In early April, Ogilvy UK announced that they will no longer work with influencers who use photo editing software to retouch their skin or bodies. This bold commitment was tied to a goal that was no less ambitious: “We are talking about reversing 10 years of social media behaviour.”

It’s increasingly clear that it is past time for such boldness. The global pandemic has left young people, in particular, facing an unprecedented mental health crisis. As a result, social media is coming under increasing scrutiny; there is growing evidence that has played a key role in the rising tide of depression and anxiety among Millenials and Gen Z over the past decade.

Most significantly, influencers themselves have been leading the charge in identifying and fighting back against this trend – or else burning out entirely. The relentless demands for influencers to share every facet of their lives while always presenting an impeccable facade is clearly taking its toll.

Brands who are looking to make the most of the $16.4bn influencer marketing industry should take notice. The growing focus on mental health issues is set to transform the social media landscape, and only a careful, sensitive, and knowledgeable approach will suffice to weather the changes. 

In this post, we’ll explore the complex roots and far-reaching ramifications of social media’s mental health impact, and look at how brands have tried – often unsuccessfully – to navigate this challenging landscape.

That funny feeling

In May 2021, Netflix released the latest special by comedian Bo Burnham. Titled Inside, it was immediately acclaimed as pretty much the only successful attempt at capturing the disorientating experience of the COVID-19 lockdowns.

But it was much more than that. It was also an insightful and sensitive reflection on the experience of spending large parts of your life online. On this basis, a writer at Buzzfeed argued that Netflix should have categorised it under horror rather than comedy.

Burnham offers a deeply personal insight into what it’s like to be immersed in the internet – he came to prominence in the late 2000s as one of the first YouTube stars. His account of a life lived on the web finds its fullest expression in the song “That Funny Feeling”, which sits at the heart of the show:

Burnham never names the titular feeling; its indefinability is part of what makes it so troubling. Instead, it’s evoked by an elliptical series of images and references that range from the banal (“The live-action Lion King / The Pepsi half-time show”) to the disturbing (“A gift shop at the gun range / A mass shooting at the mall”). 

All these images attempt to capture that ineffable, inexpressible sense that the internet is doing something to us. What it is exactly we can’t quite pin down, but it frightens us nonetheless.

And where do we turn to try and understand this feeling, or even to combat it? To the internet, of course. As the song approaches its climax, Burnham sings:

Total disassociation

Fully out your mind

Googling “derealisation”

Hating what you find

This sense of inescapable immersion, of a vicious circle in which the internet is both a cause of and solution to struggles with mental health, is a growing part of digital culture. And it’s being spearheaded by those who are often reductively referred to as “digital natives”. 

For anyone who spends any time at all on social media, the idea that concerns about its impact are reserved for older generations is clearly long outdated. Among younger Millennials and Gen Z in particular, recognition of the damaging effects of being continually immersed in the web is growing rapidly, testifying not to a lack of understanding but to direct, painful experience. Testament to this is a recent survey that found that 50% of people aged 16 to 24 said they were envious of those who weren’t on social media.

After Burnham’s special went live, a number of content creators took to social media to post cover versions. Some even started writing their own verses in an attempt to capture the texture of their own “funny feeling”, earning hundreds of thousands of views in the process.

One gaming YouTuber even rewrote the entire song to reflect the challenges of being a public figure in the internet age. The video currently has over a million views.

It is unsurprising that the internet’s mental health impact is particularly apparent to influencers. With their livelihoods dependent on an unforgiving set of metrics – followers and likes, engagement and reach – the pressure to align their lives with the whims of the algorithm can be unbearable.

But where influencers go, others will follow. Influencers are effectively the canaries in the coalmine for a mass-scale experiment in quantifying your social life and optimising your lifestyle. And there are plenty ready to follow in their footsteps – a 2019 survey found that nearly 30% of UK children wanted to be YouTubers when they grew up. 

This conflict between social media’s damaging consequences and its inescapable, compulsive appeal sits at the heart of its impact on mental health. And it’s something that is rooted in the very design of the platforms themselves.

Trapped by the algorithm

2021 was a bad year for Mark Zuckerberg. Despite COVID-19 funnelling even more of our activities into the virtual world, the freshly rebranded Meta was forced to announce its first-ever drop in daily active users across the second half of the year. Meta’s stock price dropped 26% in a single day, wiping tens of billions of dollars off Zuckerberg’s personal fortune.

While there were many factors involved – including the meteoric rise of TikTok – the revelations of the whistleblower Frances Haugen in October certainly did their part. Among the trove of damning documents that Haugen, a former Facebook product manager, leaked to the Wall Street Journal, there was one set in particular that, disturbing as it was, came as no surprise. Internal research documents revealed that Facebook was well-aware of the damaging impact that Instagram was having on young people. “Teens who struggle with mental health say Instagram makes it worse,” one slide said. “Social comparison is worse on Instagram,” read another.

To which the obvious reply seems to be: you think?

The idea that ubiquitous internet usage and constant connectivity might be having detrimental effects has been gaining momentum for some time. In 2017, The Atlantic posted a long article titled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” At the time, this was provocative. Published today, it would seem odd to even frame it as a question.

Of course, the scientific research on social media usage and mental health is still in its early stages – we’re barely a decade into the smartphone era, after all. Nevertheless, a disturbing picture is beginning to emerge. A systematic analysis of research on the topic up until 2020 found a consistent link between social media usage and levels of anxiety and depression. A more recent meta-analysis found that in a majority of studies conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic “digital media usage was associated with diminished well-being.”

But perhaps a more telling sign is the attitude of many key figures within the tech industry, including those most responsible for the design of our hyper-connected world. Former Facebook VP of User Growth Chamath Palihapitiya has claimed to feel “tremendous guilt” over his involvement in building the platform: “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.” The company’s first president, Sean Parker, concurs, arguing that social media platforms are “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” Tony Fadell, the designer of the iPhone, has made similar remarks.

Social comparison is nothing new, of course. In fact, it may well be a fundamental human impulse. At the core of human society is our desire for acceptance, our essential need to be acknowledged and recognised by others. This desire has a deep-rooted neurological basis: when we receive praise or social approval, our brains release dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical that is key to our sense of pleasure and motivation.

What is completely new, however, is the ability to engage in constant social comparison with an indefinite number of others. So too is our ability to get real-time, quantifiable feedback on just how we match up. Add in the near-infinite potential for immediate praise or approval in the form of likes, comments and follows, and you have the perfect recipe for exploiting some of our deepest and most essential needs.

But the problem is not just limited to the addictive design choices embedded into the platforms, or to social comparison in general. When it comes to the mental health consequences for Gen Z, the way that social media can impact body image is key.

From Instagram Face to Snapchat Dysmorphia

The ubiquity of the selfie is a decisive trait of the digital age. The channelling of social life into online spaces has placed a premium on images of the face, which are the perfect way to project identity and proximity at a distance. For an influencer looking to make a connection with their followers, its pretty much a requirement.

At the same time, however, the selfie is also perhaps the most potent source of social comparison. Having an image of your face subject to mass scrutiny and immediate evaluation is a highly pressurised situation – something that’s easy to forget now that it’s so normalised.

With this in mind, it’s unsurprising that the platform that turned the selfie into an artform built its success around offering easy-to-use photo filters. Instagram was at its root a digital photography app with a built-in sharing function rather than a fully-fledged social media app, at least until its purchase by Facebook in 2012. But by the end of the decade, it had come to fundamentally shape how people presented themselves online. It had birthed what the influential essayist Jia Tolentino has called Instagram Face.

Instagram Face is, as Tolentino tells it, the pinnacle of Instagram’s tendency toward a “generic sameness”. By rewarding likes and engagement with increased visibility, the platform’s algorithm incentivises the emulation of certain basic styles and formats. It pushes those who want to build their following toward the types of images that work best for arresting attention, those most successful at stopping the thumb from swiping past.

For evolutionary reasons, the human face is particularly good at capturing attention and making users pause. But some are better at it than others. And this ability to stop the scroller tends to boil down to a fairly narrow range of socially defined markers of attractiveness. As posts of these photos do better in terms of engagement, they appear in more users’ feeds, triggering a kind of feedback loop. As a result, these reductive standards are progressively reinforced by the algorithm.

Not many people, however, have faces that meet these stringent requirements. Fortunately, the filters were there to help – and they quickly grew in sophistication, bolstered by third-party editing apps like FaceTune. Carefully optimising your face to fit the expectations of the platform was simple and intuitive. The appeal was hard to resist, especially for those looking to build a career from their online following.

The result was a tendency to converge on an exaggerated and vaguely unreal face type fitted to the capacities of the filter: perfect symmetry, poreless skin, prominent cheekbones, and so on. Kim Kardashian, basically – the “patient zero” for Instagram face, as one of Tolentino’s interviewees puts it.

As the use of photo filters became standard, particularly amongst celebrities and the emerging class of influencers, their distorting effects on self-perception slowly began to reveal themselves. Snapchat, whose success was partly due to its wide range of in-built filters, exacerbated the issue. The impact of these filters earned the app its own medical category: Snapchat dysmorphia.

Nevertheless, the filters only go so far. Too much intervention will be intrusively visible to those scrolling past, puncturing the veneer of authenticity. And as the importance of the influencer economy grew, so too did the need to approximate in person the way you appeared on social media.

There were solutions, of course. Access to cheaper and less invasive forms of cosmetic enhancement had grown significantly since the turn of the millennium. The widespread availability of Botox, hyaluronic fillers and other forms of intervention made bringing your face a little more in line with its digital representation an accessible option for many. It should come as no surprise that, according to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ISAPS), non-surgical procedures have increased by fifty percent since 2015.

Health, wellness and “bigorexia”

Of course, the face is far from the only focal point when it comes to the pressure to conform to social media’s demanding beauty standards. Social media has become the latest — and most dangerous – battleground in the long-running struggle to impose an ideal body type. 

While it has traditionally been thinness that has connoted success and attractiveness in Western mass media, a more nuanced, if no less demanding, set of requirements has emerged in recent decades. From the “fitspiration” trend to the seemingly unstoppable growth of the “wellness” market, being thin is no longer enough – you also need to be strong, agile, flexible, and healthy, inside and out.

This focus has some obvious upsides from the always-on perspective of social media. The process of achieving these goals is not only never-ending, but it’s also eminently documentable. From meal prep to workout sessions, there is always something that can be shared on your accounts to show how you’re continuing to strive for physical perfection.

The endless parade of ultra-fit bodies has the inevitable result of making the vast majority of users, who mostly lack the time and money to dedicate to self-transformation, feel pretty miserable about themselves. The alternative is to dedicate significant parts of your free time and disposable income to getting or staying in shape, sacrificing other aspects of your life – your friends and family, for instance – to this end. This is becoming an increasingly popular option among young men in particular, with devastating consequences.

The growing trend for male celebrities to sport improbably chiselled physiques has been a key driver behind the emergence of “bigorexia”, an obsessive and self-defeating pursuit of buffness at all costs. As with “Instagram Face”, influencers have played a key role. A recent New York Times piece on the topic revealed that many young men struggling with bigorexia were inspired by fitness personalities like Greg Doucette. With 1.4m YouTube subscribers, Doucette’s success shows just how much attention a perfectly honed body can get you. Many of those interviewed by the Times stressed that their fitness goals weren’t tied to sports or performance – they were based around TikTok.

And once again, editing tools have become a solution to the overwhelming demands to look a certain way. Expertise in using photo editing apps to change or enhance their body shape has become a way for influencers to gain a competitive advantage – albeit at the cost of reinforcing and exacerbating the same unachievable standards that made such editing necessary in the first place. 

Thankfully, this self-reinforcing spiral has not gone unchecked. A growing number of influencers have begun to draw attention to the unendurable pressure of having to meet these extreme standards – part of a wider trend among Gen Z to push back on the mental health impact of social media.

Gen Z’s ambivalent relationship with social media

As the pandemic caused an explosion of screen time among teens, it became clear that the so-called digital natives weren’t quite as comfortable in their virtual spaces as older generations might have assumed. A 2020 study found significant concerns among Gen Z over the impact of their social media habits. Almost a third had taken steps to limit the amount of time they spent on their phones, and nearly sixty percent expressed distrust of big tech companies.

As the pandemic recedes, it’s clear that a reckoning is beginning to take place. Recent in-depth reports in the mainstream media have highlighted the growing recognition among Gen Z users, in particular, that social media platforms don’t always have their best interests at heart. And this has translated into a number of significant and powerful campaigns to push back on the most damaging demands of the algorithm.

This growing recognition is the result of a longer-term campaign that has been spearheaded, at each step, by influencers themselves. In 2019, Instagram’s announcement that it would test out hiding likes on posts received was received enthusiastically by influencers. The lifestyle blogger Grace Atwood told Buzzfeed: “I’m actually looking forward to seeing likes go away and [getting] back to posting what I like.” The same year, a phone case playing on cigarette packet warnings went viral after being adopted by Gigi Hadid and Kaia Gerber. The case reads: “Social media seriously harms your mental health.”

Particular emphasis has been placed, in the past two years, on the impact of edited photos on body image issues. The actor Jameela Jamil has spoken out against the use of photo editing tools by celebrities, while the YMCA’s Be Real campaign has generated significant attention.

The implications for influencer marketing, in particular, have been far-reaching, and may soon go further still. Steps toward stronger regulatory intervention have been accelerating over the past year. In early 2021, the Advertising Standards Authority banned the use of photo editing software to “exaggerate the effect of a cosmetic or skincare” product being promoted on social media. The Conservative MP Luke Evans has been pushing for even stronger restrictions. In January he introduced the Digitally Altered Body Images bill to Parliament; this bill would, among other things, require edited images on paid social posts to be accompanied by an advisory note.

Brands have not been slow to take notice. Indeed, skincare and cosmetic brands – some of them, at least – have proven to be ahead of the curve, having taken gradual but significant steps to tackle the impact of restrictive beauty standards. Nevertheless, the various efforts made by brands across the past decade or more show just how difficult it can be to hit the right note.

Selling body positivity

The body positivity movement has its roots in a much longer history of campaigns for the acceptance of marginalised and non-normative bodies, but its present form is very much a product of the internet age. On this basis, it’s difficult to separate it from the well-meaning but potentially counter-productive advertising campaigns that have tried to promote it.

The first campaign to bring body positivity to the mainstream was the justly famous “Campaign for Real Beauty” launched by Dove in 2004. The campaign generated a number of influential ads, including the “Evolution” commercial from 2006, and 2013’s “Real Beauty Sketches”.

In subsequent years, many brands have followed suit, especially in the fashion and skincare industries. Social media campaigns, in particular, have been a key focus for brands looking to position themselves as body positive – and this has extended, more recently, to tackling the implications of photo editing and filters. Cult Beauty’s “Up Close on Skincare” campaign, for instance, utilised close-up, unfiltered photos of faces to challenge unrealistic demands for smooth, unblemished skin.

Nevertheless, there can be risks to this type of purpose-led advertising. Even a campaign as broadly successful as Dove’s has not been immune to criticism – it’s been noted, for instance, that Dove has been rather less forthcoming in proposing solutions than in identifying problems, while their parent company Unilever’s promotion of skin lightening products came under scrutiny. Dove didn’t always help itself, either; alongside its successful campaigns, there were some notable misses.

And while influencers have been helping to drive brands in this direction, they have often only highlighted the limitations of the body positivity approach. A recent TikTok trend involved women adopting contrasting poses to highlight how different their body looked in “unflattering” positions; critics noted that this trend went viral thanks to the conventionally slim and attractive women who took it up. Women for whom any pose was liable to be seen as unflattering did not generally see their posts going viral – or had them removed thanks to ambiguous “community guidelines” that penalise larger women. The TikTok that started the trend has subsequently been deleted.

Others have pushed back on the whole concept of body positivity, noting that it continues to put the onus on the individual to feel good about themselves rather than tackling the wider social issues that contribute to the problem – the design of social media platforms, for instance.

And this points to a wider issue. Not only can attempts to criticise exclusionary beauty standards serve to reinforce those very exclusions, but they run the risk of seeming inauthentic. In posting her own version of the TikTok trend, the singer Lizzo took pains to stress the radical roots of the body positivity movement, and criticise its co-option by advertisers: “Anybody that uses body positivity to sell something is using it for their personal gain.” Navigating this terrain will be one of the most important challenges for brands looking to highlight their social and ethical commitments.

The authenticity dilemma

As awareness of the intricate interrelations between social media, body image, and mental health has grown, so too has the willingness of influencers to tackle it head-on. The phenomenal success of TikTok star Issy Moloney, to take a standout example, is inseparable from her willingness to share her struggles with her mental health. In other cases, influencers focusing on providing support and advice on mental health issues have seen their followings grow rapidly.

For brands looking to move toward a more purpose-led approach, taking inspiration from or actively working with these influencers seems an obvious move. Yet, as with other ethically driven strategies, there are risks.

As with body positivity, the “pivoting” to mental health topics among influencers has come under criticism from various angles. The risks of well-meaning but ill-informed advice have become apparent through a recent trend toward self-diagnosis among those who consume mental health content on social media. Similarly, authenticity can be difficult to align with the imperatives of marketing. Leveraging your following for personal gain can be a bad look if that following has been built on the basis of offering support, guidance, or comfort.

Ultimately, brands are currently facing an authenticity dilemma across all marketing channels. While it is clear that customers are supporting brands that put purpose first, and Gen Z are particularly inclined to prioritise authenticity, it is equally clear that there are significant risks for those who misread the room. Nevertheless, those who are able to approach this dilemma with care and sensitivity may well reap significant rewards over the long term.