing and less addictive app."


Self Image: 5

Comparison: 5

Anxiety: 4

"Dedicated to imagery with a laundry list of filtration applications, Instagram is uniquely positioned to share [more curated] visual content that requires little cognitive input [from the] user. For beauty consumers, this means being bombarded with beautiful faces, places, and unrealistic expectations, to which they compare themselves IRL."


Self Image: 2

Comparison: 2

Anxiety: 2

"A video platform lets creators create more in-depth content, so there are distinct advantages here in terms of capturing real-life personal narratives, helpful how-tos, and content which can more easily be identified as expert or impostor. Long-form videos are also inherently less addictive than the rapid-fire viewing of other social media apps."

This article was originally published on Allure.

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