Much has been said about how social media affects women – from harassment to the drop in so-called ‘selfie esteem’. Women use social networks more than men and have a heightened risk of social addiction; a comparison that means men’s rocky relationships with their oh-so-convenient devices are often overlooked. We still know very little about what turns men off from the online world.
Yet, some men are now turning their backs on social – and for complex reasons that tell us much about its impact on mental health. First, there is a never-ending stream of images and comparisons, meaning social media can exacerbate issues like low self-esteem and feeling emasculated. At the same time, addictive platforms present easy ways to vent aggression – often against other men.
This all comes against the backdrop of the unique struggles of 21st-century manhood. Suicide is still the biggest killer of men aged under 45 in the UK – a fact former professional footballer and wellbeing advocate Clarke Carlisle knows only too well.
The high profile Mind ambassador has called for a ‘mental health revolution’ after a string of suicide attempts and a history of depression stretching through most of his adult life. He is eloquent, candid and was once dubbed ‘Britian’s brainiest footballer’ after appearing on Countdown and Question Time.
Despite embodying a perfect vision of masculinity on the surface, Clarke continued to suffer. Today he shares his story of mental struggles and sporting pressures by speaking at events up and down the country.
According to Clarke, the stresses of modern life shouldn’t be underestimated. “21st-century life is the most frantic that has ever been on earth,” he said.
“We are bombarded with images and expectations, and the people around us are continually questioning our belief structures and identities.
“We see more images in one day than our great grandparents would have seen in a lifetime. This burden that people are carrying is absolutely incredible.”
Clarke has pointed to sporting injuries as a ‘trigger’ for his depression and anxiety. Speaking to CNN in 2018, he revealed that therapy helped him to pinpoint the onset of his depression to a 2001 knee injury. Social media was scant in 2001, but today a new generation of sportsmen have the ‘fear of missing out’ amplified by a never-ending flow of social content.
Carlisle has other concerns about the pressures of manhood in 2019 – whether you are a sportsman or not.
“On top of this, the expectation to deliver at work and at home, and to be all these different personas for different people that demand, is a heavy burden to carry.
“One of the biggest struggles that I had was discovering what type of person I was in all of this. It was a long journey for me to realise that these personas were all different parts of me – the different parts that make up a human being, and I need to respect them all as that.”
It seems modern manhood comes with new, more intense versions of age-old pressures – which perhaps explains why so men are beginning the new year by logging off.
Black Mirror actor Will Poulter quit Twitter in January 2019, naming mental health as the reason. This came after cutting responses to his role in a recent episode, including some users calling the star ‘ugly’. He pledged to continue to tweet for anti-bullying organisations.
“As we know there is a balance to be struck in our engagements with social media. There are positives to enjoy and inevitable negatives that are best avoided,” he said in a statement.
“It’s a balance I have struggled with for a while now and in the interest of my mental health I feel the time has come to change my relationship with social media.”
Kanye West was another big name to leave the platform after a string of pro-Trump tweets in September 2018. The hip hop A-lister also took Twitter breaks in May 2017 and February 2018.
This trend isn’t just confined to Hollywood, though – more than 44 percent of American Facebook users aged 18 to 29 have taken some respite from social networking in the last year, including 26 percent deleting the app indefinitely and 42 percent taking a ‘break’.
Are these high-profile male departures part of a trend – and if so, what are the issues causing men to log out for good?
Social media apps are often blamed for a rise in body image issues, but the focus is usually on women. For men, body issues are more likely to present as ‘bigorexia’ – a form of muscle dysmorphia that causes sufferers to feel smaller than they are, to exercise compulsively and be plagued by a fear of ‘withering away’.
As a new generation of boys grows up with social networks, these issues could grow. ‘Picture of Health?’, a 2016 report by Credos, suggested teenage boys were not aware of how unrealistic the images they saw online might be, despite 20 percent of boys doctoring their own images. Almost half of secondary school-aged boys would consider exercising to bulk up, 21 percent had already done so and a staggering one in ten would consider using steroids.
While male body issues tend to revolve around the muscular ideal, men generally use visual social media less than women, preferring text-based platforms like Twitter, Reddit and Digg. Men are more likely to use social to seek information rather than to build relationships, preferring abstract issues like politics over personal milestones. Men are also more likely than women to promote their professional profile on social accounts.
On the flipside, trolling and aggressive language are more strongly associated with male users – something psychologist Professor Mark Griffiths attributes to young men struggling with face-to-face communication. The same study found that trolls were more than twice as likely to target men – which could explain the steady exodus of male celebrities from platforms like Twitter.
Neither body image nor aggressive language is an exclusively male issue – at heart, these are echoes of the problems women have been discussing for years. But the way men interact with social is subtly different, so it is important to recognise how their digital struggles are unique.
If nothing else, perhaps high profile digital detoxes will prompt a wider debate on the perils of social media and cause men to pause for thought about what everyday online habits could be doing to their mental health.
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