Practice Safe Scrolling

Photo courtesy of the author

It’s the first thing you reach for when you wake up in the morning. It’s the reflexive urge you get whenever you have a pocket of free time. It’s the instinct so deeply drilled into your subconscious that you have to put your phone on airplane mode just to finish a reading. It’s The Scroll.

We all know that feeling of being tethered to social media, so attuned to the rhythm of scroll tap-tap that it becomes muscle memory. We are university students, after all. We all want to be in the know, aware of how one friend spent their weekend clubbing, the other at an indie concert…and is that a picture of Kyle in Old Port? Good for him for venturing outside the McGill bubble during midterm season. Instagram seems tailor-made for our competitive, always-on-the-go campus atmosphere.

And while these apps offer us constant social stimulation, they also seem to exacerbate our school’s problems concerning mental health and well-being. Just as McGill students might feel like they are comparing themselves to the students at the top end of the bell curve, social media, too, can cause some serious feelings of inadequacy. Much has been said already about the correlation between social media use and the meteoric rise of anxiety disorders amongst teenagers. Similar commentary has been made about body image issues, especially among adolescent girls. The supermodels we idolize are no longer Hollywood celebrities in some glossy grocery store magazine, but now just regular folks who took thirty shots in portrait mode and shared the best one. The impossible standards of picture-perfect lives are perpetuated by friends—people you know—who rake in hundreds of digital ‘likes’ on every post. If Instagram is purely detrimental, though, why don’t we all just delete this app for good?

The impossible standards of picture-perfect lives are perpetuated by friends—people you know

Well, because Instagram is not the problem. The problem is the mindlessness of The Scroll.  Today, our education on how to consume social media in a way conducive to our own well-being is rudimentary at best. Instead of preaching how Instagram is the end of civilization—a tactic most young people find didactic and will simply filter out—adults and educators should instead advocate for a higher sense of social media literacy. We should scroll actively, not passively, and we should do so with a constant awareness of the calculations and artifice that goes into forming our feeds.

The rise of social media influencers emphasizing self-acceptance reflects the beginnings of this change of awareness. Accounts like @iweigh challenge women (and men!) to share photos of themselves annotated with the intangible traits that compose their “weight”: their experiences, their resilience, their relationships with friends and family—anything but the number on the scale. Similar accounts like @bodypositivememes deconstruct popular notions surrounding beauty standards, parodying memes that promote self-loathing or shame. Of-course, inspirational quotes and photos of smiling, plus-size models are not going to erase body image issues from social media. Still, to interrupt your regularly scheduled programming of hamster videos and trendy ice cream treats with a dose of positive thinking can be sobering.

More important than who you add to your feed, however, is who you drop. Recently, I have been talking to friends about tailoring our social media accounts to better reflect the type of content we want to see. These conversations lead into thorough Follower-cleanses. Walking through our Follower lists on Instagram, we ask ourselves, have this person’s posts ever made me feel bad about the way I look, or about any other aspects of my lifestyle? Is this feeling of inadequacy something that occurs chronically or just occasionally? Tapping the ‘unfollow’ button on an account that makes you feel unworthy can be liberating, and it is a great reminder that we can assert control over what appears on our news-feeds.

Besides, social media isn’t some one-dimensional, B-movie monster, despite the foreboding tone teachers used when discussing it in class. It can connect us with friends from across the world, and it can keep us up-to-date on the lives of people we care about. It can be a tool for activism, for celebration, and for self-expression. To paint social media platforms as inherently dangerous is to ignore their nuance and more positive effects. What is dangerous is using social media without any consciousness or control, sharing the highlights of our own lives without being aware that everyone else is doing the same thing.

Tapping the ‘unfollow’ button on an account that makes you feel unworthy can be liberating, and it is a great reminder that we can assert control over what appears on our news-feeds.

When we consume news, we also learn tools to recognize bias. When we watch television, we teach children not to accept everything they see as fact. Where are the public service announcements for social media literacy? The ones that promote self-acceptance and exhort teenagers to unsubscribe from accounts that corrode their confidence?

No such campaigns exist, but I think we can lead one through our own actions. Many of us at McGill—whether as camp counsellors or older siblings—are role-models to young people in some way. By practicing safe scrolling and asserting control over the type of content we consume, we can set a precedent for future generations. This will help us all see the hollowness of portrait-mode perfection. #nofilter.


  • Emily says:

    This piece is very well-written and insightful. I definitely agree that mindful social media use can certainly ameliorate feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. However, I think that safe scrolling should apply to not only the quality of the content you consume, but also the quantity. Dismissing the role that apps like Instagram actively play in fostering frequent phone usage is letting them off the hook for an even worse crime than eroding our self-esteem – stealing our time.

    • Sam Shepherd says:

      Thanks for sharing, Emily. I also agree with you—controlling the amount of time on social media will definitely help mitigate its harmful effects. Did you know that both Apple, Instagram, and Facebook have recently implemented features that allow you to control how much time you spend on their apps? I think for this piece I wanted to focus on controlling the type of content consumed on social media, not just how much of it, because it seems like a more realistic first step for a generation already glued to their phones.

  • Chev says:

    I enjoyed this read Sam, but I especially like the parts that extend to, for the lack of better wording, fake news, or posts that negatively affect how we view our /lifestyle/. I would love to see a follow-up on those areas specifically, because we all hear about body image issues they cause, and it sometimes seems like critiques forget to see the negativities outside that bubble. I’m glad you covered more than just that.

  • Liam says:

    Insightful read. Really like the comparison to the way we register bias in news.

  • B says:

    Interesting ideas, well expressed. Look forward to further posts by this excellent writer.

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