COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) – Students are settling into normalcy after returning to school in-person following the pandemic.
But physically being back on campus wasn’t the only focus, for some students, it was also how they physically appeared.
“I think a lot of times people say ‘Oh, I see models and they look so great,’ but I even think seeing people you know, like they look so amazing, or they’re working out,” explains college student, Kiki Gushue, “You just start to feel kind of bad about yourself.”
Gushue is describing what a lot of people experience in our connected world today – social comparison.
It’s nothing new for a young adult.
“I follow a lot of athletes and all that so you know, obviously seeing them in the best shape of their lives, it could play a part, and you know I kind of want to be like that,” says college student, Uriel Coffi.
Whether someone famous or someone you know, social comparison happens every day.
Most students know that what they see online might not be real, but it’s almost as if it doesn’t always matter.
“You compare your life to other people’s lives,” says student Jacie Smith, “And you’re not sure how much of it is fake.”
Recent reporting from the Wall Street Journal claims Instagram knows its platform is harmful to young users, especially teen girls.
However, the conclusions of that report don’t change how young people use the app, in fact, what’s changing is how they see themselves.
“I even knew a girl who would save pictures of people to her Instagram to look at them and compare herself to and use as like, inspiration,” says Gushue.
Whether it be inspiration or comparison, WSJ reports that internal Instagram research found about a third of teen girls who feel bad about their bodies, say Instagram made them feel worse.
But, what’s often not kept in mind is the use of filters and the practice of editing when comparing yourself to others online.
According to a study done by the International Journal of Women’s Dermatology, 65 percent of 18-24 year-olds who use filters on social media, also sought mental health services.
“I actually took a break from social media during my senior year of high school,” says Smith, “I was having a lot of mental health issues and I entered counseling treatments and so I just decided to kind of cut myself off from social media, so I wasn’t comparing my life to other people’s lives and it made me a lot happier.”
But a break from social media, couldn’t keep students from logging on to Zoom over the past year. Whether it was school, a doctor’s appointment or just hanging out with friends, all of our lives were taken online.
And a new problem emerged, one called ‘Zoom Dysmorphia’.
“Think about this, before Zoom, everything was a very outward experience so if I’m meeting you at a coffee shop or at a school, I’m seeing you and not myself,” explains Priyam Mithawala, a Doctor of Pharmacy from Presbyterian College, “Versus when the Zoom started, the experience became very inward so sure I’m looking at you, but I’m sure I’m also looking at my camera and looking at my face.”
Mithawala co-authored a study on underlying body dysmorphic disorder in patients with Zoom dysmorphia.
She found that continuous Zoom use caused distress for those dealing not only with BDD but those with body dissatisfaction in general.
“Depending on what study you’re reading – 85 to 95 percent of women specifically would say I dislike or I’m highly dissatisfied with my body,” explains Kristi Clements, a licensed professional counselor in Columbia.
So what happened when students were faced with their own face and no filter over the course of the year?
Well, researchers say some people became unhappy with the way they look as a result of looking at themselves.
“You’re only focusing and thinking about you’re looking, how can you fix your nose, your wrinkles, your acne, so it becomes very much a vanity issue,” says Mithawala.
Clements explains what she’s seen in her own practice, “A lot of my clients have said they’ll spend time getting ready for that English class, that even when they’re going to school, they’re just not going to spend as much time on that because it’s in their face the whole time when they’re seeing themselves [on Zoom].”
College student Kailee Clanton agrees, “I would get ready just to show my face. I would do my hair, makeup, everything just to try to look good for people just seeing my face on the screen.”
After speaking to Clanton in person, on-campus, she pointed at herself, saying, “Today, I probably wouldn’t look like this on a Zoom call.”
But Clements says worrying about what’s in that tiny little box can come at a pretty high cost, “Their cognitive load that they’re using during that class, I’ve said so many times, you’re in Algebra! You’re not there to compare who you look like to other people.”
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