Social media personas built on the illusion of happy, perfect lives are so tired. In 2019, it’s all about being Sad Online.
“Trendy” emotional distress on social media is part of many must-follow accounts across all platforms. Whether by retweeting the depressing relatability of the So Sad Today Twitter account (at 855,000 followers as of this writing) or commenting the obligatory “same” on a MyTherapistSays Instagram post (currently at 3.6 million). As recently immortalized by a Tim Robinson sketch in I Think You Should Leave, even if you do post pictures where you look cute and happy, it must be accompanied by a self-deprecating caption.
The era of being Sad Online is defined by a sense of reverse FOMO, a tacit agreement to redefine being cool on the internet through JOMO (the Joy of Missing Out) — then file it under social anxiety. It’s possible, though, that constantly posting about our sadness or anxiety can at times be just as performative as the #posivibes self-care culture that’s starting to feel lame.
While posting about our upsetting ass vibes may feel more real, for some it might just be a new way to fit in online.
There’s also been a flood of social media campaigns encouraging people to speak openly about their mental health. The social media hive mind has rushed to express their own genuine emotional distress with the intention of helping to normalize, destigmatize, and relate to those struggles. In our haste, though, we might’ve forgotten the fundamental and vital distinction between sad feels and the terms used to diagnose mental disorders, like anxiety and depression.
“People label their sadness as depression and their nervousness as anxiety when the problems that they’re facing often don’t reflect those psychological problems. If healthy people are convinced that they’re depressed, they ultimately identify with the glamorized social media posts, aggravating the phenomenon even more,” Jinan Jennifer Jadayel, a graduate student from the International School in Lebanon and co-author of a 2017 study that tracked social media posts about mental health.
Social media has increasingly blurred the line between what is authentic and what is performance — even within ourselves. While posting about our upsetting ass vibes may feel more real, for some, it might just be a new way to fit in online.
Don’t get us wrong: By all numerical accounts, there’s never been more people reporting mental health issues than right now — especially the young demographic that dominates social media.
A recent Pew Research study found that 7 in 10 teens think anxiety and depression are the biggest problems their peers face. The medical journal JAMA analyzed the CDC’s data showing a dramatic increase in suicide rates among Americans 15 to 24-year-olds. Beyond young people, the CDC also cites the oft-repeated statistic that 1 in 5 Americans experience mental illness in a given year. The American Psychiatric Association reported an increase of anxiety and depression among boomers in recent years, too.
We are more anxious and depressed than ever before — or at least talking about it more freely. But the trendiness of sad online culture may lead to wrongful self-diagnoses and an inadvertent trivialization of serious illnesses.
“More and more teenagers are convinced that depression, anxiety, anorexia, and bipolarity are ‘cool’ or can make you ‘special,'” says Rola Jadayel, another co-author of the social media study and professor of sciences at the University of Balamand in Lebanon.
The study focused on a specific type of Tumblr and Instagram post which blatantly glorifies mental health issues through specific hashtags (you know the type). By portraying them as appealing on social media, the research suggests, more people identify with these misrepresentations, which can lead to all sorts of harm.
“For some people, especially when you’re young, there is a bit of a pull to join a group. And the group of people with social anxiety or depression feels like one you can easily join,” says Natasha Tracy, who developed her own online following by blogging and then writing a book, Lost Marbles, about her severe bipolar disorder…