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.
Can we please stop romanticizing anxiety and depression? It’s not trendy, cute or special. Having mental health problems isn’t beautiful and is not something to be a stupid trend on an app called Tik Tok. You don’t fucking want anxiety or depression, they are not QUIRKY traits.. pic.twitter.com/sYAryLkXqs
— Mental health (@DisorderSad) February 24, 2019
“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.
In these jaded times, meme-ing, tweeting, instagramming, and tik-toking about anxiety and depression isn’t just for coping. It can act as a guise of honesty — especially to youth desperately seeking authenticity and connection in a virtual social environment that tends to distort it.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t or can’t talk openly about mental health issues online. But Tracy believes that the popular social media discourse around mental health is often too far from the truth to be helpful.
“There’s this group think that starts to believe that’s all mental illness is: some mild anxiety and a breathing exercise,” she says. “It normalizes a version of mental illness that isn’t realistic for those of us who actually have serious mental illness. Someone with severe anxiety disorder is going to need a whole heck of a lot more than breathing exercises, you know.”
However, what may seem mild from the outside can feel severe to the person experiencing the symptom, and the only real judge regarding impact can be a mental health professional. The problem then isn’t that more people are sharing their mental health experiences on social media, but that some people are glorifying or misappropriating those issues without proper context. Obviously, there are also layers of nuance and degrees to what kind of social posts lead to serious harm.
Two key factors involved in the most potent and dangerous posts, according to the University of Balamand study, are aesthetic visuals and a person to identify with. That’s why the research centered on image-heavy platforms like Tumblr and Instagram, since they illicit the biggest responses and are also the most heavily used by teens, who are particularly vulnerable.
While the study didn’t account much for video, the researchers believe that those key factors are heightened by that type of content. Since the study published, Tumblr has fallen out of popularity, but young influencers have flocked to Tik Tok and Snapchat. Those platforms are designed for video content that makes followers feel a personal connection to the creator, to see them as aspirationally relatable.
And that can be particularly dangerous.
Since imagery and influence are involved, it’s reasonable to infer that the Instagram marketing of Sad Society clothes (99,000 followers), “Anxiety Queen” influencer t-shirts, or necklaces immortalizing ones’ alleged disorder may qualify as some of the more potentially harmful, as opposed to your throwaway tweet conflating laziness with clinical depression.
The long history behind the rise of sad online culture
The concept of beautiful teen tragedy is far from new. Schools teach teens Romeo and Juliet, arguably the hipsters who romanticized suicide centuries before it became cool online. The ’90s had its own version of trendy sadness, too.
“It’s been around for as long as teenagers have been around,” says Janis Whitlock, a Cornell University professor studying the confluence of social media and mental illness. “The hierarchy of the most depressed was a ’90s phenomenon: Who’s the most sad, most anxious, got the most fucked up family? The stigma was always there, too, but within sub-communities there’s competition over who’s worse off. And now, there’s all these new platforms.”
Social media creates an abundance of small sub-communities where this kind of tragedy olympics reaches an unprecedented amount of people at lightning speed. That isn’t always bad, but the virality is undeniable.
Being sad online has authentic roots, too, popularized by one of the most influential sub-groups who defined early web culture: Internet Sad Girls. A decade ago the aesthetic of pale, melancholic, artsy angsty teen Tumblr girls grew so popular that it paved the way for pop stars like sad vamp queen Lana Del Ray. Sad internet girls not only had their own manifesto, but a feminist philosophy called Sad Girl Theory, penned by artist Audrey Wollen (who goes by Tragic Queen on Instagram).
I hate this. I WISH I could take my anxiety off like a necklace but instead it’s a choker that gets tighter & tighter when I go out in public, or lay in bed at night, or whenever it wants. Romanticizing mental illness isn’t cute. Making profits off of mental illness isn’t cute. https://t.co/HWZ0NyVeci
— mo huntley (@mohuntley) May 29, 2018
While not necessarily encouraging a movement, the theory posited that the trend was a form of political protest. Young girls finally felt free expressing their experiences of pain under patriarchal oppression through web art and personas. That’s largely the impetus for social media accounts like Sad Girls Club, an organization with 170,000 Instagram followers aimed at helping women of color with mental illness by providing them with a community.
Elyse Fox, founder of the Sad Girls Club, identified with the Sad Internet Girl at an early age because no one else was helping her make sense of her struggles. “It was a bit shameful to be considered a Sad Girl back then. Today Sad Girls have reclaimed the name and use it as a place of acceptance and familiarity, owning their mental woes and creating community,” she says.
Sad Girl culture grew up, became mainstream in celebrity and internet culture, then ironically led to a commodification of sadness.
Sad Girl culture grew up, became mainstream among celebrity and on the internet, then ironically led to an insincere commodification of both sadness and self-care that was the antithesis of its original intent.
“It sometimes worries me that people are buying into mental health conversations for the wrong reasons. Companies are trying to capitalize off the Sad Internet Girl movement, but they’re only hot for the moment,” says Amani Richardson, editor-in-chief of the Sad Girls Club.
“To some, unfortunately, glamorization of mental health disorders is a trend that pays back a high number of followers, providing a false sense of high esteem,” adds study co-author Rola Jadayel.
It isn’t just young influencers, though. Though well-meaning, more and more celebrities are contributing to a certain type of glamorization by “coming out” about dealing with their own anxiety and depression. Inherently, celebrities are idolized by those same young people who are vulnerable to glamorized mental health struggle. And as celebrities, their struggles are often packaged as inspiring narrative missing the harsh realities of facing those struggles.
“The issue is that people like myself with severe illnesses like bipolar actually don’t see themselves in these public images of mental illness. They don’t reflect my reality,” says Tracy. “People want to wrap things up in a bow — so everything’s going to be OK in the end. But the reality of living with severe illness is that many of us will never see the kind of recovery people with more minor disorders experience.”
Caught between glamorization and destigmatization
There is no quick and dirty guide for how we can do sad online culture responsibly.
“Both are happening online, with obvious examples of glorification and obvious examples of normalization that allow people to get the support they need,” says Whitlock, the Cornell professor. “But there’s a lot of gray in between, and the answer of whether or not it does more harm than good depends on who’s reading it and what their personal filters for perception are.”
The answer isn’t a wholesale eradication — which isn’t possible even if we wanted it. Like many things in 2019, what we need is more careful consideration.
For Tracy, she finds the difference between glorifying versus destigmatizing in her blogs by keeping them grounded in reality, entrenched in her experiences without adding frills and leaning in whenever it gets too uncomfortable.
“Once we do that, the positive and negative effects of talking about mental illnesses online shrink away because what we’re doing is just having a real discussion,” she says.
Similarly, Richardson ensures the Sad Girls Club pays close attention to their language so it speaks to something beyond comforting, commodified buzzwords like “self-care” and “self-love.”
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RP: @crazyheadcomics “Did you know: you’re not immune to mental illness just because you live a good life. it doesn’t matter how good your job is, how nice your family is, how many friends you have – you can still develop a mental illness. when i first started experiencing depression, i felt guilty because i was so privileged, there was nothing wrong with the outside world, everything was perfect yet i felt depressed. but it doesn’t matter. no matter how awful life can get, no matter how beautiful life can be, depression does not discriminate. i’m tired of people thinking that depression is unjustified if you live a good life, because that’s not how it works. you don’t decide whether you fall ill or not. feeling depressed despite your life going right? don’t add an extra layer of guilt. mental illness can happen to anyone, no matter how great things are going.”
A post shared by Sad Girls Club (@sadgirlsclub) on
Both Whitlock and the women at Sad Girls Club also emphasize the need to consider what happens after people get virtual support through these online communities.
“Is that online feeling of support too fleeting? Does it lead to significant changes in offline behavior that help people get better? Are they more likely to go to therapy? I don’t know. But what happens next is a hugely important question,” says Whitlock.
The sad online revolution we need
There is hope that both users and creators of social media platforms are slowly coming to understand the ramifications of careless trend following when it comes to sad internet culture.
Instagram made efforts to block glamorizing content, banning known problematic hashtags like #proana (pro anorexia) and highlighting #socialanxiety posts that are actually about seeking help rather than clothing brands. Even Tumblr, though close to extinct, is cracking down on its free-wheeling policies by pushing support pages and resources for anyone who searches #suicide.
What led us to spiral out of control here may help us rein ourselves back in: a change in social media culture can be part of the solution to the problem it created. Humans naturally adapt to new environments, and also build their environments to suit their needs — particularly in the virtual world.
“Adaptability is what makes us both wonderful and terrible,” says Whitlock. “We can easily forget what’s healthy — can adapt to really unhealthy environments quickly. And it so often feels somehow right even when it’s not.”
If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. For international resources, this list is a good place to start.