Social Media Cults, and the Appropriation of Mental Health

These predatory clans reside a lot closer to your child than you think. All it takes is a phone and an internet connection.

A focus on a charismatic, desirable but dangerous cause. Coercive brainwashing, and no place for critical thinking and the lack of questioning of the association. No perceived understandable reason to leave and delirious fears of that outside of the community. Exploitation and documentation of manipulative harmful behaviors of vulnerable participants by outside sources (Ross). By these set of characteristics, many may think of a harmful, terrifying cult. Unfortunately, these characteristics are perfectly applicable to the online spaces many young impressionable teenagers engage with without supervision every day. The glorification of disabilities and mental disorders has destroyed the lives of many in online communities, including teenage-dominated platforms like Tumblr and TikTok. Adolescents participating in discussions about mental and neurological conditions on social networking platforms is extremely harmful because it sensationalizes dangerous illnesses, disregards the actual issue that’s causing the specific person to participate in such alarming activities, and promotes dark behaviors by convincing a vulnerable, but mentally well person to hurt themselves or others.

Beautiful Suffering, Tumblr

Tumblr, an enormously successful social networking platform that has left a staple on the social phenomena and culture that defines the first two generations in human history to have grown up with this new age of instant communication has amassed 72 billion posts made on the platform (Costill). With this consideringly massive number, there is no doubt that a plethora of problematic and harmful content exists and is being constantly shared and supported. These posts and the users who interact with them are specifically sensationalizing and simultaneously stigmatizing dangerous conditions and their respective symptoms. The impact of these dangerous ideas has been carefully evaluated and concluded to be disturbingly high, with consequences even more alarming.

Many juvenile girls desire to look like emaciated people because of the warped perception of beauty in communities that glamourize eating disorders (Bine). Being abnormally thin, and this being promoted as the highest level of outward attraction that one could obtain is remarkably risky as it normalizes the symptoms of a category of dysfunctions, a category that includes the deadliest mental illness (DeNoon). The obsession of being so slender to the point of bodily harm is exclusive to the social network. This platform and the circles that groom adolescence into this fixation are one of the many horrifying threats to ignorant audiences that are auspiciously hidden under the electrifying gimmicks surrounding social media applications with a target a young impressionable audience (Bine).

Depression is disgustingly misrepresented similar to eating disorders. Photographs that include repulsive subject matter are often edited and formatted in a way that makes them look euphoric and attractive. Eloquently written and gripping poems and quotes, subliminally manipulating the observer into thinking normal coming of age feelings means that there is something wrong with them, but painting this trait as alluring and mysterious, and furthering the ignorant reader into a path of incredibly dark self-deprecating habits, is the basis of the formula applied to massively expand this peculiar ideology (Bine).

Unfortunately, the harm goes beyond the users making and interacting with the post. It cuts deep for actual sufferers because “. . . [Tumblr provides] . . . readily accessible sea of dark poetry could easily drown out those whose suffering has reached the clinical level” (Bine). Firstly, this makes the general public see the illness as nothing but a glamourized aesthetic-based personality, just hyperbole of how mentally healthy may feel under the weather sometimes. This is far from the truth as depressive diseases are severely challenging to deal with, can prohibit one’s ability to perform basic functions integral to daily lives, and in many cases has proven to be fatal. This warped definition and the masses that view it have made loves unbearable for one’s living from the disorder as it causes medical professionals to be more suspicious of the victim’s struggles and severity of their illness. This in cause, leads to fewer resources and proper types of treatment to heal the individual, putting them at great harm. A lack of empathy from coworkers, bosses, partners, and family members can occur, causing the victim to go undergo great stress, a perhaps deadly combination when intertwined with their already debilitating illness (Bine).

As well as the change of meaning of what it means to be depressed, specifically the distortion stereotyping the word as plainly upset artistically and dramatically, the concept of the illness has been appropriated by a new age evil, users who operate their accounts like a dystopian business and have no boundaries and morals, even when it comes to hurting their supporters and others in regards to their mental stability. The participators in these explosive communities have successfully commodified depressive and similar mental disorders. The massive amounts of followers and success are not surprising for such a pliable audience to generously throw a content creator, but the temptation to manipulate and harm such members is unmistakably high for such people with great psychopathic tendencies. Furthermore, the mass spread of such accounts and characters on this platform is for the reason of how easy it is to produce the content that the communities are centered on (Bine). Picking up a device and connecting to these communities can fill a user with a strong sense of euphoria and belonging as the, “ . . . online cultivation of beautiful sadness is easy to join: anyone can take a picture, turn it black and white, pair it with a quote about misunderstood turmoil, and automatically be gratified with compassion and pity” (Bine). In addition to this tempting behavior, followers are heavily pressured in committing vile promotional activities, such as advertising their suffering and inner turmoil to participate in such cliques. This normalizes the objectification of issues that arise of depressive disorders as well as distorts a person’s perception of their mind and identity, which can lead a person down a dark, fatal path of alarming, irregular state of mind (Bine).

Finally, this sensationalization of depression has wreaked havoc on those who need certain medication for their said illness. Approximately a decade later after the publication of the referenced article that brought this dark side of social networking to light, has accurately predicted a course of events that many have never wanted, but also never prepared for. There is currently a shortage of an antidepressant, one of the very few that have been approved for those under the age of eighteen (Gold).

The stigmatization and objectification are certainly erroneous, but until it is identified how the perception surrounding these afflictions hurt both the audience and the perpetrators, this idea is nothing but a piece of anecdotal chatter. Firstly, it is important to thoroughly comprehend who the main demographic of such interests are. It has been elaborated that this collective houses a majority of teenagers. While this may not be problematic on its own, the link between the teenage brain and how they approach the subject matter when presented in an edgy, non-conforming, and desirable way. While it may seem amusing and pleasant at first to them, this sense of euphoria and exaggerated understanding of identity comes with an exorbitant cost. The core part of this phenomenon is centred around self-destruction. The reason for this behaviour is because “‘During the vulnerable years during which adolescents seek out self-affirmation and recognition from others, . . .’ says Dr. Mark Reinecke, chief psychologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. ‘Too often, it just leads to more teenagers believing and feeling they are depressed, self-pitying, self-harming’” (Bine). The cult-like methods of participation involve grooming a healthy adolescent going through normal emotional stages associated with the developmental expectations of their age group into thinking that their feelings, thoughts, and actions are wrong but unique. They are special and unlike the rest, and in order to advance with these desired traits, they must commit actions that get even more masochistic each time. The minor is easily manipulated into these associations not because they relate to what is being advertised on the surface, but rather for their low self-esteem and the stress put on them in regards to having a desirable self-image and identity. Instead of trying to help the juvenile members overcome these psychological difficulties, this community tricks them into believing that these concerns are something they are not, that these insecurities are their desires disguised as wants. After this convincing is successfully achieved, the promotion of self-harm, the constant feeding of dark thoughts, the ruining of their relationships, and other aspects of their life, is pursued and slowly destroys the adolescent. Communities involving the discussion of mental disorders on Tumblr are unsafe for those of the adolescent age to participate in because they stigmatize and hurt actual sufferers of illnesses, which include depressive and eating disorders (Bine).

Munchausen by the Internet, TikTok

TikTok, a more relevant manipulative platform to the brainwashed adolescence today has its fair share of illness appropriation. The rapid and recent growth of mental health-related content has exploded and has provided users with great positive attention from others on the app. Unfortunately, many people have appropriated and frequently lied about their personal experience with said disorders and phenomena, changing the meaning of said disorders, and removing the term and the impact of what it is at its base. The rise in the talk about disability and illnesses by sufferers to cope, normalize and support others with similar experiences has been seized by people who see such disturbances as simply a tool to gain social media points. These people do not care for the sufferers of the illness or the illness itself, they just see it as a simple, meaningless device to get what they want. This is far from the truth as a disability is not a label, rather it is a part of a person and their everyday lives. It can make simply existing difficult as this society is not adequate for any except the able-bodied. The objectification of these disorders is minimizing the already highly stigmatized and oppressive ideas surrounding them and hurt. A popular illness amongst scroungers, Dissociative Identity Disorder, a rare and highly stigmatized illness and is treated as the desired accessory by such prowlers, a behavior very different from actual sufferers. This paints a false and problematic image of the disease and its victims. As well as stigmatizing disabilities and illnesses, participants of these behaviors also make life insanely difficult for actual patients. The culture of faking neurological disorders and imitating disabilities for a sense of identity and support from others has become so normalized on the platform that it has become impossible for outsiders to determine the differences between actual sufferers and liars. Because of this, many have ingrained the “prepare for the worst ‘’ mindset, and assume everyone displaying symptoms on this app is committing this selfish practice, thus harassing and hurting actual sufferers (Harriet).

Not only does this culture hurt actual victims, but it also deeply troubles the perpetrators. The impressionable minors that participate in such activities have obvious troubling symptoms of unrelated illnesses. Playing into these behaviors only supports and strengthens the grip of their illnesses, worsening the actual issue. Brushing aside such behaviors also normalizes this attention-seeking symptom, a key to noticing when a child or a teenager may be suffering from a mental disorder. This can prevent a potentially dangerous situation, and stop the objectification of whatever illness is being appropriated. These minors have obvious troubling symptoms of unrelated illnesses. Playing into these behaviors only supports and strengthens the grip of their illnesses, worsening the actual issue. Brushing aside such behaviors also normalizes this attention-seeking symptom, a key to noticing when a child or a teenager may be suffering from a separate mental disorder. This can prevent a potentially dangerous situation, and stop the objectification of whatever illness is being appropriated. Unfortunately, this situation has come into play many times, in fact so much that, “earlier this year, doctors from the UK’s Great Ormond Street Hospital said they were seeing a significant increase in tics in teenage girls — despite Tourette’s being much more common in boys” (Harriet). Young people are so involved and convinced of being a part of this Munchausen-like community that they would go to doctors and try to fake their way into diagnosis because they are almost trying to fully convince themselves they have this. They look at neurological disorders as a trend, as a fad, and not what it is, a difficult to live with a health issue (Harriet).

Conclusion

Adolescents participating in discussions about mental and neurological conditions on social networking platforms is extremely harmful because it sensationalizes dangerous illnesses, disregards the actual issue that’s causing the specific person to participate in such alarming activities, and promotes dark behaviors by convincing a vulnerable, but mentally well person to hurt themselves or others. Tumblr glorifies the suffering that comes with mental disorders through pictures and poems and labels such disorders as personality traits synonymous with being mysterious and alluring. TikTok on the other hand labels disabilities and illnesses as these glamourize fun additions to one’s identity, playing down the harm and suffering of these already taboo but dangerous disturbances. Supervision of these audiences when interacting on these platforms must be monitored to prevent any further harm from happening, and there needs to be a push for more accessible resources to those of the teenage age, as well as proper education on mental ailments.

Works Cited

Bine, Anne-Sophie. “Social Media Is Redefining ‘Depression.’” The Atlantic, edited by Jeffrey Goldberg, Emerson Collective, 28 Oct. 2013, www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/10/social-media-is-redefining-depression/280818/. Accessed 21 Sept. 2021.

Costill, Albert, editor. “50 Things You Should Know about Tumblr.” Search Engine Journal, edited by Danny Goodwin, Alpha Brand Media, 9 Jan. 2014, www.searchenginejournal.com/50-things-know-tumblr/84595/#close. Accessed 21 Sept. 2021.

DeNoon, Daniel J. “Deadliest Psychiatric Disorder: Anorexia.” Edited by Laura J. Martin. WebMD, edited by Thomas G. Lombardo, Internet Brands, 12 July 2011, www.webmd.com/mental-health/eating-disorders/anorexia-nervosa/news/20110711/deadliest-psychiatric-disorder-anorexia. Accessed 21 Sept. 2021.

Gold, Jessica. “Forbes.” The FDA Added Zoloft to the Drug Shortage List: Here’s Why You Don’t Need to Worry yet, edited by Randall Lane, Integrated Whale Media Investments, 6 June 2020, www.forbes.com/sites/jessicagold/2020/06/06/the-fda-added-zoloft-to-the-drug-shortage-list-heres-why-you-dont-need-to-worry-yet/?sh=1645a3fc2887. Accessed 25 Sept. 2021.

Ross, Rick. “Watch out for Tell-Tale Signs.” The Guardian, edited by Katharine Viner, Guardian Media Group, 27 May 2009, www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2009/may/27/cults-definition-religion. Accessed 27 Sept. 2021.

Shepherd, Harriet. “Is Illness Appropriation TikTok’s Most Troubling Trend?” Vice, edited by Ellis Jones, Vice Media, 23 June 2021, id.vice.com/en_uk/article/pkb397/illness-faking-accusations-tiktok. Accessed 25 Sept. 2021.

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Chronically tired high school student with a passion for psychology, and everything to do with flowers.

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Saibah Khondaker

Saibah Khondaker

Chronically tired high school student with a passion for psychology, and everything to do with flowers.

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