by Hannah Chippendale

Numerous studies have infamously reported that social media increases users feelings of loneliness and depression — a long-running contradiction for a platform intending to connect people. These claims don’t seem far-fetched either — indeed, we have all felt frustrated by the ever-growing influence of social media. But why might it cause mental health problems? Though psychological studies confirm there is something wrong with our social media usage, philosophy could help us understand why that could be the case.

Social media has rapidly entered our lives and often escaped serious discussions in understanding the potential harms it can bear on our lives, and how to mitigate them. I believe philosophical ideas on objectification can provide an illuminating framework in providing explanations into the darker underbelly of social media.

What is Objectification?

Simone de Beauvoir, known for her work in Existential philosophy, is notable for her feminist accounts in understanding how a woman comes to identify herself with her bodily being, based on the gaze of the Other. She claims a woman considers her body as “an object destined for another” rather than her own.

As a result, she undergoes a covert process of objectification by identifying the entirety of who she is by only her body. In other words, she views herself as a sexual object that exists for other people, through the Other’s eyes over her own.

De Beauvoir is ambiguous to what this Other represents. Many have taken it to be the male gaze, where a man sexually objectifies a woman by perceiving her as a means for his sexual gratification. Or it could mean advertisements and beauty publications, latching onto bodily insecurities in women creating false needs to moderate her appearance with cosmetic products.

Fundamentally, the point is this perspective from the Other becomes part of the woman’s consciousness and exists alongside her sense of self, so much so she becomes interested in satisfying the expectations of an abstract male connoisseur by moderating her appearance, then satisfying her own personal needs. As Bartky, another feminist philosopher elaborating on de Beauvoir’s account writes:

“The objectifier and the objectified can be one and the same person: a woman can become a sex object for herself, taking toward her own person the attitude of a man.”

De Beauvoir seeks to explain why some women feel a sense of gratification by objectifying themselves — by investing too much time in moderating their appearance for the sake of satisfying this Other, and in some cases, being entirely unaware it is happening.

But I believe this process of objectification is not exclusive towards women, and anyone can be objectified. It is generally a process where someone perceives another as an object to be used for an ulterior end, like using someone for money. It isolates a particular characteristic of someone and overwrites everything else which crucially makes them who they are.

She is no longer Cassandra, but an attractive barista. He is not James, but a homeless black guy. Though it comes at different severities, objectifying human beings denies them their humanity, and views them instead as objects.

But if someone begins to view themselves through the eyes of an Other, they often completely identify themselves with how this Otherly perspective perceives them, rather than defining themselves according to their own convictions.

After all, if other people continue perceiving you in a particular way, then eventually you may come to believe that you are what they take you to be an object.

The World Is Watching

Fast forward to current times, where we are instantly and constantly connected via social media. Out of nowhere, we’ve come from making our own MySpace pages to entering our details into Facebook to social media landing in our pockets, and now the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning is to check your news feed to see which direction your social world orbits.

It appears de Beauvoir’s concept of the Other has become real. Our followers on Instagram assume the form of this once hypothetical Other, ready to judge our content with likes and comments, gradually leading to the same, subtle process of self-objectification.

We become encouraged to upload selfies, pictures of our achievements, or whatever makes us appear attractive or successful to receive more likes and followers from others. Though we believe we have complete freedom in choosing what we post, ultimately the approval from others drives our motivations to post content catered towards their needs. Not necessarily our own.

From a feminist perspective, this is troubling news for young women who grow to learn to depend on receiving approval from this Online Other. Receiving higher likes and followers can equate to her self-esteem, which can potentially lead to posting sexually revealing content. She might think it is satisfying her own convictions, by empowering her, when she could actually be satisfying the expectations of acquaintances and even strangers.

A study by Horan examined the motivations of teenagers using Instagram by uploading selfies. This was done by running an experiment where undergraduate female psychology students were asked to collect screenshots of recently uploaded selfies from their social media profiles and asked to numerically score the extent to which they agreed/disagreed with statements. These included whether they felt objectified or empowered by posting sexualised photos, and the correlation of self-worth to posting pictures online.

The results indicated that the participant’s general motivations for posting selfies correlated with the statements of receiving attention on their posts and gaining more followers. This implies the study at least partially confirmed de Beauvoir’s concept of self-objectification, where young women generally saw themselves as objects for viewers to judge through likes — these viewers representing the hypothetical Online Other.

The study also confirmed that participant’s self-worth correlated with the number of likes and followers they received on Instagram, further reinforcing the idea that users on Instagram are gratified when posting content that satisfies the expectations of the Other, over their own convictions.

Albeit, not all who use social media necessarily undergo self-objectification — we must concede, at the very least, it is still possible for some users to volitionally post pictures and feel a sense of empowerment.

But we must consider that if the predominant user-base of Instagram are young teenagers, mostly impressionable and unaware of such pernicious effects of their usage, then the problem becomes clear in the way social media could shape the relationships they have with themselves, their body confidence, and perhaps most of all, the relationships with other people who they seek to maintain on social media — despite whether they know them in real life or not.

Perfect Representations of Imperfect People

Self-objectification portrays unrealistic images of ourselves and others. Newsfeeds and timelines become a place exclusively representing people’s positive qualities, and hiding all their imperfections and vulnerabilities. Rather than encouraging genuine dialogue between people, we are encouraged to see each other as content to be liked or disliked. Regular usage and exposition to social media can increase our attachments to these false representations, rather than people we know in real life.

We might come to know them as the perfect ‘image’ or ‘idea’ that users want others to perceive them as, rather than the vulnerable reality of those people which using social media hides. We become accustomed to the way they present their personality through their profiles, rather than the living, breathing reality of who they are.

Nobody is incentivised to reveal themselves in a realistic and vulnerable way. Except if they receive likes by doing so. People always appear their best, as incredibly successful, and as having absolutely no flaws or vulnerabilities, as if we are viewing them in an infatuated way; the perfect idea of these people rather than the actual reality of them.

Add Facetune to the mix, a facial enhancement app endorsed by accounts with high followers, and we are granted the unholy power of deleting our physical insecurities as easy as correcting a typo.

Major Instagram influencers like Khloé Kardashian have admitted to using Facetune, establishing impossible beauty conventions for a generation of young women who feel they must decorate themselves, remove blemishes, and make themselves look pristinely perfect like their idols before posting pictures of themselves online. As if their current appearance were inadequate and in need of further tinkering.

Not only do users self-govern their profiles to reflect themselves looking as best as possible, but the addition of face-tracking filters and photo-editing apps sets the bar higher for young women, in particular, to objectify themselves by their followers’ appraisal.

Furthermore, these methods of modifying appearance can threaten a young woman’s self-esteem outside of using Instagram, potentially perpetuating a further distaste for her body. She could become more aware of facial features she finds objectionable, unable to be as easily modified in real life, and possibly turns to make-up; buying foundation to hide blemishes, mascara to accentuate her eyes, and invests in more revealing clothing when insecurities about her body arise due to low self-esteem.

People As Statistics

Using Instagram appears to encourage subtle competition with others in becoming more socially significant and influential than each other, by receiving more likes on their content, and more followers than their peers.

Receiving a high number of followers has become a reflection of social status in modern life. Even though you may be inclined to follow someone, you are not committed to following back. By placing a higher priority on one’s followers and likes, it encourages one to care much more about one’s own statistics, rather than reach out to others in mutual dialogue and see each other as equals.

It is a common attitude for those with higher followers to reciprocate following other profiles with higher followers, and therefore only view each other’s content, and being apathetic towards the content of users with fewer followers. At this stage, rather than converse with others, someone with a few thousand followers can become increasingly concerned with social hierarchy and enters an attitude of comparing oneself with others.

This is especially true of micro-influencers, mildly influential Instagram users who have around 10–50k followers (now ‘fans’), whilst following only a handful of prestigious profiles.

The attitude of comparing one’s profile with others is evidenced in these psychological studies, accounting for feelings of inadequacy and inferiority that users describe the feeling when regularly using social media. It is because one uses it out of a human necessity to socialise with others, but is left with seeing perfect representations of the imperfect people they know, appearing their very best, and far more socially significant than the user themselves.

Clearly, our perceptions of social media profiles can have massive implications on our real-life perceptions of the world and people in general, as we come closer to seeing our social world as synonymous with our friends and followers list.

The Future of Our Social Fabric

The consequences of online objectification could be devastating. Our efforts to foster closer relationships with our loved ones could lead us to become attached to false representations of who they are, leading us to also respond by projecting a false identity of ourselves.

The scary thing is that it is happening without us really knowing it.

It also seems to be leading to a generation with less empathy and no remorse, valuing narcissism and lust over a genuine love for others. No wonder we are depressed using social media. Despite our genuine intent of socialising with others and engaging in our social world, we are fooled into basing our worth and others on mere numbers and statistics. We are suffering at the expense of each other’s humanity.

But rather than conclude this article with a defeatist sentiment about how we should retire from using social media, uncovering the process of online objectification allows us to be aware of using social media responsibly.

We should encourage ourselves to post whatever content we like as a mark of self-expression, and not worry about the number of likes we receive, reply directly to people’s stories rather than lazily double-tapping posts to like them, and realise that social media is a mirage, rather than taking it so literally.

But of course, that’s easier said than done when self-objectification calls our free will into question since Facebook and Instagram have reportedly been psychologically designed to be addictive.

However, Instagram has recently become aware of the harmful effects it can cause on users and claims to be taking steps in reducing it. This involves others being unable to see how many likes other posts have received, allowing followers to focus more on the content rather than the number of likes a post has received.

This could also allow users to become less self-conscious, and post things according to their desires, rather than satisfying the desires of the Other.

But perhaps it is a problem beyond fixing, as there is no guarantee that hiding like counts can reasonably mitigate wanting to post content for other people’s approval. Progressing one’s influence on Instagram is fundamentally built on gaining more followers and likes, and Instagram still needs to profit by gaining more users to sell ads to.

If anything, the announcement seems to be the company acknowledging the social and mental health issues which come part-and-parcel with their platform, rather than expressing genuine remorse on the potential destruction of our social fabric. Especially when as of writing this article, these features are yet to be implemented.

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