Britney Spears and mental health online

Don’t you know that you’re toxic?

Fake. Self-promotional. “A breeding ground for dishonesty”.

Social media often gets a bad rep.

Its deceptive nature has made the headlines yet again in recent days. The revelations of Britney Spear’s conservatorship case gets to the complex core of why and how people use social media.

Many have already thought long and hard about these questions. Devoted fans have scoured Britney’s social media posts for years, trying to decipher her every utterance and dance move for secret messages from the pop star. Convinced she was being controlled unfairly by her father and legal guardian, James Spears, the #FreeBritney movement was born in 2009.

But what can the lengthy legal battle really tell us about how social media makes us feel?

Like all good celebrity trials, it turns out that there are two opposing sides to consider, but in this case, only is getting the airtime. The social = evil argument. However, Britney’s situation reminds us that social media can be empowering, supportive and confidence-building – and not just soul-crushing and isolating, as it’s often portrayed.

This social media, is killing me

That’s not to say that the gloomy stereotype is untrue.

Social media’s negative effects on our well-being are well-documented. One study from the University of Michigan found that over a third of people report being unhappy following their most recent log-in on Facebook. Another by Humboldt University found it breeds feelings of envy, as the site encourages an arms race to share our happiness through images of sunny holidays, lavish dinners and exciting parties. Insecurity builds as we begin to resent others’ idealised lives and the image of ourselves that we feel obliged to portray.

Social can, in short, be a tough and alienating place.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Vacation image social media

I must confess, I still believe

The Britney Spears case tells the opposite, and often untold story, about social media’s positive impact on our wellbeing. It can be empowering. Supportive. Uplifting.

Just ask Britney.

In a recent Instagram post following her explosive court hearing, she describes how social media had helped her feel better about herself when she was at her lowest:

“I believe as people we all want the fairy tale life and by the way I’ve posted … my life seems to look and be pretty amazing. […] I apologize for pretending like I’ve been ok the past two years … I did it because of my pride and I was embarrassed to share what happened to me … but honestly who doesn’t want to capture their Instagram in a fun light 💡🤷🏼‍♀️ !!!! Believe it or not pretending that I’m ok has actually helped. […] I feel like Instagram has helped me have a cool outlet to share my presence … existence … and to simply feel like I matter despite what I was going through and hey it worked …”

Britney’s story is an untold tale of overcoming adversity thanks to – not because of – social media. Our ability to reach and connect with like-minded and supportive people online (that we would otherwise never meet) is a lifeline to many who are isolated in ‘real life’. As we found in our work on loneliness for the British Red Cross, the anonymity of social media offers a safe space for people (not just celebrities) to express themselves and share their personal experiences.

And “feeling like you matter” on social, as Britney puts it, can quite literally ease your pain. Lieberman’s 2009 study concluded that looking at digital images of family and friends has pain-dulling effects that are twice as powerful as physical contact. Having an outlet where you can even momentarily escape feelings of anxiety, pain or depression and focus on loved ones can be hugely motivational.

Social likes and hearts

Hit up social one more time

So the power of empathy on social is immense and unsung. Britney has done everyone who ever felt lonely, sad, or misunderstood a huge service by speaking openly about how social media got her through it.

Sure, many become trapped in the pitfalls of one-upmanship and peer pressure on social networks.

But social media can – and does – help many.

So now is the time for us to take over where Britney left off.

We must begin by acknowledging and applauding social’s use for good.

The next step is to go out of our way to be more supportive, empathetic and attentive to those who are most in need of its mental health benefits.

Online and off.

By Louise Alestam


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