As we’re entering a new stage of lockdown, I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned over the last few months. To read, please see my Medium article – I’d love to hear about your experiences too.
I am delighted to have had an article published in Areo Magazine – an outlet I have long admired. Areo is on online magazine focussing on current affairs, in particular, humanism, reason, science, politics, culture and human rights. Named after Milton’s speech in defence of freedom of speech, Areo publishes essays from a variety of political and social perspectives – something I have previously highlighted the importance of. As a result, I am proud to have been published by an institution that promotes ‘the unfettered freedom to explore, think, and challenge ideas and concepts’.
I wrote my piece following the death of Caroline Flack by suicide at the weekend. Caroline was a popular British presenter who had received exceptional public and media attention throughout her career. Since her death, there has been a great deal of criticism levelled at the British media and this led to me to consider the extent to which we can (or should) hold others responsible for our mental health.
The article is available here, but if you are unfamiliar with Areo’s work, please take some time to have a look around while you are there. Do also feel free to leave any comments, as I’d be keen to hear your thoughts!
‘That’s a little extreme!’ I hear you say, but think about it: Influencer culture is driven by, and rewards, self-obsession. It also encourages shallowness, materialism, misinformation and ignorance; none of which is conducive to creating a well-functioning society. Pre-social media, Influencers would have been dismissed as narcissists or fakes with too much time on their hands. However, since the late 2010’s, such people have been rewarded with media fame and gifts ranging from cosmetic samples to luxury holidays. The problem is that rewarding any behaviour reinforces and encourages it (as anyone who has used treats to train a dog knows). Similarly, others see these rewards and understandably want a piece of the action. As a result we have a growing number of aspiring ‘Influencers’ who will emulate the aforementioned behaviours in order to receive the same rewards.
The most disheartening aspect of this is that a recent survey showed that ‘Social Media Influencer’ and ‘Youtuber’ came second and third place in a list of what children wanted to be when they grew up. Ultimately, who can blame the children – they see beautiful people in exclusive places being given free products for taking nice pictures of themselves – who wouldn’t want such a ‘blessed’ life?! The problem is that once we start to base our worth on external sources (such as approval from followers or brands), we are at their mercy. As the old adage goes, happiness comes from within, so once we start to rely on external sources for validation, any perceived decrease in support from them will be seen as a personal failure.
Being judged by others is particularly problematic when our worth is defined by our looks. Indeed, many Influencers admit to taking thousands of pictures of themselves, with hours, and sometimes days, being spent critiquing every single picture, searching for flaws in order to weed out any that are less than perfect. Clearly as well as encouraging self-obsession, this can lead to an overly critical way of viewing one’s body, with body dissatisfaction being a leading risk factor in the development of eating disorders. Unfortunately, this dissatisfaction is not only limited to the Influencers themselves, it also spreads to viewers of the images, who are bombarded with often manipulated photos produced by people who have the time and the tools to create ‘perfect’ images.
Worryingly, even ‘health’ and ‘fitness’ Influencers follow a similar pattern. Certainly in relation to fitness, the emphasis still seems to be on the appearance associated with being fit rather than being healthy. Again, prioritising appearance can lead to problems related to body dysmorphia, eating disorders, and exercise obsession. The damage also comes from the advice the Influencers give: for example, as well as the aforementioned disorders, a similar illness associated with an obsession with ‘clean eating’ has developed in recent years. We certainly don’t have to look far to see Influencers extolling the virtues of clean eating, usually with no relevant qualifications or knowledge to back up their claims. Since they are not subject to the checks and standards that professionals are, they are free to disseminate their opinions under the guise of advice.
Here, the companies that support Influencers carry the burden of responsibility. By using, and promoting, individuals who spread misinformation, they are complicit in the damage caused by this misinformation. Similarly, they are also promoting the self-obsessed, materialistic lifestyle associated with the Influencer industry. While clearly, the goal of these companies is to sell products (to the ‘fools’ who don’t dedicate their lives to becoming Influencers!), they can choose who they reward with free gifts. While perhaps they don’t have time to create the perfect ‘insta-worthy’ image to promote the products, I for one, would prefer gifts to go to those who spend their time helping others (think of our emergency service workers, NHS workers, carers, volunteers etc), and would support any company that similarly prioritised such people.
So what do we have to do if we want to ‘save’ society? First, as consumers, we need to stop following Influencers. After all, if they have no followers, there will be no incentive for companies to support them. We need to call out the misinformation they promote: nutritionists, doctors, psychologists and healthcare professionals all need to counter the pseudo-‘experts’ with evidence-based facts. We also need to boycott the companies that use Influencers; by putting our money where are mouths are, we can show companies that we won’t support those who encourage such a damaging industry. Alternatively, we can support companies that gift to people who dedicate their time to helping others (therefore rewarding kind and positive behaviour). Ultimately, the power lies with us: we need to think the kind of society we want for ourselves and our children, and fight to create it.