The Seemingly Positive Toxic Messages on Social Media

Threats to young minds disguised as support

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Image courtesy of author // Mutasim Billah

The other day, my girlfriend was scrolling through TikTok (her go-to giggle solution) and I was peeking onto her screen. I claim that I don’t like the platform, but I still sneak in for some quick laughs.

We stumbled upon a video where a woman says she had a productive day (work and workout, if I can recall) and had a burger to treat herself in the end.

She said “It’s okay” to treat yourself and that one shouldn’t feel ashamed or anxious about being kind to oneself.

The message meant well, without a doubt.

Yet I became immediately concerned how this message could be misinterpreted by the unintended audience, causing undesired effects.

“What if people who have goal weights to reach and are planning their meals carefully feel enabled by this message and end up treating themselves against their well-thought plans?”, I said.

“What if, it acts as a gateway drug and throws them off the momentum, making them feel like they’ve failed?”

My girlfriend was taken aback by my hypothesis. She was seeing an entirely different side of the story.

Countless women around the world suffer from body image issues to the point where they form toxic habits of being too strict on them, chasing their ideal (read: unhealthy standards constructed by society and the media) body type.

She emphasized that they need to be reminded that they are beautiful however they are and it’s okay to treat yourself once in a while — it’s okay to just live.

She argued that people who have the stability of mind to set goals, eat healthy, keep a track record and maintain momentum don’t spiral into the abyss of self-indulgence and self-loathing by a mere 20 second message.

I agreed with her, to a great extent, but I wasn’t convinced my hypothesis was too far off.

Let’s say the case I present is not very likely. Is that good enough though? Videos like those pop-up every once in a while. If they unintentionally harm a very small group, should we simply ignore them? Is that even fair?

Or, do we need to re-learn putting more thoughts into our words, the audience it may reach and how it will affect them when we send something away into the web-sphere literally in a matter of seconds?

Shouldn’t we re-learn how to filter, interpret and relate to what we see, hear and read on social media, regardless of how well-intended the messages are and how well-produced the content?

The Audience Suffers from Bias and Naivety

Bettina J. Casad, an Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychological Sciences, University of Missouri–St. Louis defines confirmation bias as the tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs. “This biased approach to decision making is largely unintentional and often results in ignoring inconsistent information.”

There’s probably no one who can claim to be free of confirmation bias. It’s incredibly difficult to stay aware because human beings are inherently attracted to the familiar and avert ideas and people that challenge their convictions.

This makes the inept bombardment of awareness, motivation and consolation on social media dangerous at the receiving end.

One major player in this bias is toxic self-acceptance. While admittedly we need more “It’s okay …” reminders to soothe self-loathing souls, they can potentially hinder healthy introspection and self-correction.

I’ve even seen people in their 50s and 60s who I personally know to have conspired against others’ happiness share posts that say “Cut toxic people out of your life for your own happiness.” Even when they destroy relationships single-handedly out of sheer envy, they believe it’s the other person to be blamed when they’re abandoned.

Instead of recognizing their own toxicity as a factor of abandonment, they grabbed a bite of floating validation and moved on with their business — even if it’s in fear of confronting their own insecure self.

When a quote says something to the effect of “People who love you will always support you through everything”, the word support doesn’t necessarily mean agree with. One can wholeheartedly disagree with a loved one and yet stand by them unconditionally.

However, to a mind that is young and naive, this maybe a gateway to conclude that anyone in disagreement with them simply doesn’t love them enough.

Having taught tens of teens, in classrooms and individually, I’m quite familiar with how these strong messages get them onboard with little thought.

Just a while ago, I saw an image caption on Instagram — “Your value does not change even when someone does not see it.”

It concerns me because the youth often doesn’t know that value is vague and subjective. They’re unaware it’s important to have a lifestyle and make choices that improves and safeguards one’s self-worth but the same person can have different value to different people — based on their relationship, skills, what they look for in a person etc. and that none of them are essentially wrong.

One-liners like that mean next to nothing. They’re ambiguous and easily misinterpreted, and repeated exposure to them can potentially determine a person’s worldview.

At least until they’ve gathered enough experiences and learned enough things the hard way — to revise the way they look at life and themselves — exposure to one-liners can be potentially dangerous.

To a mature reader this may seem far-fetched and exaggerated. I would be making a mount out of a molehill in a different reality, but the world we live in largely shapes personalities and mindsets of the youth through social media and popular opinion, as much as, if not more than schools and parents do.

Why is it a Big Deal?

I’m aware that my reaction to harmless messages on social media can come across as paranoid. I seem to be making a mountain out of a molehill when there’s unrestricted access to pornography and violence. Having acknowledged that, while we’re still on topic, my concerns stem from these facts —

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Image courtesy: Mutasim Billah (author). Data source: Oberlo
  • Concepts like body image and health, beauty standards and confidence, gender equality and depression are extremely sensitive. Misleading content (usually coming from people’s personal accounts and experiences) on these topics can potentially disrupt their view of self, society and identity. Social media largely ignores psychological and physiological science and research, or in-depth assessment of these issues.

What Can We Do?

Dealing with the youth is difficult. It’s easy to profess putting more work into sex education in classrooms or better parenting.

But kids are too cool to sit down and listen to boring teachers. They’re looking to create the next viral meme out of a teacher.

They’re too cool to listen to parents, because (a) parents don’t speak their language, (b) they have better things to do than listen you lecture and © a lot of times parents haven’t educated themselves enough to have a mature discussion with children.

They may be young and fidgety, but they talk smart, and if you can’t put your smarty pants on, regardless of how solid your facts are, they’ll leave you in the dust.

I know, because I’ve managed teenagers inside and outside classroom for a decade.

But there are innovative ways of battling bad information with good information:

Educate yourself first

If you care about stopping misinformation, the first step is to do your own research. Read, read and read. And listen. Listen to medical experts and psychologists. Read up on history.

If you’re a parent or a teacher, it’s of utmost importance that you create a community with others in your shoes to have a discussion and make yourself aware about all the trending topics.

Be on the platforms

If you don’t know what they’re exposed to, you can’t guide them to anything better. As much as you don’t like or don’t understand TikTok and the likes of it, make an effort and spend some time everyday knowing the nooks and corners of these platforms.

Use their own stars to deliver a better message

This generation loves their influencers and people who went viral on the platforms. Get in touch with them, have them collaborate with experts to deliver better messages — be it on health, self-image, psychology, society, gender and equality. Anything that matters. Educate, collaborate, propagate.

Learn their lingo

If you’re not their parent, you may still be their client, or they may be yours. Having a communication gap with a younger generation is no excuse to leave them ignorant and misguided. Tune in to the music they listen to, the games they play, the people they admire and idolize. Ask them why they appreciate what they appreciate and the same for what they disapprove of.

Show genuine interest in their life. Not curiosity or supervision. Interest. A true effort to be their friend and you don’t necessarily need to be a parent or a teacher to have that mindset.

Having an attitude that social media is inherently harmful is a counterproductive. Social media is a powerful tool for connecting, marketing, educating, uniting and beyond.

But with any technology or tool it’s up to us as individuals and societies to determine how it will be put to use. And with any new generation, it’s up to us who have lived some years in adulthood to ensure they know better, live better and do better.

The future is in their hands.

If they’re unaware, we’re screwed.

Written by

“Sugarcoats are not in fashion” • Economist, teacher, photographer • Stockholm, Sweden • All posts: tiny.cc/22b5tz

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